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Paula Richman: Ramayana is a global text and global piece of theatre
- Lalitha Venkat

December 14, 2008

Paula Richman, Danforth Professor of South Asian Religions at Oberlin College in Ohio, USA, received her Ph.D. in South Indian Literary and Cultural History at the University of Chicago. She published two monographs on Tamil literature: Women, Branch Stories, and Religious Rhetoric in a Tamil Buddhist Text and Extraordinary Child: Poems from a South Indian Devotional Genre. She has also edited, and contributed to two volumes of essays: 'Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia' and 'Questioning Ramayanas, a South Asian Tradition.' Currently, she is studying performances based on Ramkatha in Trinidad and Durban, South Africa.

You have spoken about how modern retellings of Ramayana in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada have focused upon particular themes, incidents, and characters in distinctive ways. Could you please elaborate?
In all four languages, certain themes and questions recur - ways of envisioning Sita, efforts to rethink marginalized characters, and strategies for understanding the so-called rakshasas. Since most research on tellings of Ramkatha has focused on Valmiki's Ramayana or Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas, people gain new perspectives by focusing upon these retellings that have all originated in South India. Furthermore, although most people associate Ramkatha with the ancient epic world, these modern retellings explore how the characters and their dilemmas relate to the world in which we live right now. By doing so, they make the story alive for today's generation.

As a Westerner, what role do you think the Ramayana plays on global culture as a whole?
First and foremost, Ramkatha is a classic, a narrative about how human beings create meaning and order while facing challenges and obstacles in life. Like all classics, the story of Rama and Sita remains meaningful for us today because of its scope, depth, and range of characters (from Sita's mother to Shambuka's wife) and episodes (including events in Ravana's infancy and Hanuman's childhood). Second, since people for whom Ramayana is central now live throughout the globe in countries including India, Thailand, Indonesia, South Africa, Fiji, Trinidad, Surinam, the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, Canada, parts of Europe, and elsewhere, it has indeed become a global text as well as a global piece of theatre.

How have the oral traditions of legend and belief exerted influence on the eastern Ramayanas?
Just as certain themes recur in South India, certain themes predominate in the Northeast. Each time I visit a new region of India, I have the good fortune to encounter the story from a new perspective. The Ramayana tradition is a narrative that contains a richness that no single text or performance can ever fully encompass.

The role of the Ramayana in the formation of the culture and society of South Asia.
The story has been crucial in shaping the culture of South Asia and it continues to be crucial. The short stories and plays based on Ramayana episodes are among the most beautiful literary works and most thoughtful treatments of the story of Rama and Sita that I have encountered in my 25 years of research on the topic.

What performance of Ramayana has made the most impact on you?
Most of my research has been on literary texts. Only recently have I begun studying performances, but there was one modest performance that had a major impact on me. In 2001, the Tara Arts theatrical troupe in London, directed by Jatinder Verma, performed a two-act play called '2001: A Ramayana Odyssey.' In the first half of the play, the performers enacted the Odyssey, while Rama sat on a riser on the stage, observed the play, and occasionally interrupted Odysseus to question him about his decisions. In the second act, the performers enacted the Ramayana while Odysseus sat and watched the play, occasionally interrupting Rama to ask questions about his choices. At the end, the two travelers, one across the seas and the other through the forests, met and compared notes about the nature of exile, displacement, and home.

In short, what do international conferences on the Ramayana achieve?
Such conferences are invaluable. Bringing together this many people, all of whom care deeply about the Ramayana, is bound to generate fresh insights and put such people in conversation with others who will make them think about the story in new ways. Those conversations are part of what keeps Ramayana alive and vital after all these centuries.


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