Monday, December 31, 2007

Movies 2007: Hallf of Fame/Shame

Hall of Fame:

As far as I can recall this has been a good year, in a really long time, for Thamizh movies. Off-beat themes and classy movies were released this year. Surprisingly the focus on presentation has increased. Stories are narrated in non-linear/interesting ways nowadays. Here are my top movies for 2007. I have not seen 'Kalluri' or 'Billa' at the time of writing this.

9. Naan Avan Illai

It is clumsily taken, awkwardly paced and edited impatiently. It is also not very classy. But I like its spirit. It is a remake of the old Gemini Ganesan/Kamal Hassan movie. Odd choice of a movie to remake but interesting nevertheless. A man, really a playboy, assumes several identities and seduces/robs/dupes several women. He is caught and sent to trial, where he comes up with a simple argument - 'Naan Avan Illai' (I am not him). He leaves no evidence or trail so it is not easy to nail him down. It becomes his word against the women. Interesting argument. Very entertaining. Jeevan fits the role like a glove. Attention has been paid to how the story is told. The different women's story are narrated as flashbacks during trial testimonials. I initially didnt want to include this movie in 'Hall of Fame' but then again I am in a charitable mood :-)

8 Oram Po.

What a well made movie? This movie is a must watch. I saw a rather fantastic trailor for this movie and decided to watch this movie even if nobody I knew had heard of it. I am not aware of its commercial fate but I hope its well received. Thamizh movie has come a long way in finding new narrative techniques. Its a Guy Ritchie kind of movie: slickly taken, narrated with heavy dose of sarcasm, and stylishly presented. A simple story but so very entertaining. From the moment the screen changes to show Annachi's henchman carry the diamond from the shop -> train -> Auto till the final Auto races, I was hooked. Arya cannot act. Thats okay. But what a role for the guy who plays 'Son of Gun'. Son of Gun is the most active, entertaining character I have seen in movies this year. Man! are his dialogs hilarious? Thuthukudi accent rocks. "ennalai naatham pidicha friendshippu, Eee'yum Pee'yum friendshippu. Pee kaanja Eee paranthidumla." There is another dialog that involve fruits and seeds, I'll leave it for readers to catch it in the movie. I loved it for developing a very sophisticated way of telling a story and populating it with very different characters.

7. Polladhavan

This movie, much like Oram Po above impresses because of the way it presents the story rather than the story itself. If you can overcome the bias of watching a Dhanush movie then this movie is well worth it. A boy's bike is stolen and he wants it back no matter what. The underworld don's brother who stole the bike for some other emergency is a weak idiot gangster wannabe, who is desparate to beat up anybody. And bike-boy is as good a target as anybody. The story is told in first person narrative by two people. The gangster's brother and the bike-boy. It switches narratives whenever the character's paths cross. The movie does not do well in making both narratives rich. It is heavily biased towards bike-boy's narrative. It fails there. It also fails when it shows us an unrealistic love segment. If not for that cliche this movie would have rocked. Reminded me of an old(er) Mel Gibson movie - Payback. Very little similarity but sort of appeals to similar emotions. The way the first person narrative switches back and forth between the two actors is impressive. The final climax scene is also very impressive.

6. Paruthiveeran.

Well! this evil twin of 'Ek Duje Ke Liye' became one of the biggest commercial success in the history of Thamizh movies. I could not relate to this movie at all. I found the story pointless and meandering. I did not enjoy the Thamizh heartland culture show and the eunuch's dancing. I found the movie manipulative, a'la' Sethu, by virtue of its unbelievably dark ending. However, it was unlike any other movie I have ever watched. The characters in this story are from another planet. Very different. The ending, though contrived, was bloody, full of gore and shocking. Most of all Karthik's performance belied any indication that this was his debut movie.

5. Guru

I know Guru is a Hindi movie. But any Mani movie is a Thamizh movie regardless of the language it is taken in :-) Its a well taken movie but falls way short of Manirathnam standards. I don't know what is wrong with him and Hindi movies. He hasn't done a good Hindi movie so far. The songs were aweful too. Shame on you - ARR. Manirathnam is a director fading into the sunset. Either he must make a classy movie like Iruvar and KM which are not for the masses or go with mass appeal movies like Thalapathi and Anjali. This inbetween route he has started to adopt recently has become boring. I also do not like this 'let the audience decide who is right themselves' movies when the movie does not make any effective argument at all. Guru only makes several references to possible arguments rather than actual convincing arguments. The best it does is hint at an argument. Vidhya Balan's character, Aishwarya's character were all weak. Mani has the KB disease as far as endings go. The biggest reason why I liked this movie was that this story is difficult to deal with and nobody in Bollywood except Mani would even think of telling us the story of Dhirubhai Ambani.

4. Ammu'vaagiya Naan

When I watched this movie, I kept thinking that every cliche that I expected to see in a movie about prostitutes was absent. It is an impractical movie that deals with an unrealistic story. But leave that aside. Its a mature movie that does well to entertain us. There are several moments when a standard-issue incident would happen and we'd wait for Parthiban to react to the situation. Every path this movie took regarding this was unanticipated and fresh. The problem I had with this movie was that it was more, for lack of better word, "cinematic" than necesary and included an unnecessarily stereotypical villian. Dealing with prostitute based themes has become fashionable nowadays. Most of the recent movies with such themes are unimpressive and try to ride on the scandal-appeal of the theme. This movie is different. The amount of positive spin this movie puts has to be appreciated. Nayagan, Pretty Woman, Mahanadhi are all good movies that deal with prostitute based themes and serve as templates for these kind of movies. However, Ammuvagiya Naan impresses because it pauses and lingers on those uncomfortable moments which other movies gloss over. Like Mahanadhi, it does not suggest. It shows. Not the physical moments but the emotional moments. Like an uncomfortable close-up of someone digging their nose and eating the pickings or a long close-up of a man reaching hard to scratch that umfortable spot between his balls and his ass, this movie focuses on the dirty awkward emotional moments of the characters - Ammu enjoys her life as a prostitute, she really does - a man unknowingly discusses the pleasure of Ammu's "company" with her husband - Ammu is reminded of the hundreds of men she has slept with on her wedding night. Everytime you expect a silly Thamizh sentiment, this movie elevates itself to a different class.

3. Chennai 600028

Movies that capture the pulse of the audience never go unrewarded. Especially movies that understand the concept of 'nakkal' very well. Chennai 28 wonderfully taps people's love for cricket to give a very differnt movie.

2. Mozhi

Here is a complete entertainer. And it tells a very good story. And and and it tells it very differently. None of the sad melodrama that is associated with a deaf & dumb person. The sense of humor is so classy. The characters are delightful and lovable. I was very impressed with the professor who was time-frozen in 1983. He moved me beyond belief.

1. Katrathu Thamizh

Let me say this. Hade he done it, Kamal Hasan would been proud of this movie. He certainly would not have done it better than Jeeva. The biggest flaw in this movie is to have linked the title with Thamizh degrees and make it appear as if the movie is all about surviving in the modern software economy as a Thamizh teacher. The movie as a whole had little to do with him being a Thamizh degree holder. It could have been Katrathu Vedam or Katrathu Sociology or Katrathu History and his frustrations would have been none the different. The movie only deals with the 'qualification' concept for 10% of the time. His frustrations with not getting a job and his anger over a less-intelligent but software-educated Anantha Rangan is atleast from a movie marketing perspective - misplaced. The audience who fills up the (Sathyam) theaters are all Anantha Rangans. I am an Anantha Rangan. Most , if not all, readers of blogs regardless of caste creed or religion are Anantha Rangans. I see no point in alienating the audience when the movie could have actually befriended them. We all made our software decisions because we had the liberty of choice. An argument that Jeeva did indeed have a choice to study computer science is a mere technicality. While making his choice, he unfortunately did not know all his options and their value. He had nobody to guide him. So in reality he did not have a choice.

This movie quite simply is about a person who never gets a good break all his life. It is about his frustrations, his continuous attempts to set life right and his never ending failures. Fate has not been merely cruel to him. It has brutally raped every dimension of his existence. Some of the emotions that have been captured have never been done so in any form of cinema I have ever seen. Gave me goose pimples. There were many moments where I thought the proverbial 'directorial touch' was fantastic. The frustration of the central character, his longing, his dreams were all fantastic. Sometimes when Jeeva would pause, look at the irony in fornt of him, gulp down the dissapointment and continue the conversation - to say the least - is a work of genius. The way certain scenes were constructed, certain dialogs were placed and the way background music was timed just blew my brains out. I wish the director would go on to make many more such movies. More power to Jeeva. Like the many Ian Botham successors to English cricket Thamizh cinema has many Kamal Hasan wannabes. Jeeva has my vote to suceed Kamal Hassan.

Hall of Shame:

5. Pokkiri:
This movie is the biggest pile of nonsense I had seen in a while. Prabhu Deva took a respectable Telugu movie, shaved off all the good contents and gave us a bald 'vijay' movie. This movie's huge commercial success proves that the average Thamizh movie goer is an idiot ready to be duped.

4. Vel

Surya attempts to imitate Kamal Hassan by alternating between class and mass movies. Some other blogger gave a one word review for this movie and that word rhymed with 'vel'. I am tempted to repeat that here but let me resist it. This is a bad masala movie. One should watch Enga Veetu Pillai, Rajadhi Raja and Athisiya Piravi to get a good idea of how to make entertaining 'role interchange' movies. A good masala village movie is Sakalakala Vallavan or Thambikku Entha Ooru. Looks good even today. Surya makes a movie literally for idiot movie goers in B and C centers. His dialog during his introduction scene was a load of crap and set the standard for a bad movie to follow. Comedy, songs and every other aspect that puts the 'garam' in the 'masala' was absent. Its not old wine in a new bottle. It is piss.

3. Sivaji

This is the worst Shankar movie I have ever seen. Worse than Boys. This is also Thamizh cinema's biggest commercial hit ever. I think it ran because AVMs astronomical never-heard-seen-anything-like-this-before marketing effort. People were duped into buying tickets because of AVMs marketing effort. If not for Rajinikanth and AVM this movie would have suffered a worser fate than Boys at the Box Office. This is also the worst Rajinikanth movie I have seen in a while. I recently watched Rajinikanth's Billa to get a sense of expectation for Ajith's Billa and thought Rajini's Billa was really horrible. I saw Amithabh's Don before Sharukh's Don. Unlike Amithabh's Don - Rajini's Billa has got no vintage value and is really unwatchable now. With Thengai Srinivasan, Major Sunderrajan, Asokan, and host of other idiots in funny wigs it was a bad movie. Billa, Rajini's come-back-after-quitting-movies vehicle, was his biggest hit in the 80s. Sivaji is 10X worse than Billa and it is Rajini's biggest hit ever. I can never understand this. Rajini has made good masala movies that are fantastic entertainers. Padayappa, Annamalai and Rajadhi Raja were superb entertainers. Somehow when good directors sample him they don't rate him highly as an actor and make nonsense movies with him. For example Why couldn't have Shankar cast Rajini in a 'Indian' like story? Why does he think Rajini couldn't have done that role? I think Rajini would have done that role. Sivaji, because of its obscene marketing has become the face of Thamizh cinema. Outsiders will now judge the industry based on this one movie. It has and will continue to embarass every self-respecting Thamizhan for quite a while.

2. Unnale Unnale

It is sad that this is crap that people will get to remember Director/cinematographer/photographer Jeeva by. Not a fantastic movie like 12B.

1. Azhagiya Thamizh Magan

SP Muthuraman, the creator of new age larger-than-life 80s Rajini will have to take the blame for encouraging hero-worship movies. Rajini wannabes like Vijay and Ajith make a serious effort to destroy Thamizh movies and for that matter Rajini's brand value. At least Rajini is a respectable actor with some charisma. What do you say of ugly mugs like Vijay and Ajith? I haven't seen Billa yet but I don't understand how people can bring themselves again and again to watch the expressionless Ajith. As far as expressions go Arya is a dead tree branch on sedatives and Ajith is Arya on sedatives. Vijay is Ajith in a comatose state. Watching a movie in which Vijay acts defies human logic. I'd rather watch Dhanush or T.Rajendar movies. At least hero-worship is absent there.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

New Year Resolution

Dear Thamizh people!
Stop referring to women as 'da'. Please stop it right now. I am going to break a promise I made a long time before in this blog. I promised that I will never do the sin of broaching this subject. But I reserve the right to change my mind. So, Dear Thamizhs! The woman who is being called 'da' could be your wife, daughter, lover, woman-you-are-trying-to-flirt-with. You, the 'da' caller could be man/woman/teenager/grown-up/sexually-frustrated-old-man. Whoever you are, please stop this despicable habit. When you hear people demeaning'ly call someone as 'lacking class' 'pattikaatu kammanati' 'country brutes' 'cheri dogs' 'vaazhisal', 'disgusting person', 'komiyam', 'horse dung', 'antakshari player' - they are referring to people who call women 'da'. I know you want to express love to the woman in question and show to the public that you indeed love her. Let me represent the public's point of view and tell you something - watching you shit in your living room could potentially be a better sight than watching you call a girl 'da'. If you are desperately dying to express love, use 'maane'(deer) 'theene'(honey) 'ponmaane'(golden deer). I can tolerate that. Not 'da'.
There used to be a gang of boys in college/school whose primary purpose is to mock/'ottify' and generally rape the crap out of gooey/vazhisal classmates. They do it in public so that these gooey guys/girls will never forget it for their lives. As people grow up, the gang who disciplines the gooey guys/girls have disappeared and the gooey folks grew up to be people who call women 'da'. The maahaaaaa 'thondu'/service the gang mockers did for the society has been largely unrecognized. When I become CM of TN I will see to it that such people get at least a PadmaShri.
P.S: The nasty kind of Thamizh people who have the habit of making 'New Years Resolution' are typically the detestable kind of people who also call women 'da'. Hence the title. They can kindly factor this into their New Year Resolution.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Channel 9

It is such a pleasure to watch cricket in Channel 9. I am watching it after a really long time. Finally, the list of commentators has become interesting. Mainly because they have not included any Indian commentator. The current crop of Indian commentators are so bad. My god! Probably the monster ugliness of Navjoth Sidhu has hidden the minature ugliness present among the rest of them. With Shastri competing for 'cliche of the year' and Sunny Gavaskar becoming senile, it was high time they were relieved of their jobs and shot dead with the rest of them (barring Harsha Bhogle). I am so glad I don't get to hear the Arun Lals, Akshay Kapoors, Atul Wassans and the Manjrekars of the world. Anyway, watching cricket alone, at home, and listening to commentary devoid of noise found bachelor pad/grad-school-housing is such a refreshing experience.
Channel 9 now has 3 commentators in every shift as opposed to the usual 2. Since Willow TV does not cut for commercials and does not unlink the satellite, it is sometimes possible to observe what the commentary team talk among themselves during breaks. I heard them discuss that - one commentator takes the lead during every shift and the other two pitch in occasionally. The list of commentators is; Richie Benaud, Tony , Bill Lawry, Ian Chappell, Mark Taylor, Ian Healy, and Michael Slater. This team is hosted by my favorite Mark Nicholas. I know it is a Shastri-like cliche but Richie Benaud continues to awe me. He is the best commentator I have seen and will probably ever see. Not to mention Ian Chappel's sharp acerbic analysis. Most of all I like their frank disagreements and "It is your opinion Ian and I disagree" said Slater coolly when in fact he was wrong. Slater and Taylor's anguish on why openers don't get night watchmen was really funny. They have a new technology called 'hotspot' which traces the thermal changes on a batsman's bat/body to observe nicks.
Simon O'Donnell runs a lunch show called the 'The Cricket Show'. Day I featured cricket in India. Day II featured Sachin giving an exclusive interview to some rare well-asked questions. Day III had an interview with the Australian PM. Today they had a documentary on upcoming Australian spinnners. Sometimes, Channel 9 brings in Richie and Ian for an exclusive 20 minute interview. The articulate their wisdom so well. Today, during tea they hauled in Sunny for his stupid comments. He suggested Sehwag's inclusion. Thats allright. But Mark quickly asked back "who would you drop?" Sunny recommended that India drop anyone among Dravid, Laxman and Yuvraj to make space for Sehwag. Laxman!.... Laxman be dropped against Australia to make space for someone who scored one 195 fours years ago. It is amazing what complete lack of common sense can do to a person.
Coming back to Richie Benaud. His pithy one-liners are so wise. Sometime I wonder how he developed his famous economy of words. More importantly, he is quick on his feet. With amazing speed he can come up with a fantastic observation that is well constructed in a pithy sentence. There was a discussion of the topic I hated most. The stupid "Indian captaincy is the hardest job in the world" discussion. Richie quietly interrupted a pedantic Tony and said "Captaining India is as easy as captaining Australia provided you are winning". Tony shut up and said "you know what! that's a very wise statement and I agree". Ian Chappell for a change is not barking at Saurav that much. Even Saurav's bad Azhar-like habit of not grounding his bat evoked only a mild rebuke. Some commentators are interesting. At the end of Day 1, when the stupid media was unnecessarily harping about how Australia was finally challenged Tony said "Look! I don't want to pass a judgement on the 343 until I've seen India bat. I'll wait until I see them bat".

Monday, December 17, 2007

Ramayana 4/4 (Updated)

Previously: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Ramayana is an interesting story to hear. It is purportedly the story of a perfect man. ‘Perfect’, depending on the mood could be a taboo in today’s world. It could even evoke defensive reaction. Is Ramayana interesting because we are curious about possible exceptions to the 'nobody is perfect' rule? Over centuries people have not made up their minds on the topic of perfection and continue to make despicable statements surrounding it. In today's age, the same person who humbly submits, 'I am not perfect, nobody is perfect' also, in another time and place, doles out sagacious advice that goes like: 'if you can't do it perfectly, you shouldn't do it at all. That is my policy'. Never mind, that the same person also thinks that 'something is better than nothing' is a fantastic policy. Confused people exist today and it wouldn't surprise me if the existed in Rama's time too. I always wondered, what would happen if an oddball guy suddenly showed up and he was 100% perfect. Would the skepticism inherent in people allow them to appreciate that? More importantly, would our ignorance allow us to recognize that? Wouldn’t we immediately start with our “logical” questions 'perfect according to what dimension - Perfect Kshathriya? Perfect Husband? Perfect King? Perfect Son?' Well, let us dismiss all that and say he was perfect in everything. Let us assume Narada was right and Rama was indeed The perfect man. Everything is a very complex phenomena. Have we accounted for Everything? Are we smart enough to put everything Rama did, in proper context? My constant ponderings on perfection always leads to two things (a) Perfection is not necessary and it may not even be sufficient to achieve many things we want (b) There will always be people, who will certainly dislike a perfectionist - for starters the man himself will hate his life.

Perfect, Maybe. But was Rama a happy man?

On the topic of sadness: Rama’s life is a series of frustrating experiences one after the other. This aspect is well known but rarely a point of focus. Everything works in extremes for him. As a kid I have heard Balakrishna Sastrigal, a legendary figure at the Ram Samaj/Ayodhya Mandapam, wax eloquent about Rama’s misofrtunes, Velukudi Krishnan has had his say, and Krishna Premi has shed his tears. Banker brings out his take on Rama’s frustrating life by painting him as a son of an ignored queen – as a frustrated son of a philistine king. Banker has him frustrated with Dasaratha to the point where Rama decides to be monogamic. To draw a rough sketch of his life from Banker’s book and Velukudi’s narration, at the age of 14 he is taken by Vishwamithra for an adventure, much to the dismay of Dasaratha. Rama gets married at 14 and then spends 10 years as a happily married person. Right, when he is about to begin his journey to the throne, his exile begins at the age of 25. His only happy moment after that seems to be life at Panchavati and even there Seetha is kidnapped just when things seem to getting better. In Banker's book she is kidnapped even before Rama knows that she is pregnant. He recovers her when she is very pregnant and returns back to Ayodhya as a 39 year old. Since Seetha is very very pregnant when she is sent to the forest, it does not appear that they were together ‘happily ever after’ in the post-Ravana life. His progression towards happiness seems to get truncated rather rudely. Most of us feel the same way towards our own life but the severity of the truncation for Rama is rather extreme.

Velukudi draws from Rama’s example and beautifully puts life in perspective. Not many will appreciate this, but it resonated with me. He describes happiness thus; “you are climbing a branch to grab a fruit. The part of the branch you are perched on, which is directly above a deep well, breaks and begins to tilt downwards. You are hanging on to dear life. At that time a snake crawls on to the branch and begins to move towards your hand. A hungry lion approaches the well and waits there just in case you try to swing hard, avoid the well and fall to the ground. You can't go up the branch, the snake will bite you. If you fall into the well it is certain death. Swinging and avoiding the well is free lunch for the lion. As the branch slowly breaks and begins to detach from the tree, a drop of honey from a beehive above falls on your face. You lick it and experience sweetness, happiness. For a moment, you forget the snake, the well, and the lion. This is how happiness works in life. In life you go through many troubles, trials and tribulations and in the middle you somehow manage to sneak in happiness in the form of a peaceful moment, a vacation, family, wealth and children.”

Banker’s Books and his writing style:

If I was asked to rank the number 1 segment in all of Banker’s books, I would choose the description of Seetha’s kidnapping by Ravana. I think if there was a segment where Banker outdid Valmiki, Kamban and everybody else, it was this segment. It is hard for me to imagine that a reader would not be brought close to tears when reading that segment. There were several segments in Banker’s books that brought a lump to my throat. I was so close to tears that I would look up and find myself in a flight or van or train – and feel all embarrassed that someone might’ve seen me. Every time Hanuman weeps for Rama, I’d get throttled. Banker evokes, in me, a resonation with Rama’s plight better than any other author. I never thought I could be emotionally moved, so easily. I have to shamelessly admit that Banker got me maudlin several times.

Banker writes 6 books in all. They are Prince Of Ayodhya, Seige of Mithila, Demons of Chithrakut, Armies of Hanuman, Bridge of Rama and King of Ayodhya. I somehow thought it mirrored the 6 Khandas of Ramayana (Bala Khanda, Ayodhya Khanda, Aranya Khanda, Kishkindha Khanda, Sundara Khanda and Yuddha Khanda – with Utthara Khanda excluded). Well, it was only partially true. The books aren’t strictly arranged as per the Khandas. Some Khanda’s name is mentioned by its original name, suddenly, in the middle of the book and some Khanda names aren’t mentioned at all. Banker displays a fantastic writing style. He mixes one word sentences and long sentences very well. His writing style is flashy, descriptive and very much like a screenplay for a movie. You don’t have to imagine a lot because the scene is vividly described to you. Initially, I got a feeling the series was like Lord of the Rings look alike and I can see the comparison to Tolkien’s book arises in many people (more on this later). I was terribly wrong about that. Banker’s books are really fast paced. Unlike the steady pace of Tolkien, he explodes into dimensions beyond story narration. The first 50 pages of the first book will be the most difficult. I took a year to cross those first 50 pages. I read the other 5.9 books in 1 month. It was that "unputdownable". Given all this, when I progressed to the book - Bridge of Rama, I couldn’t help but look forward to Sundara Khanda. Sundara Khanda is really an acid test for any reteller of Ramayana. Its the phase where Hanuman goes in search of Seetha, Rama awaits his return, Seetha suffers in Ashokavana and Ravana debates with Hanuman. Kamban’s Sundara Khandam is simply an extraordinary literary effort. It communicates so many different emotions in such colorful language. It takes you to that pleasant mental spot and carries you to so many different moods. I was somehow expecting Banker to take me through a similar journey. While, he maintains his high standards through Sundara Khanda, he does not make the leap that Kamban makes. I know it is an unfair comparison but I can’t help but make that.

The Force of the Brahman

Banker, overall, weaves a wonderful narration. He sticks to the framework of Valmiki with rigor (credits Arshia Sattar’s translation of Valmiki’s book for helping him Navigate). But while doing that he makes his own leaps into imagination without losing integrity. A key piece of narration, which I think is Banker’s own interpretation, is the imaginative influence of ‘force of the Brahman’ on the key characters of Ramayana. This by far is my most favorite aspect of the book. Brahman is the vedic term that represents the monotheistic ‘god’ of the Vedas. Brahman, as per the Vedas, is a continuum that pervades all the beings of the world (a concept debated fiercely by the proponents of a/vishishta/(d) vaitha). Force of the Brahman, is used similar to the way the ‘force’ is used in the Star Wars (I don’t mean to compare or equate but just trying to give a frame of reference to the modern reader). The use of the Brahman force in narrative segments serves as an excellent tool. In that - through this tool Banker reconciles a lot of ‘cosmic’ things more elegantly than it has ever been done before. What can I say to this piece of imagination – hats off!. Banker does not leave many loose threads hanging. As you read it you will realize that all loops are closed properly, all loose ends are tied and there is a meaning to every character, event and principle. It is done very elegantly. I mention is casually, but I can imagine this is not an easy to end to meet. However, Banker looses steam in the last book. His description of trivial battle situations was so fantastic that the ultimate Ravana-Rama conflict promised to be larger than life. Let us just say that I was disappointed in the end.

In the narration, preface, the prologue and epilogue, one gets the sense of the kind of person that Ashok Banker is. I had this paragraph in rough draft but decided against posting this after Banker made an appearance in the comment section. But dash it. I have to mention this. Authors who discourage readers from buying their book don’t come knocking every day. I was surprised by Amazon’s classification of Ramayana. One can debate this for years together, but I have nothing more to add on the topic beyond what the author has already said. I can see many authors take such a marketing ploy in their stride and count the sales money. But I respect Banker’s letter to buyers in Amazon.com. It is easy to regard him as eccentric, tough or high maintenance, maybe he is. So be it. To me it was a rare purism that is less understood. Whatever term you use to describe that attitude, I like that. It is very impressive (btw - a non-Thamizh who spells the language as ‘Thamizh’ always has my admiration).

Banishment of Seetha and The Ambush of Vali

Ashok Banker does have his failings though. He portrays Ramayana as a love story much the way Kamban did. However, he becomes too attached to his Rama. Banker strongly believes his Rama will never banish Seetha. Banker's Rama is so much in love with Seetha that he is unable to bring himself to write Utthara Khanda. Kamban also did not write the Utthara Khandam. Maybe Kamban also couldn’t bring himself to write it. Valmiki could. Valmiki wasn’t required to be concerned about acceptability or believability. He could see (in fact saw) the character in the character’s setting. Banker sees Rama through today’s eyes. I am a big fan of Utthara Khanda. To me, the banishment of Seetha was the most logical and obvious aspect of Ramayana. Rama’s obsession towards rules and principle points to it, Banker’s description of the Rakshasa cruelty points to it, they way he factors in Seetha’s pregnancy points to it. So, I was disappointed that Banker did not cross that bridge and bring himself to see why Rama could have done that. I wonder if he read what Mr. Tulsidas had to say about the whole 'Agni Pariksha' episode. His handling of the Vali episode also disappointed me. Vali is not ambushed by Rama in Banker’s book, but is killed (albeit nir-ayudha-paani) in reflex. Banker has a dying Vali arguing with Rama, much like Valmiki’s narration had. But the subject of Vali’s argument in Valmiki’s book was the ambush. It was all about the ambush. In Valmiki’s version and Kamban’s version, Vali after an extended argument finally concedes that Rama had not violated dharma by killing him - and then dies. Banker’s book focuses on Vali’s counter offer to help Rama regain Seetha. While Valmiki's version covers it - this to me was a moot issue. Banker had this wonderful opportunity to weave a thread surrounding the sparing of Ravana’s life the day-before his death, Mareecha’s death, and Vali’s death (all three have a dialog with Rama as they die) and he misses it.

Banker's Deviations From Valmiki

Banker’s deviations from the original book have been collected in Wikipedia. I’ll mention a few that I deduced myself, some of it is not in wiki and a few is there. People who have seen Crazy Mohan’s drama “Crazy Kishkintha” will recollect that Angada, son of Vali, files a case in Madras high court against Rama for the ambush :-). In Banker’s book Angada is son of Sugreeva. This to me was perplexing and seemed like a basic error. The killing of Ravana’s sons was (he had several) not handled well. Lakshmana’s role in Yuddha Khanda was minimal. His duel with Indrajit is absent. Kumbakarna, in Valmiki’s book, is actually a very good person, very benevolent and Hanuman is defeated by him many times. Kumbakarna gets fleeting mention in Book 6. It was almost as if Banker had to stop with book 6 and had run out of space. The whole 9-day war, Sanjeeva Mountain has been abridged and changed. Sugreeva’s ability as a warrior in Banker’s book is a pale shadow of the superman he was in Valmiki’s book. These to me were understandable deviations. I also did not mind Surpanaka’s extended (she gets more space than Seetha) role, Manthara and Vali’s cooked-up connection to Ravana etc. However, I was not impressed with the pre-swayamvara courtship period of Rama and Seetha. I am okay with deviations but this one did not appeal to me.

Saptha Rishis and Veda Vyasas

Agasthya, contrary to what A.Banker says in his book, is not one of the seven sages/Saptha Rishi (although I've heard that Mahabharatha mentions that he is). Atri, Bharadhvaja, Gauthama, Jamadagni, Kashyapa, Vashishta, and Vishwamithra are the seven rishis as per the upanishads and brahmanas. Sometimes even Vishwamithra isn't considered to be among the Saptha Rishi (much to the anguish of Kausiga Kothram folks). Vashishta's role is vital in Ramayana. Velukudi Krishnan, in his upanyasam, informs that Vashishta was the first Veda Vyasa. During Ramayana the vedas were a single unit but geographically fragmented (Banker mentions this in his book). Vasishta began the process of dividing the vedas. 'Vyasa' means 'to divide'. Veda Vyasa means the classifier/divider of Vedas. Vasishta was Veda Vyasa I. Vasishta's son Shakthya continued the work, later Shakthya's son Parashara continued to divide and categorize Vedas. The final categorization into 4 vedas was finally completed by Parashara's son Krishna-dwaipayana (who wrote Mahabharatha). Krishna-dwaipayana's son was Sukha, who wrote Srimad Bhagavadham.

Ravana

To conclude, Banker is a fantastic author and a convincing debater. He has a segment in ‘King of Ayodhya’ – which like Valmiki’s version has demons taunting, teasing, abusing Seetha every minute of the day for days, weeks, months together in an attempt to wear her down (Both versions have Ravana showing a fake dead body of Rama to Seetha) . There is a 2-page segment which has a demoness retell Ramayana, to Seetha, in a way that shows Ravana to be the just person and Rama as an annexing ruffian. This was simply an awesome segment. In two pages, the author makes a fantastic concise argument that is as convincing on the surface as the entire book was for Rama. One needs considerable talent to do this. This indirectly credits the will of Seetha. It is not easy to not believe such a forceful argument. Ravana gets significant space in Valmiki’s book and was not all that bad as he is made out to be on TV. It is good to see Banker describe Ravana (physically and otherwise ) and devote so much space for him. I was very impressed by the importance given to Ravana and the integrity in dealing with Ravana. Banker has 2 more Ramayana books coming up beyond the six. While, I am happy to see Banker change his mind about Utthara Khanda, I am skeptical about his book on Ravana. He can’t beat his high on Ravana. Then again it is perplexing to see him skim over the departure of Vibishena from Ravana’s camp. This was a mega event in Valmiki’s narration and its neglection was disappointing. Ravana, to put it simply, was on the side of a-dharma and was up against a person who would even sacrifice himself to uphold it. As our dear Velukudi says,” when you are on side of dharma even monkeys will help you, when you are on the side of a-dharma your own brother will desert you” .

Post Script : Some trivia on Rama's journey
1.
Srirangam, the worlds largest active temple, is Rama's parting gift to Vibhishena. Vibhishena unable to carry the deity places it on the banks of Cauvery. It is probably the only temple in S.India that faces south (quite startling in a region where south-facing is typically inauspicious).
2. Ravana was a Pulastya Brahmin. Rama and Lakshmana were immediately cursed with Brahma-hathya curse after they killed him and his family. DevaPrayag temple is a pointer to that.
3. Nathan temple near Kumbakonam, Valvil Raman Temple, Kolavalli Raman Temple and many other Rama temples near Kumbakonam archives small small details about Rama that are very interesting. While in Kumbakonam also visit the Rama Swamy temple for its architecture.
4. Sundara Khanda(m) is read by many women in S. India when they are pregnant. The extraordinary cohesion of sadness and happiness of this khandam, is said to be soothing to the mind. Many women strongly believe that the unborn child can hear the recitation of it.
5. Ramayana books (including Banker's one) describe Rama & Lakshmana as doing Sandhya-vandhanam in the Ganges. Doing so in the ganges is considered as very auspicious by many even today.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Ramayana 3/4

Previously Ramayana I & Ramayana II

Banker’s book presents Rama as a human being: A very relatable human being who is vulnerable to a variety of emotions. This was quite refreshing. As much as I loved N.T. Rama Rao and thought that NTR was the best Rama on TV, he was a pre-determined winner. All Ramas I’ve seen or read would come in with divinely grace and would conquer everything with a smiling face. The god-like attribute in them diminished every other attribute. I never remember the valor, dharma or toughness as Rama’s attribute. It was just his divinity. The staid face and the constant habit of being correct in everything. Banker presents a Rama who is angry, scared, romantic, forlorn, tough, skilled. He presents a warring kshathriya with extraordinary tactical acumen, a playful person, a confused person – in essence a exemplarary human being. While this ‘human mode’ is good, I wouldn’t say this was the best aspect of the book. There are two aspects to Banker’s book which really made me a fan of his work. These are two aspects which no grandma story, TV series or movie ever touched upon.

1. Cultures & People: This book widened my perspective towards life. It really put to me, in proper context, the philosophy surrounding judgmental attitudes and responsible criticism. This book juggles with a variety of cultures with diametrically opposite viewpoints. It has a very clear way of showing differences across cultures, opinions, people and ways of life. It shows that different cultures might not hold the same opinion on even fundamental things. The same culture will change its morals and opinions on a single issue over time. Quite simply, what we hold as fundamental or common sense is just an opinion that might change over time. And, without being judgmental, it beautifully drives home the point that different opinions on the same subject are valid under their own individual context. While many people verbally assert that there is no one way to live life or that there is no one truth, this book very clearly shows how we could view this information. Saying so is very easy. Showing through a believable example is another job.

2. Upholding Dharma: The second aspect was in showing Rama’s sense and unwavering intent of upholding dharma. The key does not lie in merely telling us Rama held on to dharma under even the most trying of circumstances, the key lies in creating situations, those trying circumstances, where it is tough for the reader to determine what the right path is, forces the reader to guess and guess incorrectly. This is really different from typical Rama stories of ‘do good be good’ – where it was plainly obvious to everyone as to what the right path was. If the common man completely ‘got’ Rama’s sense of dharma there would be no difference between him and Rama. I wouldn't be interested in that kind of Rama. I don’t want the plainly obvious, I can get that somewhere else. I want the subtly obvious. Like many excellent opinions of any time and age, I would expect the common man’s agreement with Rama’s actions to be inversely proportional to the purity of the said action’s value. Hold my brain to the fire, make me flinch, make me disagree and call the author a fool and then make me realize I was wrong, I’d love you as an author. This book brings all this out wonderfully.

With this being said;

Sex and The Ramayana

Sex, is an important topic as far as any adi-kavya discussion is considered. I have seen many folks attribute sexual undertones to seemingly odd/"magical" passages of adi kavyas such as Mahabharatha or Ramayana. The ones that begin with "you know they would have actually 'done it' but our clever ancestors hid it from us". Such attribution is usually followed by some smug patting each other on the back. It almost suggests as if Valmiki, Vyasa or Kamban would shy away from the truth to protect us from the sexuality of Ramayana (or the other way around). What is worse is that it arrogates an assumption that we are the most sexually liberated generation ever and are more free in discussing sex than any other generation. Nothing could be farther away from the truth. This is just factually wrong. It is also very insulting to the adi-kavya authors. Vasishta's levitate in the air sexual technique with a queen in Ikshavaku dynasty has been described by these authors as the source of continuance of the Ikshavaku clan. If the king could not deliver, the people of those times and the authors were, for lack of a better word – ‘liberated’enough, to be satisfied with the next best thing - a Rishi delivering the seed to the queen. The authors did not think twice about describing any such sexual situation in all its detail. It is 'we' the reader who interprets the purity/impurity of that act. The reader from another era might consider this normal. To the adi-kavya authors if somebody was gay or bisexual or if somebody had sex with animals they would be described and not just describe it but architect it in temples. Sex and orgies have been described without a second thought. If sex happened, no details have been spared. Valmiki and Kamban were very detailed and descriptive in their references to the sexual lives of the people in those times. It is Tulsidas, in catering to the main audience of the epic, who moderates and removes all elements that describe the sexuality of those people. He wasn’t wrong or right. He was Tulsidas.

When one ponders all this and wants to put everything into perspective, one has to consider the question of the segmentation of the Ramayana. Who reads the Ramayana? Who narrates stories of Ramayana? Who hears the Ramayana? What is their age group? If I were to make a guess, I'd venture and say if 100 people hear or read the Ramayana, about 99 people would be less than 15 years or older than 60. Only one person in hundred would fall in the 15-59 category. All the doubting-Dhandapaanis would agree that is inappropriate to narrate how Dasaratha pressed and fondled Kausalya's breasts to people younger than 15. They youngsters can get all that from somewhere else. The old people aren't interested in Kaikeyi's well shaped body and her superb anatomy. They may be interested but it is reasonable to assume they are not into Ramayana for the sex. On the other hand consider this - Who narrates the Ramayana? Again if I ventured to guess all people who narrate Ramayana to others are aged 60 or over. These are people who narrate it for religious purposes. The sex of Ramayana is not what interests them. So it is very natural that the versions of Ramayana they narrate, hear and discuss would lay emphasis on the religious, philosophical and moral aspect of Ramayana. So if someone grew up and is now between 25- 50 years old and is upset that nobody told him about the sex in adi-kavya, it is only his/her fault. Valmiki /Kamba Ramayana is available for everyone to read. Go read it. If you haven’t done that then blaming some oldman, who is making up his own story as he tells it to you, for not giving you the details is just lame.

Ashok Banker corrects the gap with a Ramayana for adults. His book is more sexual than any modern version of the Ramayana. He is faithful. To put his book in perspective, Valmiki and Kamban indulged more (much much more than Banker) in their description of women and sex. Valmiki puts the number of official concubine's of Dasaratha at 350, Kamban puts it at 64,000. That is the reflection of the old times. This was casual in the ancient royal life. To put Dasaratha and the old kings in perspective, Rama was a weird oddity of those times. His one-wife policy was so weird that his contemporaries shuddered and thought he was unusual or eccentric. They even thought he had problems. Sugreeva and Hanuman wouldn't be able to come to terms with the fact that Rama, a prince, would not want to spread his seed across as many women as he could get his hands on. Valmiki describes Rama as the odd person of those times. Banker observes this of both Valmiki and Kamban (they) "depicted sex honestly and without any sense of misogyny. Valmiki neither comments nor criticizes Dasaratha's fondness for fleshly pleasures, he simply states it. When Rama takes leave of his father before going to exile, he does so in the palace of concubines, and all of them weep copiously for the exiled son of their master". Banker is quite simply right when commenting on Valmiki's description of every part of a women's anatomy in great detail "there is no sense of embarrassment or male chauvinism; he is simply extolling the beauty of women characters just as he does for male characters". I couldn’t help but appreciate our man Kamban when Banker says "Even in Kamban's version, women are depicted in such ripe full-blown language that a modern reader like myself blushes in embarrassment. Yet the writer experiences no awkwardness or prurience in these passages - he is simply describing them as he perceived them in the garb and fashion of his time". And Banker in his own book does talk about Dasaratha brushing against a maid's breasts, Kaikeyi's body and refers to Dasaratha's thoughts morning-after he makes love to Kausalya after a long time. He does so with no affectations whatsoever. The questions Hanuman and Angada ask Rama regarding is curious one-woman choice is to put it simply, a work of beauty.

Maryada Purushottama:

There is a segment in Banker’s book, where hanuman meets Rama for the first time, which left me very impressed. They get into a cultural-difference discussion and Hanuman is offended by Rama’s suggestion that Vanars and humans are similar. He argues that humans are barbaric and vanars are better because a Vanar female can choose to procreate with any male without her husband having any say in it. Hanuman is dumbfounded as to how a human male can have so much say in a human woman’s biological behavior. Hanuman is also offended when he is called a monkey. He questions Rama if humans can also be called monkeys just because they share the same ancestors as monkeys. These are delightful discussions and I thoroughly enjoyed them.

Rama gets the highest honor a man can get by being called, not just a yoddha - a supreme warrior, but a Maryada Purushottama, as he is a person who upholds his dharma under all circumstances. Under the direst of circumstances, under the severest of threats and under no practical obligation to follow the rules, Rama is shown to abide by dharma. Usually this concept isn’t presented well in religious discussions. It is wrapped in gooey sentimentality. Valmiki wasn’t maudlin when he wrote this. It is simply a term to suggest fastidious adherence to dharma ( that depends on Manu Vaivasvata’s code of life). It might make as much sense today as IPC would make in Aranya Khanda, but it is a dharma based on the kshathriya way of life as Rama knew it. That his contemporaries neither understand the dharma nor expect Rama to follow it make both dharma and Rama more interesting. The contents of the dharma maybe regarded as an anachronism now but it is interesting to see Rama follows it with a rigor and discipline that borders on maniacal obsession to follow rules. This aspect, understandably so, has never been shown in Amar Chitra Katha or TV. That’s why I love this book. Read it and see the way it presents Rama’s profile.

Rama is presented like a rule-following robot, intent on executing the task. But in following the rules he is presented as more ‘deep’ than a typical ‘Rules Ramanujam’. He is not interested in loop holes, exceptions to the rule or an easy way out. He wants to follow the real philosophical intent of the Dharma regardless of whether people consider some terms of the dharma as ‘subject to interpretation’. The real intent is also not very obvious. It has to be found. If the substance of Dasaratha’s promise to Kaikeyi is that Rama has to go in exile, it does not matter if he can still be king by exploiting a technicality. Similarly, it does not matter if you hold an opinion on him and don’t express it. Not verbalizing an opinion is a minor technicality when your opinion is known to him. He will go for the substance of the rule. The form that the substance is wrapped in is immaterial. He will go after the value of your opinion regardless of whether it is expressed in verbal form or not. This is often frustrating to his contemporaries and the reader. It should be so. Adherence to rules isn’t easy to explain as the violation of it is. This is a hard concept to put one’s hands around but if you do get to understand this and get a sense of the philosophy behind Rama’s actions, it is a wonderful experience. The consistency of his actions is unbelievable.

Banker’s class lies in creating a situation where we can see an apparent contradiction on the surface and a consistency several layers beneath. This was Valmiki’s area of expertise and Banker does well to understand that and recreate this important aspect in his own book.

Ramayana - 2/4

Note: The previous post is a general post on Ramayana and the contents of the post neither reviews Ashok Banker's book. Most of the data present in that post is not in Banker's book.

Ashok Banker's book will surprise and disturb readers who have only been exposed to Ramanand Sagar's TV Series and grandma stories. In all honesty, I was angry, put off and confused for a while until I began to understand him. If my grandfather had tried to read the book, he would have been very offended and would not have continued. He would have dismissed Banker as a Karunanidhi clone and said "nonsense blaggod". This is why you should read the preface of the book, an introduction titled “The Retelling” that Banker has at the beginning of every book. It puts his Ramayana in perspective and teaches us a thing or two about putting anything in perspective, tactfully. Its a hard thing to pull off and he does. It is true that not many have actually read the original Ramayana. Most of the stories that we heard that were called Ramayana had little resemblance to Valmiki's Ramayana. Most people who have various adverse/positive comments on Ramayana have not read the original. They simply do not know how different it is from the masala story they have heard. For example, did you know that Lakshmana-Rekha episode (the line that Lakshman draws and the line that Seetha should not cross) never existed in Valmiki's Ramayana.

Version Control: The case of many Valmiki Ramayanas

Who has the authentic Ramayana? Probably nobody? But there are many people/temples who have a version of Valmiki Ramayana that is very very ancient. That might bring us to the question of the delta that exists between Valmiki's work and the one that is purported to be his work. Sanskrit verses are done in meters. It is very precise and consistent throughout the poem. If you mess with one word the whole math gets awry and (sometimes) people can spot the exact location of the illegal insertion. For example the line 'Om namo Bhagavathe Vasudevaya' does not exist in Vishnu Sahasranama. The Anusasanaparvan chapter of Mahabharatha does not have it. I was shown by an expert on Sanskrit that it is also a zip file where you can condense longer verses into shorter verses and using a simple decoding algorithm re-expand it. Again V. Sahasranama is an example of this trait. So it is quite difficult to alter existing poems. But people who have superior knowledge of the language can do so. The most controversial parts of the Ramayana are the Balakhanda and the Uttara khanda. There are also arguments among many Ramayana experts that sections of Valmiki ramayana have been wholly added by a variety of authors later on. I am not averse to additions and alterations. I can see where that is useful and necessary. But given the fact that it is impossible to determine the exact nature of additions or if they inded happened, I am un-willing to make any comment on their implications. I think we have a basic cognitive bias towards suspecting anything historical that is even remotely connected to religion. Thats how cynical we are built in these times. We suspect a holcoaust when there is not just smoke, but air. So I, as a suspcious animal, am incompetent to reverse my bias and make a sensible argument surrounding this topic. I am willing to take the proverbial 'It is what it is' line.

This summer I visited Badrinath and on the way to Badri, 93 kilo meters from Rishikesh, is a place called Devaprayag (Prayag's are confluences where two streams join to make a river). Devaprayag is the origin of Ganga. At Devaprayag, two rivers called Alaknanda and Bhagirathi combine to form river Ganga. There is a Rama temple very close to the confluence. This temple is # 102 in the 108 Vaishnava Divya Kshethras. Purushottama is the name of the central deity. The priest of the temple informed me that they have been saving a version of Valmiki's Ramayana for several centuries. The book lies on a cradle wrapped in silk near the main deity. It is an interesting temple as parts of it fall under ASI protection since a rock there contains old Brahmi script (Thamizh words in Brahmi were present too, Ill post pictures later). At that time I was reading Banker's 4th book and had for comparative purposes a bounded/print out of all pages from this webpage purported to contain Valmiki's real deal. What would I have given to take a peek into that book?

The Authors Of Ramayana and their styles:

The earliest author in the post-Valmiki era is Krishna-dwaipayana (Veda Vyasa). While he narrates the Mahabharatha, he allocates some space to quickly summarize Ramayana. Later, some Budhist literature follows Vyasa's narration of Ramayana. Then comes the retelling of Ramayana by an explosive author whose work, in my opinion, has greatly influenced Ashok Banker's narrative style. Not content but just style of narration. It was in the 9th (Banker incorrectly calls it out as 11th century in his preface) century AD that the Thamizh Poet Kamban writes a fiery and dramatic retelling of Ramayana. Kamban was named so because his family was devotees of Lord Nrihasimha, who as per Vishnu Purana's narration of Vishnu's avataras, emerges from a pillar to protect his devotee Prahalada. 'Kambam' is the Thamizh word for pillar and so Kamban got his name. On the month of Panguni and on the day of the Uttaram star, Kamban, funded by the charitable Thiruvennainallur Sadayappan, presented his majestic poem to a large gathering of people and poets inside the Srirangam temple. Today the place, where he presented, is named the Kamban Mandapam. Velukudi considers Valmiki’s Sanskrit to be modern for its time and very radical. Banker takes the same view that the Krounchiya style is ‘avante garde’. However, Kamban's story was about love more than anything else. Kamban had an over-the-top narrative style full of rhetoric that he was rightly called Kavi Chakkravarthi or Kamba Nattalvar.

Tulasidas wrote Ramacharitamanas a few hundred years later. Banker draws our attention to the fact that while Kamban at least held on to the name Ramayana(m), Tulsidas changed the name completely to signal the fact that he was deviating largely from the Sanskrit original. And yes, Tulsidas retold the story with an explicit assumption that Rama was divine and made the content and style of narration reflect that assumption. In the end although Valmiki, Kamban and Tulsi assumed that Rama was divine the first two narrated his story as a human treatise to the extent that Kamba Ramayanam is considered literature and not religious, whereas Tulsi's Ramayana is a religious text from which the Hanuman Chalisa arises. Banker also points out his favorite Ramayana book, which is C. Rajagopalachari's English translation of Rajaji's Thamizh series Chakravarthi Thirumagan. I felt so happy on reading that. Rajaji’s small book was an endearing attempt and pleasure to read as a child. However, Rajaji's book loosely based on Kamban's work deviates greatly from Valmiki's book. Banker also rightly describes R.K.Narayan's take on Ramayana a poor attempt. It was. I was sorely disappointed with the super-abridged version. It has nothing to do with the massive reputation of the author. It was just a nothing retelling.

Various authors of the Ramayana had their own unique styles. Banker points out that when Veda Vyasa retold it, he mentions Brahma aiding Vishnu or Vishnu himself taking a mortal avatara. And that Manthara and Ravana were aware of their own evil but were orchestrating it for a grander purpose. Kamban keeps the story human but relocates it to Thamizh Nadu. He, as most Thamizh people know, invents new places, new characters, changes the dress, the idioms, the references to everything Thamizh. He even deletes complete chapters and invents whole new ones. But in the essense of it all he remains true to Valmiki. If a person read the text of Valmiki and Kamban today without knowing who the author is, they'd file a lawsuit for religious offense. Banker uses an excellent example to illustrate this. In Valmiki's original narration, when Rama decides to leave Sita and go for vanavasa, she initially pleads with him but when Rama refuses, she launches into a diatribe calling Rama - a woman dressed in a man's clothes, a fake, an actor, a frightened coward. This passage and their argument alone is apparently longer than the Bala Khanda. Kamban in his own inimitable style is more practical; Sita attributes Rama's want to enjoy and stray around in the forest, as a motivation for leaving her. Whereas Tulsidas has Sita weeping in grief for a few brief moments before Rama accedes.

There are a few foreign authors of Ramayana. Most, if not all of them, have written utter nonsense. In my opinion, westerners have no locus-standi to write anything about Ramayana. Their best work would not even scratch the surface of what I think would be an interesting retelling. It will most certainly never be honest. The Indian context is complex and I dont expect a westerner to get the current context let alone something 3000-4000 years ago. I have read William S. Buck's book that Banker points out and it is total nonsense. Infact very immature. If you don't want to read a long book and just want to listen to someone narrate it to you to the most authentic level that is possible and tell you the differences between authors -please listen to Velukudi Krishnan's Upanyasam on Ramayana (available in both English and Thamizh). He essentially narrates entire Valmiki Ramayana with most of its slokas. I am simply amazed at his memory power, his mastery over both Sanskrit and Thamizh (and English). But most of all, his analytical approach, without too much preaching, is simply a delight to listen to. He essentially narrates Valmiki's Ramayana but wherever appropriate he describes the differences between Kamban and Valmiki. Gita Press has a Hindi translation of Valmiki Ramayana. Most people I have spoken to consider that to be the most authentic.

Continued

Monday, December 03, 2007

Ramayana - 1/4

Note: I started to write a two-part post reviewing the rather excellent re-telling of Ramayana (in 6 books) by Ashok Banker. However, one thing led to another and I decided to make it a 2-3 part post on Ramayana that also covered the review of Ashok Bankar's books. In these posts I hope to write about some of the lesser known -> largely esoteric aspects of Ramayana.

The First Verse

maa nishhaada pratiSThaamtva magamaH shaashvatiiH samaaH
yat krauiNcha mithunaat eka mavadhiiH kaama mohitam

This is the first verse of Valmiki's Ramayana. A verse that triggered an epic (Rama-ayana means The Journey of Rama). Valmiki decided to start working a magnum opus poem. He hadn't decided on the topic yet. Since it was considered auspicious to do so, he decided to utter the first verse of his poem, after taking a bath on the banks of the river Sarayu. While there, he happened to see a pair of love birds. Exactly at the moment Valmiki was admiring the couple's intimacy, a hunter sent an arrow through the male bird, thereby killing it. This act of cruelty threw Valmiki into a fit of rage and he instantaneously uttered the above verse. This verse meant "ill-fated hunter, the reason for which, you killed the male bird of a couple, when they were in lust & passion, because of (the reason why he killed) it, you will get a perpetual reputation for ages to come". Valmiki, unknowingly, had uttered his first verse. His magnum opus now started with the inauspicious 'ill-fated' (amangalam) word. Neverthless, he decided to keep the verse as is and approached Narada for suggestions on a topic to write about. He asked Narada, son of Brahma, if there was a person who possessed all the 16 Kalyana Gunas ( basis of the Thamizh Asshirwadam "Pathinaarum Petru Peru Vazhvu" ). Narada replied in affirmative and told him of such a man. Valmiki than wrote the story of a mortal man called Rama and using the beauty of sankrit changed the first verse without changing them.

maa+niSaada pratiSTaam+tvam+agama shashavatii+samaa
yat krouincha+mithunaat eka mavadhiiH kaama+mohitam

Making the first verse the standard/customary summary common in ancient poems that began by invoking a godess' name; "Goddess Lakshmi's dwelling in which O'Vishnu you live, the reason for which, you killed the male (ravana) of the demon couple, who in lust & passion abducted one (Seetha), because of (the reason why he killed) it, you will get a perpetual reputation for ages to come"

Ithihasa Vs Puraana

There are ithihasas, which are different from that of Puranas. Ithihasa, which literally means 'this is how it happened', are written by contemporaries. That is; the author of the ithihasa is a contemporary of the characters narrated in the ithihasa and he is doing a ball-by-ball commentary on the events. The author recordeds it 'as he saw it happen'. Ramayana and Mahabharatha are Ithihasas in that regard. As both Krishna-dwaipayana (a.k.a Veda Vyasa The IVth) and Valmiki were contemporaries of Krishna and Rama. On the other hand, Puranas are written for posterity by people who had heard the story much later, after it was orally handed down from generation to generation.

Valmiki's Ramayana in the strict sense qualifies as an Ithihasa but has certain exceptions. Unlike Mahabharatha, it was not recorded live ball-by-ball. Valmiki was witness to some events pertaining to Rama but he also did not observe some events. Brahma appeared in Valmiki's conciousness and said (loosely translated as) "Write what you saw and write what you did not see; you will not write false". Valmiki, consulting many eye witnesses along the process, eventually finished his work. After finishing his Ramayana, as many poets in those days did, Valmiki recruited dramatists/singers to spread the work. Lava and Kusa were two stage dramatists, living in Valmiki's ashram, who were recruited to enact and recite Ramayana. In their travels spreading the poem, they happened to travel to the country of Kosala. Bharatha saw this play and invited the artists to perform in front of Rama. The aspect of Rama hearing his own story being narrated to him by his own two sons has several layers of beauty and some fantastic narrative sequences. Rama was extremely taken aback by the accuracy of the narration, especially when his assumption was that no one but him, his brother and his deposed wife were a witness to some of the events being narrated. So he calls upon the author of the drama and requests the author to finish the story. Rama, in great emotional distress, himself does not know how his own story would end. So Valmiki in effect scripts Rama's own future. So in a very ironic way, the Uttara Khanda was truly not in the initial cut of Valmiki's Ramayana. However, Ramayana could not have happened without the Uttara Khanda.

A Historical Perspective: The Ancestory of Rama.

I got engrossed in Vol I of the 6 volume texts on 'The History of India' by Majumdar & Pusalker. While writing the chapter 'The History from Earliest times' Dr. Pusalkar reconciles several version of the Epics and Puranas that exist and tries to put together a succession/ancestory list. While several variations exist in different versions of puranas and epics, the essense or kernel of the several versions is consistent and they all take great effort in preserving dynasty lists and genealogical lists. The list of kings, their successors, locations, star configurations and data pertaining to natural calamities are recorded in some detail. There are multiple levels of cross-verification and corroboration. Epics are recorded by different authors and are also narrated in the Puranas, which in turn are cross referenced in other puranas and vedic/literary works. The vedic, puranic and ithihasic tradition classifies epochs as Manvantras. Each Manvantra is headed by a King called Manu. Each era started by a Manu is ultimatley destroyed in deluge/flood/pralaya and a new Manu preserves mankind and enables it to continue. Seven Manus exist in history. Manu Vaivasvata (estimated by Dr. Pusalkar - who draws a little from Aryabhatta - at around 3102 - 3110 BC) is an important Manu and considered to be the Moses equivalant of the Hindu tradition. Prior to him were; Anandha -> Manu Syambhuva (a man who ruled all earth) -> Priyavrata (the first ever kshathriya) -> Uttanapada -> Dhruva -> Prachinagarbha -> Manu Chakshusha -> Vena (a bad tyrannical king) -> Prithu (the first consecrated king and source of word 'prithvi') -> (5 generations later) -> Manu Vaivasvata.

Manu Vaivasvata saved the world from a great flood (mainly documented in the Satapata Brahmana vedic text and corroborated by other Puranas). As per vedic literature, puranas and ithihasas; Matsya avatara happened during Manu Vaivasvata's time and the fish warned Manu of impending flood. This Manu is said to be the creator of the human race. Manu, apart from a gender-indeterminate daughter/son Ila, had nine sons; Ikshavaku, Nabhaga, Dhrishta, Saryati, Narishyanta, Pramsu, Nabhagodishta, Karusha and Prishadara. Ikshavaku set up camp in Ayodhya and his son founded the Solar dynasty. This dynasty originated by Ikshavaku led to the people mentioned in Ramayana. Manu's daughter Ila led to the formation of the Lunar dynasty (where the Yadavas hail from). The important lines in the Solar dynasty were Ayodhya, Videha, Vaisalas and Saryatas. The lineage of Rama is; Ikshavaku -> Vikukshi -> Parjanya/kakutstha -> (3 gens later) -> Yuvanvasa -> Sravastha ->(grandson) Kuvalvasa ->(8 gens later) Yuvanvasa II. If I skip the details regarding Yuvanvasa II's progeny and the near-erasure of kshathriya race by Parasurama, I would arrive at King Sagara -> Amsumant -> Bhagheeratha (who initiated Gangetic worship)-> Ambarisha -> Rituparna (of Nala Damayanti fame) -> Kalmashapada -> Asmaka -> Khatvanga (Dilpa II) -> and finally -> Raghu (of Raghu-vamsa fame) -> Aja -> Dasaratha (one who can ride a charriot in 10 directions). Dasaratha, contrary to popular opinion was not childless for a long time. He had several daughters (santha given in adoption to Lomapadha is notable among daughters) but he had no son. His search for a male successor led him to Putrakameshti Yagna. Rishiyasringa who performed the Yagna was Santha's husband and Dasaratha's own son-in-law. He earned Dasaratha's audience as a result of performing a successful Putrakameshti Yagna for his foster-father-in-law and Dasaratha's close friend Lomapadha.

So 65 generations (potentially 1100 - 1200 years) after Manu Vaivasvata came King Ramachandra. Ramachandra married Seetha, the daughter of a Videha King called Siradhvaja (who was the most popular king in the Janaka line of kings). Siradhvaja renamed Ramachandra as Ramabhadra at the marriage ceremony. Later Ramachandra was also called as simply Rama.

Solar Dynasty Post Rama:
Siradhvaja (Popularly known as King Janaka) was a descendant of the Videha dynasty established by Nimi (Ikshavaku's son). Siradhvaja was a philosopher, extremely religious and a pacifist. Parts of Brhadaranyaka Upanishad is culled from a huge argument by Yagnavalka in Siradhvaja's court. Seetha was also called Janaki and the generic term of the princess of Videha nation - Videhi applied to her. Rama had 2 children Lava and Kusa. Kusa suceeded Rama in Ayodhya and Lava ruled the northern province of Kosala with Sravsthi as capital. It should also be noted that Shatrugna established an empire with Mathura as the capital. The solar dynasty ends without much fanfare, quickly after Rama's time. Kusa marries a Naga princess and in his line of descendants is a person called Hiranyanabha Kausalya. Brihadbala is his descendant and is the last solar king after which Bharatha (of Maha Bharatha fame) takes over most of India. Brihadbala fights the Pandavas and is first conquered by Bhima and then by Karna. After being conquered and annexed by Karna, Brihadbala was reduced to fighting for the Kauravas in the Kurukshethra war. Brihadbala was killed by Abhimanyu during the Bharatha war.

Continued

Acknowledgement:
1. U Ve. Velukudi Krishnan Upanyasam
2. The History & Culture Of Indian People - Majumdar & Pusalkar
3. Various Web related Sources