Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Ravana Revisited

Is it strange that I have not been perturbed by any sort of intrigue about the much hyped, recently released Aishwarya and Abhishek starrer RAAVAN? Well, at least my cousin thinks so as he gives me those incredulous looks when I tell him I don’t care about the ‘hot new looks’ of the stars or the scenic locations or the great direction of Mani Ratnam which has surely made this movie a masterpiece. Frankly, I am glad the film has bombed at the box office (1 and ½ star rating by HT), a befitting answer to all those die heard Abhishek fans, eagerly awaiting the release of the epic film, hailed as a ‘landmark’ in his career. It may still turn out to be just that, but for me, the hullabaloo surrounding it has been consistently incomprehensible.

What I am glad for, though, is the fact that due to this movie, the media and the intellectuals have been compelled to undertake a debate on the conceptualization of ‘villain’ in our society, in our films, for once trying to give their characters their due respect. This is most aptly stated in the following lines- “Every story needs a villain. The Jain Chronicles are very clear about this. For every Vasudeva, they say, there must be a Prati-Vasudeva. Ag
ainst Rama stands Ravana, against Krishna stands Kansa. In fact, the villain comes first, justifying the existence of the hero. The villain’s villainy props up the hero’s heroism, justifies the adoration and worship.” (-Devdutt Patnaik, mythologist, and author of The Pregnant King)

A particular source of fascination for me has been the obsession of print and electronic media with revisiting the much celebrate, legendary villain-Ravana- straight out of the epic Ramayana, composed by Valimiki. He is the iconic villain- one whom we love to hate!

Having my mother as a Sanskrit teacher has its own advantages. I dunno how small was I when my innocent tongue started chanting these lines-

Chakaarchandtaandavam tanotuna shivashivam”

I never understood their meaning - I still don’t. I was merely overtaken by the rhythm and vigor that emanated while chanting the initial part of these lines. What I do know today is the fact that these lines constitute the second part of the first verse of the 16 verse long Shiva Tandava Stotram, composed by the Asura king Ravana himself. When the fact that Ravana was a staunch devotee of Shiva, so much so that he composed this Stotram to appease the Lord from his petrifying anger, was first revealed to me, I stood in disbelief. Ravana was the sinister demon king who abducted Sita leading to his own destruction at the hands of Rama- how could someone like him be then related to a figure of a deeply religious and learned king, I failed to fathom.

Ravana is a symbol of evil”- has it not been fed into our system since the time we were toddlers, and were still learning to identify figures, and used to sing alphabets along with other nursery rhymes? We couldn’t boast of any worldly wisdom at that time when our grandmother taught us that evil always gets defeated at the hands of good, as is the case of Ravana, during one of her bedtime story sessions. Such are the common, conventional and delusional wisdoms imparted to us through the oral transmissions of our mythologically rich heritage. Did anyone tell us that the immoral son of sage Vishravas and Kaikesi was actually a learned Brahmin and a great scholar of his time? Did anyone bother to tell us that he is ascribed as the author of Ravansamhita, the most powerful treatise on astrological investigations derived from our Vedic texts? Did anyone tell us that there exist communities in unknown interiors of our country, for whom, Ravana is the only deity they’ve ever worshipped? Did anyone tell us that there is a Jain temple dedicated to the mighty king Ravana near Alwar? Perhaps no one told us because they themselves are not aware. I myself was not, till I saw and was captivated by a documentary on NDTV India this weekend, my eyes glued to the TV screen as I stared at an idol of “lord” Ravana- perhaps for the first time witnessing a serene, and ‘vinamra’ expression on his face, as against the ‘raudra’ image as is commonly perceived in our society.

So today, Ravana stands for me not as the widely professed super-villain, but as an ambivalent figure- part daitya and part Brahmin. His ten heads would not so much frighten me as they did when I was a kid, for today I know his ten heads are symbolic of profound knowledge of four Vedas, and six Upanishads. I will recall him to mind as the composer of the hypnotic Shiva Tandava Stotram, whose hubris was karmically fated to be subdued by Rama. The next time I see Ravana go up in flames on Dussehra, the biggest celebration of triumph of good over evil as witnessed in India, I will for once bow my head humbly to the great and glorious demon king, who has ‘clearly fallen victim to the distinction drawn in Ramayana by Valmiki between a good human guided by moral ethics and marital bonding, and the Rakshasa Jati- the race of demons and illusionists who practice profligate living.’ (HT, 20/06/10).

While I do read in my Indian Culture readings about Samudragupta, the scion of illustrious Gupta dynasty, famously called the ‘Indian Napolean’ by V.A. Smith, as being a prolific veena-vaadak, it has been little in my cognizance, as of most around me that Ravana himself was an unparalleled player of the Veena- the instrument most profoundly associated with the image of the goddess of learning, Saraswati, herself.

The next time I go through the much simpler and abridged version of my copy of C. Rajagopalachari’s Ramayana, I will be in a position to give much more thought to the fact that Ravana is not simply a figure who should be used as an instrument to establish the good a
nd astute image of maryadapushottam Rama year and year again in our highly saffronized society as his effigy goes up in flames during Dussehra; he is a legend in himself, capable of imparting much wisdom to all of us. As I rue the way the good and the evil forces were balanced inside Ravana, I remember the following quote I read in HT’s Saturday Editorial, written by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, former Governor, West Bengal- “While I too believe in Gods, I don’t believe that God concerns himself with the fates and actions of individual human beings- in their daily chores, in their pettinesses and quarrels, in their moments of joy and sorrow… As a Zoroastrian, I believe that good an evil exist as separate forces and that the world we live in is a battlefield.” – Fali Nariman

With Ramayana having already attained its much exaggerated place amongst us, I am eagerly waiting to grab my copy of the ‘Ravanayana’. ‘Ravana’ definitely is the flavor of the season!