Feminist tellings

The different ways of handling Sita’s testing, her grief, her faithfulness and her power are not just of literary or historical interest.  In closing, here are three examples of modern poems from across a spectrum of South Asian traditions which show how women continue to sing (or reject) Sita’s story in tandem with their own.

You might want to ask:  why have some feminists dismissed the ideal of Sita as leading inevitably to the oppression of women and the justification for abusive relationships?  by contrast, what is there in the Ramkatha tradition that enables and empowers women to claim the story as their own?  which of the following poems claim or reclaim the story and which reject it? why?  could identifying with Sita’s suffering be a way of coping with their own?  could rejecting Sita’s suffering be a way of claiming a new life?  could re-reading Sita’s power be an enabling strategy?

 A millstone poem from Maharashtra and Gujarat:

All there is for Sita is the lot of a daughter-in-law; a turtledove is standing in her way.
The life of Rama’s Sita was all innocence.
Sita has left for the forest; wild cows cross her path.
This harsh lot of a daughter-in-law is all because of that beastly Ravana.
To Sita, the harsh lot of a daughter-in-law brought troubles as numerous as the hairs on one’s head.
She sent a share of it to her sisters, country after country.
To Sita, the harsh lot of a daughter-in-law came a grain at a time.
She sent a share of it to her relatives, village after village
To Sita, life in the forest was imposed on her in a thousand ways.
She handed it out on tamarind leaves to her friends, country after country.
To Sita, the harsh lot of a daughter-in-law brought troubles as numerous as the hair on one’s head.
She sent a share of it to her friends, country after country.

(quoted in Poitevin and Rairkar 1993: 65-67)

Poem by a female dalit poet, an ‘untouchable’, now Buddhist, follower of Ambedkar.

Slave

Where the doors are decorated with mango leaves
Where the houses are ornamented with little flaming oil lamps
In that country a woman is still a slave.
Where Sita entered the fire to prove her fidelity
Where Ahilya was turned to stone because of Indra’s lust
Where Draupadi was fractured to serve five husbands
In that country a woman is still a slave.
Where a woman’s identity fades like nature’s blossoms
Where delicate jewels of emotion are trampled under a heel
Where the free birds of dreams are scorned
In that country a woman is still a slave
Where the sky-flowers of desire must be left to float down the river
Where the threatening force of women’s mind must be buried in the earth
Where the silvery moonlight of happiness must be poured into a jar of darkness
In that country a woman is still a slave
Where a woman in her youth is dried up by Tradition she
is confined all her life like a stunted tree she remains in
the shadow of someone else’s light
In that country a woman is still a slave
In that country where women are still slaves the
conflagration starts in the hours made by flowers
The festival of lordship is celebrated with joy but the
stories of all that are recited with pain

To be born a woman is unjust
To be born a woman is unjust.

Hira Bansode (1939-), the poet, is a railway station clerk with an MA in Marathi.  Translated by S.K. Throat and Eleanor Zelliot in Anand and Zelliot (1992): 30-31.

Poem by brahmin woman from Uttar Pradesh, living in Manchester

The poem below was inspired by an interview for Sita’s Story (Suthren Hirst, 1997).  It was written in Hindi by one of the interviewees under her pen-name ‘Naseev’ and translated into English by Malvika Acharya.  ‘Death’ in verse 5 refers not just to actual death but to the mental and physical torture of oppressive relationships.  ‘Power’ in verse 6 is shakti (the power of the Goddess, the female power within all).

O Lord Rama, during your reign, men had many rights, while women were oppressed and regarded as a toy;  that is what they thought.

Women were good for companionship during the hard times, but were forgotten during the good.

O Sita, at the peril of womanhood, you drove yourself to extremes, just to prove your wifehood.

Since these times, men have made many customs – to burn widows in the funeral pyre of their dead husbands.

The customs started then are still being observed, resulting in the death of numerous innocents.

O women of the world, in the name of progress, change history.  You are not weak.  You are the power.  Make sure everyone is aware of it.

A final set of questions and your own research

How does the story of Rama and Sita surface in different religious traditions in South Asia and the South Asian diaspora?

Are all its tellings ‘religious’?

In what senses, if any, is it a shared story crossing community divides?

In what senses, if any, is it a story which marks out boundaries between different groups?

In what senses does it provide a ‘cultural repertoire’ or ‘pool of signifiers’ into which storytellers and performers, poets and directors, can dip and form the story anew?

To pursue such questions further, compare episodes in different tellings or find further surprises about Sita, here is a starter list of resources of various kinds.