It is Sita's story, not Rama's, that is told by women in Karnataka's villages

Sita's story compiled from the villages of Karnataka
It is Sita's story, not Rama's, that is told by women in Karnataka's villages
It is Sita's story, not Rama's, that is told by women in Karnataka's villages
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By Siddarth Ganesh

Dressed in a deep green sari bordered by red and gold, with the seragu (pallu) tucked in at the waist so she could sit comfortably and move unhindered, Sanntimmi sat alone on the dais, securing the turiyo mane (coconut grater) with her foot. In front of her was a bowl of chopped bananas, a plate of crushed jaggery and a towel. “I shouldn’t sit around idly chatting. I’ll tell you the story while doing some work,” she said, beginning to grate the coconut.

Sanntimmi (pronounced SaNNthimmi) is a Kannadiga Dalit woman. Her name might mean ‘small girl’, but she is larger than life, and the Ramayana she is about to tell us is not the popular Valmiki Ramayana or Tulsi Das’ Shri Ramcharitamanas but a narrative that weaves stories told by Dalit women in the villages of Karnataka.

This is Sanntimmi’s Ramayana, created by Dalit writer and activist Du. Saraswati. No two performances of Saraswati’s are the same, the number of stories she narrates depends on the time given to her.

In Sanntimmi’s hands, the Ramayana is no longer just a sacred Hindu epic. It becomes a political weapon, a satirical attack on the caste and gender based discrimination in Indian society.

For the women who perform in the villages including Sanntimmi, the Ramayana isn’t something to be revered from a distance and narrated. Through the narration, she is alternating between a conversation with the characters in the story and a conversation with her audience.

Her voice is strong and loud—she doesn’t need a microphone. They don’t use microphones in the villages.

Rulers back then did baduku (worked in the fields) like everyone else; they weren’t like the dhana (oxen) that sit in the Vidhan Soudha today, always drinking and moving around in their cars, with such huge bellies that they can’t even walk!” she said, laughing along with the audience. Not two minutes after this, her voice was grave and melancholy, as she pointed out that Sita didn’t have a say in who she got married to; she had no choice but to marry the man who won the swayamwara, much like how women today in India don’t get to choose their husband, “like cattle being led by their nose ropes to the slaughterhouse”.

Through these observations about modern Indian society, Sanntimmi offers a sense of the intersections that frame a Dalit woman’s existence—forced into repression by the patriarchal construct that surrounds her, with useless politicians who don’t work for the women who voted them to power. Dalit women are also denied education, which she points out a few times through the performance by saying that the audience is educated while she isn’t.

Although it shares basic stories with the institutionalised version, what sets apart Sanntimmi’s Ramayana is the geographical emphasis and the stories previously unheard of: how Bharata had to wear a belt of bells, how Sita saved Ayodhya from bankruptcy using pumpkin seeds, and one about the vanaras and the pickles, were all picked up from different villages.

In many of Karnataka’s villages, Sanntimmi’s narrates, women point to streams or boulders where they believe Sita washed at or rested on. “In Devarayanadurga near Tumkur, there is a stream which flows red in one direction and yellow in the other. This is because when Sita took a bath there, her Arashna and Kumkuma got into the water, and, the water is still like yellaneeru (as sweet as tender coconut water) years later”, said Sanntimmi, asking everybody in the audience to visit the stream.

For Sanntimmi and many other Dalit women, the Ramayana begins with the story of Sita and Rama’s narrative joins in. Sita’s life is at the centre, with Rama regularly walking in and out of it. She points out how Sita was repeatedly rejected by Rama.

Though Rama and Sita were wedded, they never had a marriage. But Sita isn’t constructed as a bitter wife; instead she turns her attention towards learning. During the 14-year vanavasa, she learns the secrets of the plants—which were medicinal, which could kill, and the languages of the birds and beasts. She took care of herself and Rama whenever he needed her, even though he wasn’t around when she needed him.

Through her Ramayana, Sanntimmi only seeks to show that there is more than one Ramayana, more than one Rama. “Believe in your Ramas”, she told me later, “but this Ramayana is the Ramayana as seen by a poor, uneducated, foolish Dalit woman”.

Dalit women’s telling of the Ramayana often crosses over into a string of expletives used to abuse more than one character. To them, these deified humans are as vulnerable as humans—they make mistakes, need to be punished or yelled at. And Sanntimmi did this too with a vivacious touch of humour, eliciting peals of laughter from the audience. The audience is introduced to yabarasi danda pinda (useless moron) Janka, daridra nan maga (horrible man) Rama, and buddhi illadeiro (senseless) Lakshmana.

Theatreperson and Dalit activist Du Saraswati after the performance at the Naitonal Law School of India University in July. 

Sanntimmi doesn’t focus on the grandeur of kingdoms, the magnanimity of the royals or the war. “Rama sent Hanumanta, his follower to find where Sita was, who found her captive in Lanka. Rama and his army of monkeys built a bridge across the sea, even a squirrel helped, they went, defeated Ravana and brought Sita back”, is all she had to say.

After the performance, Saraswati explained her decision. “Men in their foolish need to proclaim their manhood and prove their honour wage great wars and kill each other, but it is always the women and children who suffer—because after the war, cities are pillaged and burnt, women raped, and children sold into slavery along with the women. Men face battle on the battlefields, and as a result women suffer war throughout their lives.”

Oral renditions of the Ramayana have been elevated to an art form by Dalit communities. In the villages a poor Dalit woman sings while working— in the fields, cleaning the rice at home, drawing water from the wells.

Sanntimmi and her family have to eat, cannot afford to sit idle and talk. And thus, as she tells Sita’s story, Sanntimmi has made Rasaayana, a dish made by mixing chopped bananas, jaggery, coconut, powdered cardamom and honey. She asks the audience to eat it and not feel bad that a poor Dalit woman has prepared it.

“All of you have come home, to listen to me; you shouldn’t leave without eating anything. Please, don’t feel bad, I’ve made what little I could, eat this prasada”, she said, before exiting the stage.

In most versions, Ramayana ends with Sita’s death, but not this one. “I couldn’t kill Sita in my story for Sita isn’t dead. She continues to live in every hard working woman, every woman who is living a life full of suffering and domestic abuse, whose only solace is the belief that if Sita could live through years and years of hardship, so can I,” writer Saraswati told me.

The politicising of the Ramayana is complete when the Dalit woman becomes Sita. The fact that Sita was the daughter of Bhoomi taai (Mother Earth) is another parallel with Dalit culture, as Dalit and Adivasi communities claim that they were all born out of the earth.

“Sita lives in Sanntimmi too, and Sanntimmi has become my alter ego. The goal of my life is to become like Sanntimmi, who is truly herself and only herself, unaffected by others”, Saraswati said.

(Note: This is an account of a performance organized by the National Law School of India University in Bengaluru as part of a seminar on ‘Dalits and African Americans in the 21st century’ which was held on July 9 and 10. The play was part of the concluding ceremony.)

(The author is a student at St. Joseph’s College, Bengaluru) 

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