Sita Sings the Blues
A Kannada poet-activist Du Saraswathi sings of a Sita who doesn’t die, she lives on to create life. “Why should Sita die? Life is precious and beautiful. It should be used to create more life. And that is why Sita is important,” says Saraswathi.
All through her childhood Kannada poet-theatre-person-activist Du Saraswathi heard her mother and grandmother tell stories of Ram and Sita — as they worked the grindstone, or drew water from the wells or rested between the chores. She heard tales of her grandfather invoking Anjaneya (the monkey-god beloved of Dalits) before he performed the Ramayana, of him moving his audience to tears with his role of the abandoned Sita at Ashoka Vatika.
But it was in the 1990s, when Saraswathi was in her 30s and when the epic seemed to take on a sinister political meaning, that she began performing Santhimmi’s Ramayana in theatres, lit fests, villages and slums. “When the diversity was threatened, it came from within. There is no one Ram, no one Ramayana or Mahabharata in this country. You can’t say that only (the TV series director) Ramanand Sagar’s Ram is real. Ram does not exist only in Ayodhya. Each place has an organic connection with the epic. It has its own colour, taste and context in each region,” she says.
Sita is at the heart of this retelling, which is a pastiche of stories told by Dalit women in Karnataka (Santhimmi is one such woman). “Wherever I go, women tell her stories in such an intimate way as if there is no gap between them and Sita,” says Saraswathi, 55. For these women, Sita becomes a metaphor for the many tests that singe their lives. “They relate with her agony. They say, ‘If Sita was unable to escape from her difficulties, how could we humans?’” Saraswathi describes her as the “first” single parent, the “first” deserted wife. She recalls one version that survives in these folk retellings. “In one of the folk Ramayanas, women sing about how Ram has no value without Sita,” says Saraswathi, who grew up in Bengaluru but now lives in Bijapur.
Ram is, at best, an uncaring husband in this rendition — and, at worst, a bumbling fool. Santhimmi, the narrator, mocks the fragile male ego which leads men to acts of violence, such as the mutilation of Surpanakha. “They say, ‘men are very strong’, but they cannot take an iota of insult. They care about their moustache so much that they would give up their lives for it!” she sniggers as she sings. The military heroics of our alpha males is cut to size in this epic, which does not devote more than a stanza on the war on Lanka. “I do not know why, instead of sorting the issue rationally, Ram and Ravan had to go to war and destroy lives. Who will bear the burden of sorrow? Only the women and children.”
For Saraswathi, Sita is a teenager who learns to survive on her own in her years of exile in the forest. She is alone, even when with Ram and Lakshman. While she desires her husband, his vows demand that she bury her sexuality. “The most important part for me is how Sita discovers her own strength while walking alone in the forest. Though there are men with her, I can imagine how alienated she might have felt. But she relates very intimately with nature. When you are a part of nature, how can you be lonely? Sita started recognising plants, the flow of wind and water. She understands the mystery of life: that our own bodies are like the earth,” says Saraswathi.
When Sita is asked to pass through fire as a test of her purity, she mocks those sitting in judgment. “One who has burnt all those desires through 14 years, what fire can damage her?” she asks. For Saraswathi, who’s been a part of the Dalit movement since she was 19, the idea of purity is an important one to address for her audience and community. In the course of the telling, Santhimmi asks: “What is this bloody pure and impure? The food we eat is so pure that it is offered to god. But when it turns into shit, it becomes impure. The same impure shit becomes manure to grow food.”
As an activist in Karnataka, Saraswathi works closely with pourakarmikas or sanitation workers employed by various municipal bodies, a majority of whom are women from the so-called lower castes. “And that is why I brought up this aspect of purity and impurity. In the whole lifecycle, you die, decompose and become food for others. Nothing is impure, not even shit,” Saraswathi says.
Her politics shapes her performance. “I am a part of the communist movement and the Dalit movement. But I am also strongly influenced by my mother and grandmother, who, despite the many struggles, are very strongly pro-life. They live harmoniously with difference,” she says.
Sita stands for this great affirmation of life, reflected in her deep nurturing bond with nature and the way Santhimmi’s Ramayana chooses to end. Sita doesn’t get swallowed up by the earth. She lives on in the forest, in communion with the elements. “Why should Sita die? Life is precious and beautiful. It should be used to create more life. And that is why Sita is important,” says Saraswathi.
Courtesy: The Indian Express