Apr 1, 2011

The Prologue

[Valmiki Sarga 1-4, Kamban Tharchirappu Payiram]

We sit by the restaurant with the unholy plate of bhajjis, I look uneasily at the volume of work and I wonder what possessed me to make the off the cuff remark about reading Valmiki and Kamban. I know I wanted something that was a long term project and something not trivial but this is very serious - numerous sargas/padalams with hundreds of verses spread over 6 Kandas - are we ever going to finish? Sanjay casually says its a four year project and I make some vague remark about a plan. We start nevertheless, I fervently hope we finish.

Valmiki :

The first thing that strikes me as we start reading Valmiki Ramayana is the format of the opening. Valmiki asks Narada, who is cleverly established upfront as a discerning thinker and articulator,  to tell the story of the most principled, courageous, able, good looking man. Narada responds by further extolling the virtues of the hero -

buddhimaan niitimaan vaa~Ngmii shriimaan shatru nibarhaNaH |
vipulaa.mso mahaabaahuH ka.mbu griivo mahaahanuH
mahorasko maheSvaaso guuDha jatruH arindamaH |
aajaanu baahuH sushiraaH sulalaaTaH suvikramaH   [1.1.9]

This is the story of the man - that it is not a plot driven story but a character driven one. The hero is the supreme motivation for the story, it is crystal clear, leaving no doubt in the reader's mind - all I am curious about now is what did this man do to deserve these accolades.

The next surprise was how the following verses literally tell the synopsis of the whole story. As a modern reader I find it intriguing whether in the retelling in the ancient times, did they really start with this opening? Did they really gave away the ending so to speak? If yes, what a gutsy way to tell the story.

There are indications Rama is God incarnate - prajaapati samaH shriimaan [1.1.13],  but it is not explicitly repeated. The accolades oscillates  from character based  - just, righteous,  learned... to looks based - high cheek bones, long arms, broad-shouldered... to abilities based - destroyer of enemies, intelligent, possessor of long bow - as though the writer doesn't want to leave any room for debate. Whichever way you cut it, to paraphrase Shakespeare he is THE MAN.

The synopsis tells the whole story in rapid succession of events giving glimpses of characters and actions. Sita predictably is described as ever amiable and in the context of Rama - Rama's praaNa samaa [1.1.26]. Lakshmana  surprisingly does not get much air time, Shatrughna does not even merit a mention whereas Sabhari and Tara do. We see surprisingly more glimpses of Sundara Kanda than of Yuddha Kanda. A pattern of minor and major characters and events begin to emerge.

Rama is often described as Ajanu Bahu, Maha Bahu - almost repetitively centering on the abilities of his arms, making one wonder about the symbolism.

The much debated agni pariksha is no doubt mentioned, two sets of words there surprised me - first is the 'humiliation' Rama felt at having to reclaim his wife from Ravana - vriiidam upagaamat [1.1.81].  Why  shame and humiliation after the victory, what was he expecting really that he spoke harshly to Sita in front of the assemblage? The second word that surprised was vigata kalmasaam [1.1.83].  In the context of Sita coming out of the fire the word used is getting rid of her sins not proving that she is sinless. Both are interesting hooks for me to watch for later.

The part I liked the most is how when Sugreeva doubts Rama's capability to fight Vali, Rama with a self assured smile, flicks the remains of Dhundubi with his big toe. It is a classic case of someone knowing their power full well, demonstrating it with a casual assurance. utsmayitvaa ca [1.1.65]  he  not only flicked the thing, but did it with a smile. My kind of hero.

Second sarga turns direction and goes into the present as it tracks Valmiki by the banks of the Tamasa river and the story of the krouncha birds. With Valmiki staying so close to the Tamasa river, why is it that he never heard of this great man before I wondered. The story of the Krauncha birds, mostly agreed upon as the Sarus cranes, raises more questions than answers - why is there a reference to the hunter as paapa nishchayaH [1.2.10], is hunting for food evil, or perhaps this is a special case because of the fact the birds were mating. I think it is the latter if not the curse for ages seems disproportional and unlike the hindu scriptures of that time.

The interesting but believable part is how as soon as he utters the verse in the height of his sorrow, the focus shifts from the bird's plight to his own creativity. Valmiki almost obsesses about his ability to speak in poetic terms that Brahma seems to ask him to move on with writing with the Ramayana. The birds are a sacrifice at the altar of poetry. I also find it intriguing why Shoka or grief and sorrow is the root emotion for the epic. Is the central theme of Ramayana the sorrow of parting a loved one?

In sarga three,  I found it interesting that the narrative is said to be revealed to Valmiki through his yogic insight - is that euphemism for imagination?

As Valmiki seeks further details, we see some passing references to ritualistic and social details of the times that I found fascinating - facing eastward, the use of darbhe, touching water, amalakam in the hand etc.

More idolatory words describing rama as though the author can't have enough of it.
sumahad viiryam sarvaanukuulataam |
lokasya priyataam kshaantim saumyataam satya shiilataam [1.3.10]

The course of sarga three goes into further details almost sketching the episodes that are going to come up. More minor characters that didn't make it in sarga two get referenced here.

 I found the aapaana bhuumi gamana [1.3.29], visit to a bar(?) by Hanuman in the course of searching in Lanka  an interesting highlight in the synopsis. Does that an indicator that bars were not indicative of a just kingdom?

Finally there is a reference to this being Sita's story  siitaayaaH charitam mahat . The verse describing the ramayana as embodying nava rasha is a good bait, will have to see if it really does.

The fourth sarga is a puzzle to me. I subscribe to the school of thought that uttarakanda is not part of the original ramayana and thus I found the sarga four somewhat of a misfit. Lava and Kusha make an appearance more so to sing the ballads composed by Valmiki as his disciples. In which case, if they were indeed Rama's sons why could Sita have not told her story, why does it say it happened long ago and the verses also say that they sang it to Rama himself. The time element didn't compute for me.

At the end of the prologue I have a good idea of what type of story this is going to be, a sampling of events and some idea of the author himself.

Kamban :

Kamban's prologue, many centuries latter is much smaller and does not give any synopsis. The beginning prayer is striking in its simple profoundness. Kamban bows to the One who creates, protects and destroys this world in an eternal game in the first verse.

He then gets on with the difficulties of embarking on such a project. The verses depict his humility, the scope of the project and the anxiety that it brings.

'How am I going to talk about something even great minds can't explain,' - 'Sirgunaththar therivaru nannilai ergunatharithu, [TP.2] ' he asks with anxiety. 'I'm like a cat in front of the great ocean of milk where Vishnu resides' [ksheera sagara/parkadal] he bemoans.  And then in an elegant shift he says, 'my desire has made me shed the fear of shame and here I have embarked on retelling this great story.'

Valmiki Ramayana must have already been considered as an important scripture and as he started the retelling, he must have been aware of the critics waiting in the wings. Kamban  sort of negates all of it by the disclaimers. He declares himself to be a child, a madman. What else can anyone say worse?

There is due respect to Valmiki and a two line mention of the episode with the birds but clearly Kamban is not out to do a translation. He is out to retell, adapt or even be just inspired by.

Kamban's intro is succint and doesn't give a lot of details about the story itself, he mentions almost in passing - nadayindruyar nayagan [TP:11] - the story of a hero of character.

With a short blessing he finishes the prologue and starts the Ramayana with the first padalam.

April 01, 2011