Kanad Sinha: Speaking of the Rāmakathā tradition, how do you perceive this particular tradition? Is it a tradition centred on an ur-text, the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, which gradually inspired a wide range of texts, or is it an open tradition formed by several independent versions of the Rāmakathā, each equally valid on its own right, which is called the ‘many Rāmāyaṇas approach?
Kunal Chakrabarti: You see, obviously before the codification of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, there was a very strong oral tradition of this heroic tale. Now, after the codification happened and the reification of the tradition into a text, that became a fixed referent and it’s difficult to get away from that. Therefore, I think, a large number of Rāma stories (are there) which got written. You see even from the text itself (that) there were oral narratives. For example, the kathaks tell the Rāmakathā. They may have the text of the Rāmāyaṇa, whichever Rāmāyaṇa they are having, in front of them and they are improvising according to the requirements of the audience and so on. So the fact that there was a codification doesn’t mean that the transmission through oral means stopped completely, it continued. But, there was that text. See, unfortunately I am an ancient Indian historian. I work primarily with texts. And, therefore, I possibly have a bias for texts. I think that the text is there. In many of these innovative Rāma-stories, there is the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa. But, it is somewhere in the background. It may be close in the background, it may be in the remote background, but it is not altogether outside the horizon. It’s there somewhere. So, the text has an absent presence. Okay? So, I would say that there are many Rāmāyaṇas and some of them are such original innovations that one wonders to what extent you can trace it to the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, but I would still say that the text is there. There is this question in regard to the question of literacy in Indic tradition. If I remember correctly, Kathleen Gau, the anthropologist, had once called the Indic tradition ‘a literary culture with a very large base of illiterate population’. So there is a corpus of texts which is there, and there is a knowledge of that corpus of texts. Through various means of transmission, some of these are seeping down, the epics most notably. But, then, majority of the people do not have access to the text, and there is creativity. And, therefore, whatever little material they have, they are creating on the basis of that. But, if you are asking if the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa’s text is a very important fact about Rāmakathā, I would say so. I would say that it’s a hegemonic text. That was the idea of the brāhmaṇas when they took over the oral tradition and decided to reify it, and I think they have, to a very large extent, succeeded.
K.S: Despite that, Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa is not a text which most of the Bengalis are familiar with. They may be familiar with the name, but not with the content of the text. Rather, it is Kṛttibāsa’s Śrīrāmapā(c)ālī which is an immensely popular text in Bengal, just like Tulsī’s Rāmcaritmānas in the Hindi belt or Kampan’s Irāmavatāram in Tamil Nadu. And Kṛttibāsa is probably the most read Bengali poet also. But, even before that, as early as in the late Pāla period, Sandhyākara Nandin had considered the Rāma story as a valid source of legitimacy for his patron Rāmapāla’s kingship. Bengal also has a very strong Vaiṣṇavite tradition. Yet, the cult of Rāma is almost non-existent in Bengal. In popularity as a deity, Rāma is nowhere near the Devī or Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa, not even equivalent to Śiva. Why is it so?
K.C.: That’s a very difficult question to answer. You see, the fact that the Bengalis know Rāmakathā primarily through Kṛttibāsa has nothing to do with why Rāma did not sort of begun to be worshipped in Bengal in a major way, why even in a minor way. Rāma is not a deity in Bengal, practically so, nor is Hanumān. However, the tradition was known to Bengal. It is not that as if the tradition was not known. Both, if I remember correctly, the Devībhāgavata and the Bṛhaddharmapurāṇa have retold the Rāmakathā, some version of it, some episodes, and so on. So it was already there. That the Rāma-story was known to Bengal can be almost dated to the sixth-seventh centuries when we have terracotta plaques representing episodes from the Rāmakathā. But, the interesting thing is that there are labels underneath it, which goes to show that the Rāmakathā was beginning to get known. Merely from the visual representation, people would not be able to locate the episode. And, therefore, some caption had to be given to them. This is about sixth-seventh centuries. And, then, by about the Early Medieval Period, the ninth-tenth-eleventh centuries, you have Purāṇic versions of the Rāmakathā; by twelfth century Sandhyākara Nandin. Now, Sandhyākara Nandin is a court poet. In the courtly circle, Rāmāyaṇa would be known by the twelfth century is not surprising. Even before that, the Purāṇas which are much more popular in nature, if they incorporate the Rāmāyaṇa, in courtly literature it’s not surprising. Also, (because of) the accidental fact that his protagonist and the patron, Rāmapāla, also had the same name as Rāma of the Rāmāyaṇa, it was easy for him to do the śleṣa, the double meaning. He is parallelly telling the Rāmāyaṇa and he is telling the Rāmapāla story. However, he is telling the Rāmapāla story. In order to bring in the Rāmāyaṇa, he is actually contorting, distorting the Rāma story in order to fit into the Rāmapāla story. Therefore, the primary emphasis is not on the Rāmakathā. He is of course showing his virtuosity as a poet, his skill as a poet, and so on. But I would not place a great deal of value on the fact that there is a parallel Rāmāyaṇa text in Sandhyākara Nandin. But, by that time, Rāmāyaṇa was known to Bengal.
K.S: But Sandhyākara Nandin’s text is in Sanskrit, so are the Bengal Purāṇas. But, even in Bengali, there are several Rāmakathās. So there are Rāmāyaṇas composed by Nityānanda (also known as Adbhuta Ācārya), Rāmśaṅkara, Rāmānanda Ghoṣa, Bhavānīnātha, Dvija Lakṣmaṇa, Śaṅkara Kabicandra, Lakṣmīrāma, Raghurāma, Dvija Rudradeva, etc., coming up to Lokanātha Śarman, Sāradānanda, Vaṃśīmohana and Candrābatī. Even the old Assamese of Bipra Harihara, Mādhava Kandalī and Śaṅkaradeva is hardly different from medieval Bengali in linguistic manners. Later on Hemachandra Bhattacharya translated the entire Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa into Bengali, Michael Madhusudan Dutt composed his classic Meghanādavadhakāvya, Rajsheskhar Basu presented the gist of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa to the Bengali readers, and Upendrakishore Roy Chowhury narrated the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa (as) suitable for children in both prose and poetry. Despite all these, Kṛttibāsa’s text retained its position as the prime and most popular Bengali Rāmakathā. What can be the possible reason for that? Is it just because Kṛttibāsa retold the Rāmakathā through the prism of the medieval Bengali society: its familiar flora, fauna, marriage rituals, cuisine, characters and values, etc? Or is there any other reason for Kṛttibāsa’s primacy?
K.C.: Well, I should think that there are many reasons why Kṛttibāsa became a kind of prime text that it became and it still retains its position. I don’t know (for) how long, but even in the twentieth century S. Wajed Ali wrote that “the same tradition is continuing even today” when a grocer sitting in his shop was reading the (Kṛttibāsa) Rāmāyaṇa and so that tradition is continuing. I don’t know to what extent the current generation will be familiar with Kṛttibāsa, let alone any other version. There has been a sort of very radical disjunction in the recent past. But, till the twentieth century, surely Kṛttibāsa retained his position. And if we speak of Bengali Rāmāyaṇa, the person we remember is Kṛttibāsa, not the others. So, why Kṛttibāsa? So, the first thing is that this was the first text, first major Bengali Rāmāyaṇa text. And that has its importance: whoever tells the story first. Assuming there were better retellings – there were not – but assuming there were much better, fuller, more committed to the original text, that kind of Rāmāyaṇas written in Bengali, even then Kṛttibāsa would have been difficult to forget. So, that’s the first thing. The second, I think, is the metre in which he composed this: the payār metre. Even Kṛttibāsa’s Rāmāyaṇa – he called it pā(n)cālī – was supposed to have been recited, even sung, like a pā(n)cālī. And, therefore, the fact that is written in that very basic Bengali metre, payār of 14 mātrā, that I think has been extremely effective. Wherever there is a break, the break is in the tripadī, the lācāri, and so on. So, one, it is very easy to recite and sing, also to remember. It is also a very easy mnemonic device. And, the other thing is that it is sung like a song, a set of episodes are sung. That’s another reason I would say. A third reason for me is that, even though it is one of the very early texts, possibly the first major long poem in Bangla, Vidyāpati wrote before Kṛttibāsa but the language was different, so this was the first major text in Bangla —
K.S: But, Śrīkṛṣṇakīrtan is there.
K.C.: Śrīkṛṣṇakīrtan is the only one which is earlier, but the language is so different from Kṛttibāsa. See, Kṛttibāsa is very legible. I have two points in regards to Kṛttibāsa’s language. The first is (that) it kept on being written and written. The first edition, if I remember correctly, is the printed edition of 1803, which is the Srerampore Mission (edition), and which was edited by, and – to a large extent – rewritten by Jayagopal Tarkalankar. Possibly the second edition, also by Jayagopal Tarkalankar, became the standard edition of Kṛttibāsa. All other reprints have been bad. Secondly, the other printing press which published Kṛttibāsa and became widely known is Bat-tala. In Bat-tala also, there was one Mohanchand Shil who to a very large extent edited it, worked upon it, even added, reworked, so on and so forth. So, to a large extent, even though the original text belongs to the fifteenth century, the language became rather contemporary. The language became (that of) eighteenth-nineteenth century. That became easier for the later Bengalis to remember and access it. This is one take with the language. And the other take that I have is the indignity of Kṛttibāsa’s language. It’s very Bengali, it’s very deśī Bengali, unlike Kāśīrām Dāsa (who is) so much more Sanskritized. So, if you are thinking in terms of telling a tale in a familiar manner, in a domestic or village context, sung or recited in a manner that it is almost recited like a lullaby, and then this deśaja Bangla adds to it both authenticity and accessibility. So, there are various reasons why Kṛttibāsa would retain his supremacy among the various retellings of even the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa.
K.S: So, these regional Rāmakathās in general and Kṛttibāsa in particular, how would they be located within the Rāmakathā tradition. We know the famous article by A.K.Ramanujan, where he speaks of all these retellings as either iconic or indexical or symbolic translations of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa. So, how would you locate the regional Rāmakathās?
K.C.: All regional Rāmakathās, the ones that I am familiar with, for example I know of Kampan Rāmāyaṇa, I know of Rāmcaritmānas and so on, and surely Kṛttibāsa, I would say that they are indexical. Not translation, not even translation, but the relationship is indexical, because I think that even for these retellings the original Rāmāyaṇa is there somewhere, out there, you know. And if you are thinking in terms of Kṛttibāsa, Kṛttibāsa in his self-introduction says that he first learnt Sanskrit—he educated himself and that education was possibly basically Sanskrit—and then he went to a royal court and sought favour and so on and so forth. Therefore, he obviously was familiar with the (Vālmīki) Rāmāyaṇa. Somebody who is a Sanskrit scholar, a Brahmin, has been initiated into Sanskrit, would know Vālmīki. And, from time to time, he is referring to Vālmīki, in the text itself. In Kṛttibāsa’s text, he is referring to Vālmīki in various contexts. In contexts in which he glaringly deviates, there is of course no question (of that). But, when he is coming back, he is remembering Vālmīki. There are cases where he is taking his episodes from other Sanskrit Rāmāyaṇas, not Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, but (some) Sanskrit Rāmāyaṇa, for example Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa. Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa, for example, has a far greater element of bhakti than the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa has and if there is one major rasa in Kṛttibāsa, it is finally bhakti. There are episodic transfers from the Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa and so on. So, he is obviously taking his stories from multiple sources. He must be taking his stories from the stories which were in circulation orally in Bengal, because there are completely extraneous stories which have no mention in any of the Sanskritic texts, and he tells them in great details. Some of them are excellent in terms of poetic skill. ‘Taraṇīsena-vadha’ is possibly one of the finest, and it has nothing to do with the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa. So, I would say that it is an original composition. Not merely the language is different, but the conceptualising is different. Rāma has been differently perceived. He is not so much a hero, as a ‘patita-pābana’ and so on, and he is an object of devotion finally. Above all other qualities, he is an object of devotion. Therefore, it seems to me that it would be wrong to say that it is a completely independent composition without reference to Vālmīki. At the same time, to say that it is a translation is wrong. To say that it is an imitation, anukaraṇa, even that is wrong. It is an original composition. But it is telling a story which was told in great detail in the original Rāmāyaṇa and, then, subsequently in the Sanskritic tradition predating Kṛttibāsa’s composition, and then there are the native, deśī, indigenous traditions. All of them mingled together to create this Rāmakathā.
K.S: As you spoke about the dominant rasa of bhakti in Kṛttibāsa, and probably the Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa is the inspiration of Kṛttibāsa in this case, Rāma is definitely a god in Kṛttibāsa’s Rāmāyaṇa, unlike in the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa. If we look at the elements of bhakti taken from the Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa, the biggest such episodic transfer would be the story of Vālmīki himself, how he became Vālmīki from a bandit called Ratnākara, through the efficacy of the rāmanāma itself. And there are many other elements of bhakti in Kṛttibāsa. But, despite that, unlike other bhakti Rāmāyaṇas like Rāmcaritmānas or Irāmāvatāram, Rāma is not above reproach in Kṛttibāsa’s Rāmāyaṇa. On one hand there is the figure of Rāma as you said—patitapābana—and even his enemies, like two of the most beautiful innovations of Kṛttibāsa: Taraṇīsena and Bīrabāhu—are devotees of Rāma. They fight for their country, yet they want to die in Rāma’s hand. But, on the other hand, when Rāma kills Vālin, Kṛttibāsa calls it a ‘blunder’; or Kṛttibāsa shows that Rāma—being exiled just on the verge of being the crown prince—never learned politics, show he has to learn politics from Rāvaṇa who is a much senior king. And, especially, Kṛttibāsa’s ‘Uttarakāṇḍa’ is a vehement critique of Rāma’s kingship or Rāmarājya which is such a popular slogan. Kṛttibāsa says that actually people were happier in Daśaratha’s realm than in Rāma’s realm. Rāma is condemned for both banishing Sītā and killing Śambūka. And finally there is the biggest iconoclasm within the Rāmakathā tradition that is the death of Rāma himself in the hands of his sons, Lava and Kuśa, who are portrayed as much more innocent and righteous characters than Rāma himself. So, how can that be explained in a bhakti text where Rāma is the central affective protagonist of bhakti? How can this iconoclasm be located within that text?
K.C.: I think that the criticism of Rāma in Kṛttibāsa you have referred to, all the criticisms, are correct. The text says all of that. But, I think that you are attaching far greater importance to them. If you list them, one after the other, then they add up and it seems as if, you know, there is a huge critique of Rāma. I don’t think that there is a huge critique, because these critiques are scattered all over. Yes, in the ‘Uttarakāṇḍa’, the king Rāma has been criticised. He is not a particularly effective king. People were happier in Daśaratha’s time, completely unlike the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa case, definitely. But otherwise, you know, an episode is being stated, and there Rāma’s action may be questioned and so on. Therefore, I think that you are overstretching the critical element of Rāma in Kṛttibāsa. It is there, definitely there. And if you put them together it would appear as if he is extremely critical of Rāma. But, if you read the whole text in the sequence in which it is given, Rāma as the redeemer of the sinners and the ones who take refuge in him, that image towers over all other including his many failures that he is referring to and critiquing. Remember that even in the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa where he is the protagonist, he is finally being established as an avatāra of Viṣṇu, questions are raised in regards to some of his actions, for example Vālin. It’s explained away. Vālin asks questions which Rāma finds difficult to answer. The final answer of Rāma is, “yes, I have killed you because I am the king.” The final answer is that I am defeated in argument. If you are asking of righteous action, then I am incapable of justifying my action. But, I am the king and I can kill whoever I feel like and I have killed you, and so on. Similarly, the discomfort with the Śambūka episode, the very largely writ discomfort with regard to the banishment of Sītā and finally her being swallowed up inside the earth and so on, all of that (is there). So it is not as if Vālmīki doesn’t have a critical eye for Rāma. The Rāma of Vālmīki is not the Rāma of Tulsī.
K.S: Yes, that is what I am saying. Vālmīki or Bhavabhūti, the poets for whom Rāma is an ideal man but not an infallible god, their criticisms are there, but (not) in Tulsī or Kampan or the bhakti poets. Kṛttibāsa is the only bhakti poet who doesn’t look at Rāma as someone above reproach.
K.C: I think, once again, there is an earthiness about Kṛttibāsa. Kṛttibāsa, I am forgetting which critic once mentioned, that he may even refer to the royal court—he went to the royal court, seeking favour—(but) he possibly never went out of Phulia. He is actually, basically, a village person who brought the Rāma-story into the caṇḍīmaṇḍapa of the Bengal village. You see, the tradition of worshipping Rāma didn’t strike roots in Bengal. But the tradition of worshipping Kṛṣṇa struck roots, very deep roots indeed. If you have to think of one male god overarching the others, it’s Kṛṣṇa. And, yet, aren’t the Bengalis – or the Bengali poets – critical of Kṛṣṇa, particularly his treatment of Rādhā? So, it is not so that as if the Bengalis think that if you have to be a god and be worshipped and so on, you have to be absolutely above reproach. The other thing is the personalization of the god. You have been so close to the person, just as you can admonish your god: 'you have not done this! How could you not do it and so on! Because I am such a devotee.' Similarly, the personalised relationship makes it almost a human relationship. So, I think, that element is pretty strong in Kṛttibāsa also.
K.S: And as you said that it is Rāma as king who is primarily the butt of criticism in Kṛttibāsa, and you also mentioned how he brought the Rāmakathā to the caṇḍīmaṇḍapa of the Bengalis…
K.C: As a matter of fact, I will go a little further and I will say that in the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, Rāma is a king and a righteous king. That’s the primary identity of Rāma, even overshadowing his being an avatāra. As a matter of fact that the reason why many historians and Sanskritists feel that the first and the seventh kāṇḍas are prakṣipta (interpolations/ later redactions) is because that doesn’t go very well with the five kāṇḍas, they have a certain unity, and these two appear to be extraneous. Rāma acts throughout the central kāṇḍas as if he is unaware of the fact that he is the avatāra of Viṣṇu. But, he is righteous. He is the king and he acts justly and fairly and so on. That’s a matter of great pride for him and the poet. Rāma, the king, is not the protagonist here (in Kṛttibāsa). He happens to be the king, but his kingliness is not the prime focus of Kṛttibāsa. One, he is a god. And the other (element) is that he is a human being with human relationships and so on. And, the failures of the king are glaringly pointed out; the failure of the god, seldom if ever.
K.S: Speaking about the failure of the king, as Edward Dimock and Tony Stewart have analysed Kṛttibāsa, they said that it is a characteristic of the Bengali public sphere that there is an aversion to organised government and whoever is upholding state power usually the Bengalis are critical of him. Even later when Rabindranath discussed Rāma’s character, he used the phrase ‘saṃkaṭe ke thāke bhaye, bipade ke ekānta nirbhīk’, someone who is quite brave and glorious when he is in crisis, but when he is living in affluence his actions are problematic. The same thing happens in Kṛttibāsa. As long as Rāma is exiled, he is in the forest, he is more or less an ideal character, but the moment he assumes rulership, his actions become very problematic. So, does it have something to do with the nature of the Bengali public sphere?
K.C: See, when was the Bengali public sphere created? The Bengali public sphere was created in the nineteenth century if you ask me really. From the creation of the Bengali public sphere, there is an aversion to power and authority because, with the coming of the Bengali public sphere, also came the critique of the colonial government. And then, if you carry on, when Dimock and Tony Stewart were writing, already the importance of the left ideology among the Bengali intellectuals and the Bengali youth had become a matter of great discourse in the public sphere, etc. So, I think all of that was in the backdrop of their mind. Till the nineteenth century, you show me a text where there is great censure of political authority. There is not. So, I think that, once again, that, too, would be overstretching the point.
K.S: Even Kṛttibāsa himself is quite positive about the ‘Gauḍeśvara’ who is ruling in his contemporary Bengal.[i]
K.S: Till now we discussed Kṛttibāsa as primarily a Vaiṣṇavite bhakti text. But, another thing I was wondering (about) is that – you mentioned the popularity of Kṛṣṇa also – there in Bengal Śāktaism is also a very dominant religious form, probably more popular than Vaiṣṇavism or at least as popular as Vaiṣṇavism, and many of the Bengali Rāmakathās – like Nityānanda’s, Rāmaśaṅkara’s or Jagatrāma Bandyopādhyāya’s – are based on the Śākta Adbhuta Rāmāyaṇa than the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa. And as you yourself have discussed in details, many of the Purāṇas and Upapurāṇas, like the Devībhāgavata and Kālikā Purāṇa had been composed in Eastern India and at least by Eastern Indian authors. So, Kṛttibāsa also seems to have incorporated the Śākta elements in his Vaiṣṇavite text, just like Tulsī tried to unify Śaivism and Vaiṣṇavism in his text. He borrowed the story of Hariścandra from the Devībhāgavata Purāṇa for instance, and he also adopted the Śāktaized version of Hanumān’s handling of Caṇḍikā, as given in the Bṛhaddharma Purāṇa, and – most importantly – he was instrumental in popularizing the notion of Durgā’s akālabodhana in the context of the autumnal Durga Puja – which was already there from the time of the Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa, but he associated Rāma as a central figure in the akālabodhana of Durgā—and it’s a development on a very sketchy theme in the Kālikā Purāṇa. Also, he created a staunch Kālī-worshipping Mahīrāvaṇa as one of Rāma’s central opponents. One thing is how successful has this negotiation between Vaiṣṇavism and Śāktaism been? The other thing is that Rāma is portrayed as not above reproach and not as positively as in the pure Vaiṣṇavite texts, can one reason (of) that be that, though it is a bhakti text, it is primarily a Śākta bhakti text? Because, even Rāma’s victory over Rāvaṇa is only achieved through the Devī’s grace. Otherwise, it could not have happened. And Rāma would have been killed by Mahīrāvaṇa also. Rāma was virtually defeated by Mahīrāvaṇa. It is only the Devī decided to tell Hanumān how to kill Mahīrāvaṇa is how Rāma succeeded in killing Mahīrāvaṇa also. So, actually by appropriating the prime Vaiṣṇava text of the Rāmāyaṇa, is Kṛttibāsa projecting a Śākta bhakti retelling of the Rāmakathā?
K.C: You see, I didn’t think about it. But one of the reasons why I didn’t think about it is that I don’t see – when you mentioned that the Śākta tradition is possibly the most important religious tradition in Bengal and next to it is the Vaiṣṇava bhakti, if not the supreme tradition then at least as important as the Vaiṣṇava bhakti tradition – even the Vaiṣṇava tradition outside the Śākta bhakti tradition, because Śāktaism informs practically all forms of religious expression in Bengal. The Goddess exists in various ways. In Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism which is the major strand of Vaiṣṇavism in Bengal, Rādhā is the central figure, in my assessment even overshadowing Kṛṣṇa. And, therefore, she by her own right is the Goddess. Then there is the Gosvāmīs of Vrindavan who write this great theology once again foregrounding and centralising Rādhā. That’s one. And the other is the substratum sahajiyā trend that had been popular in Bengal all along, from the Early Medieval Period onwards. In fact, some historians like Hitesh Ranjan Sanyal writes it partly in Bāṃla Kīrtaner Itihās, what he told me once in conversation that one of the most important achievements of Caitanya is that he allowed the sahajiyā bhakti, which was a guhya tradition (a secret tradition) to come out into the open. And that is one of the major reasons why it became so enormously popular. It became a conflagration within a very short time because the substratum of religious worship, religious beliefs, practices, ideation and so on, suddenly came out in the open and informed the Vaiṣṇava tradition in a very big way. And, therefore, I think that there is absolutely nothing which is in some way or the other not informed by the Śākta tradition. Kṛttibāsa would definitely be (so). He must have seen all these around him and it is impossible to get over. But the most radical intervention of course is that the Goddess is woken up in an untimely hour, an untimely time of the year, to perform a specific duty. And she performs it for Rāma in a way. So, Rāma is important.
K.S: But, only after Rāma proves to be the ideal devotee of the Goddess, while being ready to offer his own eye as an offering to the Goddess.
K.C: Exactly. There is an argument that in the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition Rāma was being elevated into the position of a god. “Hare kṛṣṇa hare kṛṣṇa kṛṣṇa kṛṣṇa hare hare/ hare rāma hare rāma rāma rāma hare hare.”[ii] So, along with Kṛṣṇa, Rāma was being elevated. In order to counter that, Kṛttibāsa made Rāma a devotee of Caṇḍī. You become a devotee of Caṇḍī completely selflessly, willing to sacrifice yourself in order to win her favour. And she favours finally. As a result, she empowers you. Śakti empowers everything. No action is possible without empowerment of Śakti.
K.S: Like in Vimalasūris Jaina Rāmāyaṇa, everyone is ultimately a Jaina, from Rāvaṇa up to Rāma, here you also see that Rāma is a devotee of the Goddess and Rāvaṇa is also a devotee of the Goddess. The Goddess protects both. And Mahīrāvaṇa is also a devotee of the Goddess. So, the Goddess remains supreme throughout the text.
K.C: Yes, the Goddess is quite central, and I do not see a good deal of contradiction between the Vaiṣṇava bhakti and the Śākta bhakti. Śaiva bhakti is subsumed into Śākta bhakti. So, Śākta bhakti was looming large and that incorporated Vaiṣṇava bhakti as well, in the form of Rādhā, in the form of sahajiyā, various ways in which it sort of creeps into it. So, although I did not give it a thought that Kṛttibāsa might have written even from the Śākta point of view, while foregrounding Rāma who is a Vaiṣṇava exemplar, avatāra, and the protagonist of the story, that is entirely possible. This is in consonance with the religious tradition of Bengal.
K.S: So we can assume that it is not about Vaiṣṇavism versus Śāktaism, rather it is the feminine form of the divinity which is much more preferred in Bengal over more or less the masculine form. That brings us to the study of gender in general in the Bengali Rāmakathās. So, even in Kṛttibāsa we get a very radical intervention that Rāma’s predecessor Bhagīratha is shown by Kṛttibāsa as born out of a lesbian union, which is completely Kṛttibāsa’s innovation. Moving from Kṛttibāsa, in Eastern Bengal there is a Rāmakathā attributed to a female poet, Candrābatī, who is one of the poets of the Mymensingh Gītikās, who seems to have retold the Rāmakathā from Sītā’s perspective in general. The veracity of the text has been doubted by Sukumar Sen, whereas Sunitikumar Chattopadhyay, Nabanita Deb Sen, and Kshitish Moulik—they consider it as an authentic text. And here we see, the story begins with the birth of Sītā, ends with her entry into the earth, and omits the episodes like the killing of Tāṭakā or Rāma’s training under Viśvāmitra, and deals with the themes like the bridge-building or the war in a very summary fashion, focussing more on the forest romance of Rāma and Sītā and Rāma’s betrayal of Sītā’s love. So, rather than focussing on the clash between Rāma and Rāvaṇa, structurally it probably focuses on the clash between Lakṣmī and Alakṣmī, another thing which you have worked on extensively, represented by Sītā on one hand and another character Kukuyā (Rāma’s sister) on the other hand. So, most of the text is being narrated by Sītā to her friends also, where the common address ‘śuno sabhājan’[iii] or ‘śuno sudhījan’[iv] is replaced by ‘śuno sakhījan’.[v] So, it seems primarily to be a Rāmakathā for, by and of women. Rāma seems to be nothing but a reflection of Jayānanda, the lover of Candrāvbatī, who had betrayed her. So, is the pro-Sītā stand of the Bengali Rāmakathās in general somehow linked with the popularity of the Devī and Rādhā in Bengali religious tradition as you have said?
K.C: I would place a great deal of emphasis on Candrābatī’s Rāmāyaṇa. I think, it is a hugely important text. Yes, Sukumar Sen described it as a ‘fake’. But, of course then, remember that it’s not a patriarchal denunciation of a woman’s retelling of Rāmāyaṇa particularly. He says that the entire Mymensingh Gītikā tradition is a fake. So, you cannot say that he was pointing this out particularly. But a large number of the others, Dinesh Sen who actually found this tradition – he did the Mymensingh Gītikā, Kshitish Moulik did the Pūrbabaṅga Gītikā, all of them thought that this is a valid text. So, I consider this to be a very, very important text. If I have to begin with the last question that you asked that is it because of the Devī-worshipping tradition that this foregrounding of the women’s vision in the Candrābatī’s Rāmāyaṇa, I don’t know. But I would doubt it.
K.S: Rādhā more importantly (than the Devī), because Kṛṣṇa in Bengal Vaiṣṇavism is also primarily a figure who had betrayed Rādhā, rather than as a god on his own right.
K.C: Yes, but you see, the betrayal obviously happens in Candrābatī’s Rāmāyaṇa and Sītā is usually critical of Rāma for that, but that betrayal—according to me—is not the central story of Candrābatī’s Rāmāyaṇa. The central story of Candrābatī’s Rāmāyaṇa is the everyday suffering of a woman, perhaps of Bengal, generally speaking. A typical middle class or poor Bengali woman’s everyday suffering, everyday woe, that is foregrounded. If you remember the form of the Candrābatī Rāmāyaṇa, it is told in the stance of the bāromāsī, the twelve-monthly annual tale which sort of cyclically repeats itself. There is no end to it, there is no rise, there is no fall, no radical disjunction. It is the same story repeated over and over again. And this is not a good thing. Things that are happening to a woman in her everyday life, there is nothing commendable about it. It’s a story of endless suffering without redemption. That’s the focus and Sītā is the teller. That I think is a radical innovation that after the ‘Janmalīlā’, the first part, Sītā comes in as the teller and she takes on the narrative. Candrābatī intervenes from time to time to admonish Rāma where Sītā is still a little hesitant. But, Candrābatī comes in and admonishes Rāma. But, (because) the fact that it is the everyday-ness of the suffering of the women, therefore it seems to me that there is the Goddess at the background, there is the centrality of Rādhā in the mindset of the Bengalis – see, the victorious Goddess comes on one occasion in Bengal for four days and then she leaves, the goddesses that stay with us are the everyday goddesses who are much more familiar to us and Rādhā who receives daily worship, Kālī receives daily worship, Rādhā receives daily worship, and these various other everyday goddesses (receive daily worship) like Manasā (in a land of snakes), Ṣaṣṭhī (for children), and so on – but I think it is primarily woman. These goddesses are also women, if you come to think of it. The maṅgalakāvya goddesses are predominantly women.[vi] They have their personal foibles, they have their loves and hates and so on so forth.
K.S: And even this bāromāsyā tradition, as you have indicated, is from the maṅgalakāvyas and it is attributed to women, always.
K.C: Exactly. Therefore I’ll refer to an incident that Nabaneeta Den Sen mentions. You see, Candrābatī’s Rāmāyaṇa has lately received a great deal of attention. Mandakranta Bose has translated it and Routledge has brought out the translation of Candrābatī’s Rāmāyaṇa by Mandakranta Bose. Even Nabanita Deb Sen has written in Bangla and English quite extensively. She calls it ‘sītāyana’ rather than ‘rāmāyaṇa.’ Sītā is the protagonist. It is told from Sītā’s point of view. Sītā’s birth (to) Sītā’s death, that’s the story. The war ends in four verses.
K.S: Even (about) Sītā’s suffering, Sītā as a character cannot reproach Rāma. So, Sītā attributes her suffering to the curse of Tārā and Mandodarī, again two women.
K.C: Exactly. And, also, why the war ends in shorter format? Because, during the war, Sītā had not seen (it). Therefore, if Sītā had to know about it, she knows it through a dream. And the dream is a short dream. So, four verses. But let me refer to an incident which Nabanita Deb Sen mentions in an article on Candrābatī’s Rāmāyaṇa. She went to Bangladesh and then recorded a great many renderings of the Rāmakathā. She asked the women if they knew the Candrābatī Rāmāyaṇa. Everybody said, none of them knew Candrābatī Rāmāyaṇa. So, she was very perplexed. How come? This is actually a woman’s tale told in a typical women’s story fashion, and those who are professional or amateur singers of Rāma-story were unaware of the Rāmakathā (of Candrābatī). So, she recorded a large number of these Rāma-stories told by women. And then she came back, compared them, and found that they were substantially Candrābatī’s Rāmāyaṇa and even verse for verse. Therefore, you see, it is possible that they are unaware of Candrābatī. But the tradition surely continues.
But that’s not the story that I have in mind. What I have in mind is, there is a 79 year old woman who is called ‘Pisimā’[vii] by everybody, and that Pisimā had large properties. When the partition occurred, all her family including her sons moved, she didn’t, and over a period of time she lost all her property including a roof on her head and she now moved from one family to the other, whoever gives her shelter. And she is one of the prime singers of this Rāmakathā. So, one day it was coming to the final exile and eventually the entering into the earth (of Sītā), that episode. Her voice broke and she stooped down. She stopped for a while. And then she wiped her tears and then said to herself, “what is my suffering compared to Sītā’s?” Now, as she said, through Sītā’s suffering, Candrābatī told the suffering of every Bengali woman.
And, therefore, the pervasiveness, the authenticity, the popularity, all of that is more due to that— the woman’s point of view, the woman’s sensibility—rather than the goddess tradition. The goddess tradition possibly strengthens it, possibly embeds. But, I would attribute more to the women’s point of view.
K.S: Yes. So, Candrābatī’s Rāmāyaṇa came into academic focus quite recently. And, before that, speaking of the apparent apathy for Rāma in Bengal, the biggest example presented always was Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s Meghanādavadhakāvya. Now, how do we characterise this particular text? Because, some scholars would see it as a complete reversal of the Rāmāyaṇa. As Candrābatī’s Rāmāyaṇa is called ‘sītāyana’, some scholars had called it ‘rāvaṇāyana’ rather than ‘rāmāyaṇa’. However, Dutt no way breaks the narrative consistency from his two sources: Vālmīki and Kṛttibāsa. The characters, except the ones like Pramīlā he himself created, do or say nothing which is very different from what they did in either Vālmīki or Kṛttibāsa. Sometimes, Dutt quotes exact expressions or verses from Vālmīki. And his narrative mainly follows Kṛttibāsa in every detail from Vīrabāhu’s death to Indrajit’s death. He also pays homage to both the poets within the text. Is it then in the powerful similes likening Meghanāda (Indrajit) to Kṛṣṇa in some places and Durgā in some other places, and comparing Lakṣmaṇa to the heinous Aśvatthāman in the ‘Sauptikaparvan’ of the Mahābhārata, as Clinton Seely has indicated, which created this apparent role reversal without any narrative break? Or is it actually not a reversal but a refashioning of the Rāmakathā in the model of the Homeric heroic epic where the traditional structure of good versus evil is replaced by heroic martial narrative between two well-matched noble enemies where Rāma, Rāvaṇa and Meghanāda probably play the roles of Achilles, Priam and Hector respectively, as Nirad Chaudhri pointed out? Interestingly, Dutt’s letters can support both the claims. In some letters he said that he is structuring it according to Homeric epics and it’s primarily heroic story (that) he is telling. In some other letters, he said that he didn’t have any sympathy for the ‘rabble of Rāma’ and he wants to represent Rāvaṇa and Meghanāda as noble fellows. So, how do we characterise the text?
K.C: Once again, a difficult text and inscrutable text in many ways, and Michael was a difficult person to pigeonhole into any character-type, right? One of the reasons for that, I would say, is that Michael is according to me, even though he is thoroughly familiar with Vālmīki (and) follows the narrative structure of Kṛttibāsa, even then, he was a modern man. The modernity with which we associate Bengal, he would be one of the prime figures of that. In his lifetime, he also lived through the contradictions of modernity his entire life, the contradictions of ‘Bengal Renaissance’, of colonial modernity, and so on so forth. That person is looking back at the Indic tradition. And Michael came at a time of the evolution of colonial modernity at Bengal where, as a literary person, he was a classicist. He had to be a classicist. At one level Homer, Virgil, Tasso, Dante, at another level Vālmīki and Vedavyāsa and so on… So, his commitment therefore to classicism and heroic tale is completely understandable in consonance with what he stands for.
Now, Kṛttibāsa. Kṛttibāsa, as you said is rightly a great departure from Vālmīki. And he (Dutt) takes from both. Now, his writing Bangla—and this is the first major poem he is writing in Bangla—is a way of going back searching his roots.
K.S: But, Tilottamāsambhava was the first.
K.C: Yes, Tilottamāsambhava was the first. This is the second one, but the major one, possibly his most important poetic text. Now, there was a very conscious attempt at going back to his roots. Therefore, he would read Kṛttibāsa. And, even though he became a European to a point that he had difficulty pronouncing everyday Bengali words, at another level he possibly remained a Bengali to the core of his heart; and, therefore, when he returned, there was no difficulty. His epitaph—‘Sri Madhusudan’—drops Michael. So, there was the complete absorption of the Bengaliness. And, therefore, Kṛttibāsa. He begins with the death of Vīrabāhu. It’s very suggestive in itself. I think that there are so many contradictions in Michael himself that some of these get reflected and even enacted in Michael Madhusudan’s (writings). You see, at least in my subconscious, Rāmāyaṇa is told in the payār in Bangla. A major radical break is with the new metre ‘amitrākṣara’, completely and fundamentally different, nowhere in rhyme, and so on. So, the mnemonic devices immediately drop. (The language is) heavily Sanskritized and so on. So, he was radically breaking away. While at one level, there is going back and et cetera, at another level he was obviously making a statement that he is very different and his poetry is different; it’s new. So, the metre I think is fundamentally different.
What of these two (interpretations to choose)? As you rightly said that his letters support both the positions and I think that both would be correct. If I am asked to choose one, then I will choose that he had in his mind the Homeric tradition of the heroic tale… and two great adversaries rather than hero and villain. The only question is who is the hero? At times, reading the Meghanādavadhakāvya, it seems to me that Rāvaṇa is the hero. Rāvaṇa, at times, overshadows the greatness of Rāma and even as a human being, when he (Dutt) admonishes Vibhīṣaṇa, for example, for his treachery. He is acting logically. He is certainly not a rowdy villain. So, it seems to me that there is that great Homeric tradition at the back of his mind, and he also wanted to highlight (Rāvaṇa’s side). For example, the fact that Meghanāda could fight under the cloud, from a cloud-cover, is an undue advantage. But, he is not really critical of that. So, I would say that it is finally that Homeric tradition which his educated, cultured mind was favouring at the back of it.
K.S: Ya. Because again in his letter, he had said that he intended to borrow as little as possible from Vālmīki. But, as we can see, some of the best portions of the Meghanādavadhakāvya, such as when Indrajit admonishes Vibhīṣaṇa, saying: “śāstre bale guṇabānjadi parajan guṇahīn svajan tathāpi/ nirguṇ svajan śreya paraḥ paraḥ sadā”,[viii] is verbatim taken from Indrajit’s admonition of Vibhīṣaṇa from the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa. And, again, when Indrajit dies, his expression is the exact Bengali translation of Vālmīki’s ‘śāntaraśmir ivādityo nirvāṇa iva pābakaḥ”.[ix] He writes, “nirbāṇ pābak jathā kimbā tviṣāmpati/ śāntaraśmii, mahābal paḍilā bhūtale.”[x] And, on the other hand, as you said, there is the story of two great adversaries, hero and anti-hero rather than hero and villain. But, who is the hero, if we look at it? His sympathy is with Rāvaṇa, clearly, and Meghanāda. But, he does not end his epic with Meghanāda’s death, which would make it a tragedy with Meghanāda as the central character. He does not end with ‘Śaktinirbhedo’, which would establish Rāvaṇa as the hero. He ultimately falls back to Kṛttibāsa, as he had started with the Vīrabāhu episode from Kṛttibāsa, he establishes the patitapābana Rāma of Kṛttibāsa, as you had indicated. It is Rāma, when he goes to the land of the dead spirits, who sees that without right cremation no one gains heaven. It is Rāma who understands that Meghanāda deserves heaven. So, Rāma comes back and hands over the body of Meghanāda to Rāvaṇa, and declares an armistice so that Meghanāda can be honoured properly. So, ultimately it is Rāma’s karuṇā which is there as the dominant mode of Kṛttibāsa. Even Kṛttibāsa’s Rāma is not as great a hero as Vālmīki’s Rāma, but it is primarily his compassion which is his dominant mood. So, probably we get the same thing in Madhusudan, though he doesn’t openly accept Kṛttibāsa as his main inspiration, as he mentions the classical poets. Ultimately, he follows the structure of Kṛttibāsa much more than that of the others.
K.C: He does. But, he pays his homage to Vālmīki. You see, although he follows Kṛttibāsa even more closely than he follows Vālmīki, he pays him (Vālmīki) the respect as the first poet and so on, not towards the beginning, but towards the beginning of the third canto.
K.S: And though he knew Vālmīki quite well – if he could take line by line translation from Vālmīki – the Vālmīki he pays his homage to is not Vālmīki’s Vālmīki but Kṛttibāsa’s Vālmīki. He says that “coraratnākar kābyaratnākar kabi”[xi] which is (a reference to) the story of Ratnākar from Kṛttibāsa, rather than from Vālmīki.
K.S: Another thing about, not the Meghanādavadhakāvya, but Michael in general, as we were discussing about the very important role of women, in Bengali Rāmakathās from Kṛttibāsa up to Candrāvatī, how does Michael fit in that tradition, given that he not only established Rāvaṇa and Meghanāda in a positive light, but also created a powerful female figure in Pramīlā, and in Bīrāṅgaṇā, the only two characters he selected from the Rāmāyaṇa are two vilified characters of the Rāmāyaṇa, Kaikeyī and Śūrpanakhā to be refashioned as committed and devoted lovers who are the ones who had been wronged? And, Sītā’s plight has inspired at least three of his sonnets and his unfinished English work Queen Sita. So, again, is he knowingly or unknowingly carrying on the Bengali tradition of (poets from) Kṛttibāsa to Candrāvatī, of looking at the Rāmakathā primarily from the women’s standpoint?
K.C: I would not even say ‘unknowingly.’ Why would it be? I mean, he was a very conscious person. He was self-reflexive. And he was extremely highly educated. Therefore, I would say that he appreciated the element of compassion very strongly. His description of Vidyasagar, whom he possibly thought to be the greatest human being that he had met, is that he was a European (in action) but he had a heart of the Bengali mother. He was very close to his mother in his personal life. He was also very close to his father. But, when the clash happened, that was between these two men. And the one who suffered as a result was the mother. And he had great commitment to the mother. Therefore, the fact of women per say and Bengali women in particular being able to give great affection softens the rough edges of human existence is something that is very important to him. And, therefore, I would not say that all these may be considered to an unconscious in his part. Yes, an unconscious definitely: he must have been located culturally in that, but, also, even consciously. That’s my feeling. On the one hand empathising with Sītā, on the other hand actually correcting some of the characterizations in Vālmīki’sRāmāyaṇa, both Śūrpanakhā and Kaikeyī—the manner in which these two appear in the epic, there is no reason for the readers or listeners to empathise with them. But, that there can be other facades to these characters who are not wronged—I wouldn’t say that in the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa Kaikeyī or Śūrpanakhā has been wronged.
K.S: Śūrpanakhā definitely had been wronged.
K.C: Wronged, certainly. There is no doubt that she was wronged. But, you know, the manner in which it is told, they do not get the same empathy from the listener. Even assuming that what they did was justified at that point of time, there are other facades to all human beings and she is choosing one of those. That is where the modernity of Michael comes. Staying within the confines of the tradition, I wonder whether he would have been able to do so.
K.S: Actually, his biographer Golam Murshid says that it is partly autobiographical also. Just like in case of Candrābatī, her relationship with Jayānanda came someway or other in her retelling, so the character of Kaikeyī, who had been the beloved of Daśaratha when in the prime of her youth and then Daśaratha had made some promises which he forgot when she lost her charms of youth – that’s what is there in the letter ‘Daśarather Prati Kekayī’ in Bīrāṅgaṇā, Golam Murshid thinks, is reflective of Rebecca whom Madhusudan loved in her youth and he left her for Henrietta later on. I don’t know how much of that is applicable.
K.C: I don’t know. Yes, Golam Murshid says so in Āśār Chalane Bhuli. But, I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to comment on that. Possible.
K.S: So, it has been a fairly long interview, much longer than it was supposed to be. But this is the last question. So, as we are discussing about the very peculiar nature of Rāmakathā in Bengal, Rāma has often been the subject of even light-hearted ridicule in the hands of the subsequent Bengali authors. Most importantly, Sukumar Roy’s Lakṣmaṇer Śaktiśel shows him as a megalomaniac king – again the apathy with Rāma as a king, even when he is not established as a king – who is so obsessed with his kingship that his flattering followers try to interpret even his dreams as facts because the king’s dream cannot be false. One great departure from this long tradition of apathy towards Rāma in Bengal is Rabindranath Tagore. So, at one hand of the spectrum we have Sandhyākara Nandin— he portrayed Rāma as a completely ideal figure, and in between we have so many authors, then we have Tagore who remained an exception in upholding Vālmīki’s Rāma as an epitome of virtue in his series of writings on the Rāmāyaṇa, though we see a gradual shift in Tagore’s attitude to the Rāmāyaṇa.
In his early writings, including the scathing criticism of the Meghanādavadhakāvya and his essay ‘Rāmāyaṇa’, he considered moral elevation as the duty of an epic. He differentiated the ideal of martial elevation in Homeric epics and moral elevation in Indian epics, exemplified primarily by the spirit of sacrifice and detachment of the Rāmāyaṇa protagonists. He also portrayed Rāma as the epitome of his tragic but great sacrificial ideal in his retelling of the Rāmāyaṇa in the poem ‘Puraskār’ where Rāma is shown as a character constantly suffering but retaining his greatness, and claimed the superiority of the ‘truth’ of poetry over the ‘facts’ of history as the real evaluator of Rāma’s life in ‘Bhāṣā o Chanda’, again a claim more emphatically made in his criticism of Bankimchandra’s Kṛṣṇacaritra. However, later on, his approach towards the Rāmāyaṇa became more inspired by historicism. He criticised the interpolation of the ‘Uttarakāṇda’ in the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa in his essay ‘Kādambarīcitra’. He interpreted the Rāmāyaṇa as a clash between the productive agrarian civilisation, which he called ‘karṣaṇajībī’, and accumulative industrial capitalism, which he called ‘ākarṣaṇajībī’ in the essay ‘Bhāratabarṣer Itihāser Dhārā’ and in the metaphorical retelling of the Rāmakathā motif, at least, in the play Raktakarabī. But, despite all these transformations, he remained steadfast in his faith in the absolute goodness of Rāma, and the structure of understanding of Rāma and Rāvaṇa as the representatives of good and evil, noble and ignoble, respectively. So, why do you think that Tagore’s treating of the Rāmāyaṇa was so much divorced from the way the Bengali Rāmakathās had problematised and nuanced the Rāmāyaṇa and the character of Rāma.
K.C: You see, even though (he was) unlike Michael, Tagore was a very strong individual, and even though he was steeped in tradition, as eventually Michael had also become, his reading of them and his takes on them were very, very different from the others. Therefore, I am not surprised that Tagore’s reading is different. But, I would differ slightly from the manner in which you have presented in a chronological way Tagore’s understanding of the Rāmāyaṇa and the character of Rāma in particular. But before that, let’s go back to Lakṣmaṇer Śaktiśel. What an extraordinary play, and written when Sukumar Roy was nineteen years old.
K.S: So, much before Tagore’s transformation in his understanding of the Rāmāyaṇa takes place. That’s why I placed it chronologically before that.
K.C: Exactly. And he is mocking at Rāma. He is making fun of him. Rāma is a butt of joke. The reason for that is, as I said, that there is a tradition of subverting the religious tradition in Bengal. We have seen that in the personalized relation with the object of devotion, even if he is infallible, and even if he is omnipotent, even if he is an ocean of compassion, karuṇāsindhu, and so on. Despite all that, you are not above reproach. You can always be criticised. There can be a relationship of abhimāna and so on, and even of farce.
K.S: And Sukumar Roy chooses the only battle in the Rāmāyaṇa where Rāma loses, the śaktinirbhedo, which is central to the Meghanādavadhakāvya also.
K.C: You see, he was making fun, right? And, therefore, if he is choosing Rāma, he will also make fun. The point is who can be made fun of. He could make fun of Rāvaṇa. It would have been much more appropriate. He chooses Rāma. That’s the interesting thing. But, as I said, in the Bengali tradition, the admonition that is often stated for Kṛṣṇa is part of the Bengali psyche. And, therefore, I don’t think that any god is considered above reproach. There is Rupchand Pakshi’s song about Kṛṣṇa. Apparently, some Englishmen were coming for some occasion at a rich babu’s house in Kolkata. Rupchand Pakshi was invited to sing a song. Rupchand Pakshi said, “I will sing a kīrtana.”[xii] The patron said, “but, these invited guests are all English. How would they understand?” He said, “I will sing in a manner for everybody.” And, it’s that famous song, “let me go, o he dvārī/ I visit to vaṃśīdhārī.”[xiii] And, there, he is calling (into question) his moral character: “śuno butter-thief nanīcor”[xiv]. And, finally he says, “the black nonsense very cunning/ ābār fulut-ete kore sing/ majāyeche rāikiśorī.”[xv] So, you can say whatever you feel like of the absolutely supreme object of devotion. That was there. Once again, Sukumar Roy is a modern man.
K.S: And, Rāma is not an object of devotion.
K.C: At the time when he was writing, if Rāma had to become an object of devotion, he would have already become. And he failed to do so. Therefore, he was merely an epic character. And, you could make fun of them. And, I always find Rāma’s suffocating righteousness insufferable. And, therefore, my first idea of subverting Rāma is to make fun of him. This all-knowing righteous attitude that Vālmīki portrays, that Tulsī portrays, and everywhere he is infallible… Nobody is infallible. Kṛṣṇa is not infallible. Kṛṣṇa in the Mahābhārata is not infallible. He doesn’t claim to be infallible. But, Rāma almost claims himself to be infallible. And the poets from Vālmīki to Tulsī substantiated that claim. I think, one way of relating to Rāma is to be able to subvert that absolute righteousness of Rāma. And this is a great way of doing so. But, I wouldn’t say that this is the first time. Think of ‘Aṅgada’s Rāyabār’ in Kṛttibāsa. Aṅgada is making a farce of Rāvaṇa, laughing at him, mocking him. So, what I mean to say is that if Rāvaṇa had to be suitable adversary of Rāma, then he had to be as great a hero, almost comparable. There has to be a certain mystery about him. Without that, that epic battle cannot take place. If Rāma goes and easily subdues Rāvaṇa, it would be anticlimax. That great build up would be lost. And, therefore, he had to be as great. And, therefore, in ‘Aṅgada’s Rāyabār’, the manner in which Rāvaṇa is subverted, is more or less the same way in which Rāma is being subverted. The difference is that Rāvaṇa can be subverted. The tenor of the story allows you that space to subvert Rāvaṇa. It doesn’t allow you the space to subvert Rāma. The difference, however, is that Sukumar Roy, being a modern man, hadn’t had that kind of traditional commitments to the epic heroes. He could really make fun of everybody including Rāma. I am reminded of Manoranjan Bhattacharya. He was a writer of humorous stories for children. The setting is of Laṅkā. And it’s been made into a modern city and Rāvaṇa is a modern man. And he is behaving in a manner that is completely anachronistic and that’s where lies the fun. But, in the entire thing even Rāma comes in, Sītā comes in, and so on. They are all treated as ordinary human beings and can be made fun of, not as much of as in the case of Lakṣmaṇer Śaktiśel, but can be made fun of. And, surely, Sukumar Roy is a one-off. But, it’s not entirely different from a Bengali tradition of farce. Now, Tagore.
K.S: Let’s conclude with Tagore.
K.C: Yes, of course. Who else to conclude with but Tagore? I think, what you said is absolutely correct that Tagore’s attitude towards Rāma went through transformations… But, looming above all of them is the hero and the great man that Rāma is. Now, I think, there also, he is deeply imbued with and internalises the idea of a classical hero. Daṇḍin, the rhetorician, says that the hero of an epic has to be both heroic and clever. And, more importantly, he has to be a noble man. That nobility of character transcends everything else in Rāma. Vālmīki attempts that. I would say that even in Kṛttibāsa, there is a nobility of attitude. Compassion raises you, elevates you in the path. But, for Tagore, it’s finally the nobility of character. If I remember correctly, it’s in a collection of essays by Buddhadev Basu, on literary criticism, called Sāhityacarcā, in which is a long essay on the Rāmāyaṇa, where he argues among other things that – just consider this – at the end of the epic war Sītā is rescued, brought back triumphantly to Ayodhyā, Rāma becomes the king, and that is the culmination of all that had happened. And, then, finally what happens after that? He says that if the ending was there and you would have said in the fairy-tale fashion that they lived happily ever after, do you think it would have been an epic? It would have been reduced to an everyday story. There had to be that separation that elevates it to that greatness of tragedy. Unfortunately, it happens in a manner that touches our sensibilities. We are very critical of the manner in which that separation occurs. But, separation had to occur. After the separation, they could have lived together. But, no, that wouldn’t happen also. That, I say, the great nobility, the great heroic prowess, so on, was predominant in Tagore’s mind. And, therefore, Rāma is an exemplar of that, not Rāma of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, not Rāma of Kṛttibāsa, but an idealised figure of Rāma that he created in his own mind. Taking bits from various people, various authors, various traditions, he created his own Rāma. So, when he is looking historically, he (Rāma) is spreading civilisation. In ‘Bhāratabarṣer Itihāser Dhārā’, Rāma spreads the Brahmanical agrarian civilisation. In the other renderings – the poetic renderings ‘Puraskār’, ‘Bhāṣā o Chanda’ – whatever the poet says is the truth, and Rāma must carry out the poet’s dreams and so on. So, there are conflations also between poet’s imagination and what actually happens, (about) what is truth, etc. Remember, his (Tagore’s) criticism also began with his criticism of Michael Madhusudan, and Michael Madhusudan also partly because of amitrākṣarachanda. He thought that it was no poetry at all. He actually made fun of those first five lines of the first stanza. He wrote in calit Bangla[xvi] and showed that it loses all greatness, it’s no great poetry. Of course, he revised. All his life he revised his opinions repeatedly. So, he revised his opinion of Michael, considered him to be a great poet later on, and so on.
But, I think, finally it’s that. Think of ‘Puraskār’. Finally what happens, after Sītā is banished and enteres into the earth? “Se sakal din, seo cole jāy/ se asaha śok chihna kothāy/ jāyni to e(n)ke dharaṇīr gāy asīm dagdharekhā/ dvidhā dharābhūmi juḍeche ābār/ daṇḍakabane phote phulabhār/ sarayūr kūle dole tṛṇasār praphulla śyāmarekhā.”[xvii]So, time wipes out the quotidian, the everyday small joys and sorrows of the various characters that are involved in the little plays that are being played out on an everyday basis. Stands above them, lofty over all of them, the noble character, the great action that remains, the nobility of spirit or soul that remains. I think, Tagore is fixated on that and that would explain (it) according to me. I didn’t give it a good deal of thought. He has written a great deal on Rāma and it bears reflection. One has to read carefully and reflect. But, as you put it, and as my memory goes, my response would be that there is the greatness of tragedy, of epic, of nobility, and Rāma is an exemplar of that.
Now, come to think of this, Kanad, if you have to choose a character, then it has to be Rāma. You cannot possibly choose any character from the Mahābhārata as the great exemplar of that nobility of character or soul and tragedy and so on so forth, because one has to be clever also. Yudhiṣṭhira, being that committed to dharma and so on, is after all not that clever decisive character who acts swiftly, who knows. If you have to choose one character from these two epics – and think of the characters who are involved – it’s possibly Rāma. And, therefore, Tagore zeroed in on Rāma, would be my understanding.
[i]Ruknuddin Barbak Shah
[ii]A very popular chant of the Bengal Vaiṣṇavas.
[iii]Listen, o members of the gathering.
[iv]Listen, o intelligentsia.
[v]Listen, o (female) friends.
[vi] The Maṅgalakāvyas are a genre of texts from medieval Bengal, which propagate the cults of local non-Vedic deities of Bengal, such as Manasā and Caṇḍī.
[vii]Aunt, literally father’s sister.
[viii] “Says the scriptures, if kinsmen are
Worthless, of great merit others;
Yet, better is the worthless kin,
Others remain the ‘others’ forever.” (translation by Kanad Sinha).
[ix] Like the (setting) sub of softened rays, like the fire extinguished. (translation by Kanad Sinha).
[x]“Like a fire extinguished, or
As the setting sun of soft rays,
Collapsed the great hero on the ground.” (translation by Kanad Sinha).
[xi] “….. (blessings thine)
Turned thief Ratnākar into a poet,
Ocean of poetry.” (translation by Kanad Sinha).” It is a word-play on the word ‘Ratnākar’, the name Kṛttibāsa gives to Vālmīki’s bandit past, which literally means ‘source of gems/pearls’ (the ocean).
[xii]Vaiṣṇava devotional songs, often on the romance of Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā.
[xiii]‘Dvārī means the gatekeeper. ‘Vaṃśīdhārī’, the flute-holder, is the epithet of Kṛṣṇa.
[xiv]Listen, o butter-thief.
[xv] “The black nonsense, very cunning/
Singing through his flute/
Won over Rāi, the teen.” (translation by Kanad Sinha)
[xvii]“Even they pass, all these days/
That great grief left no trace/
Did it leave on surface/
Earth’s fissure has come together/
In Daṇḍaka, blossoms flower/
By the Sarayū, grasses cheer/
Waving, green stark.” (Translation by Kanad Sinha)