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An acclaimed actor, poet, playwright and theatre activist, Jalabala Vaidya talks to us about the every changing Ramayana and women’s rights in India.
Jalabala Vaidya is an internationally acclaimed actress, poet, playwright and theatre activist. Her theatre, Akshara, is located in Delhi’s bustling centre. Along with her husband, the gifted playwright, Gopal Sharman, she has worked on several plays including their acclaimed Ramayana.
Spanning four decades, their careers chart an enviable trajectory, from readings at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, to the World Theatre Festival organised by the Royal Shakespeare Company; from Broadway to the West End; and across the length and breadth of India.
It was a long cherished wish to meet her, which came true when I requested an interview on behalf of Women’s Web. The conversation ranged from their most famous production – the Ramayana, to women’s rights in India, from politics to social delinquencies.
Let’s start with the Ramayana, your most famous production. The Ramayana has been fundamental to Indian culture, but also, many have reservations with the text. There is a huge feminist question mark over the characters and arcs of Rama and Sita.
Jalabala Vaidya: Let me put it this way. There have been lots of efforts to denigrate Rama and remove him from the prime position that he had held over centuries . . . why centuries, millennia, in the Indian psyche. And this has been particularly strong under the British. Though it was also so under the Buddhists, as a matter of fact.
It is believed that the last chapter – where Sita is thrown out etc, is an interpolation. Most writers take it this way. And most scholars say it is an interpolation. But it is an interpolation of that time. It’s not very recent; it’s an age old one. Therefore, it is assumed by some people that it is the result of a clash between the Buddhists and orthodox Hindus.
Gopal’s play, as he wrote it – and he wrote it by dictating it to me, we worked on it together; has not changed any of the actual events that happened, but changed their psychological interpretation. For instance, when Sita leaves Ayodhya to go on exile with Rama, she does so of her own volition. Not because she’s mindless but because she’s strong-willed. And although this is not actually written in the play, because it’s too much to write in a play, but the family say to her: ”How will we answer your father Janak, if you go to stay in the jungle?” And she says, “I don’t care. I’m going.”
…when Sita leaves Ayodhya to go on exile with Rama, she does so of her own volition. Not because she’s mindless but because she’s strong-willed.
And so the idea was, that Sita as depicted in the van-vaas scenes, is shown as a strong woman who deals with the jungle as Rama and Lakshman do. She has to be strong and she is a survivor.
That is one of the reasons she insists that Lakshman go after Rama when Maricha calls (mimicking Rama in distress). Lakshmana says, “No, I won’t! My business is to stay with you!” And she insults him with an innuendo. You don’t know whether it’s an innuendo accusing him of sexual interest or cowardice.
These are not things which little ghoonghat-walis can do!
As for the Lakshman Rekha, it isn’t there in the Valmiki Ramayana at all. But it’s there in the play. Ravana tries to grab hold of her. It’s a mixture of obsessive love plus a hatred of Rama plus a territorial design on the whole continent. And so the play represents all these things – the politics, the characters of the principal people involved.
And the question of the Agni Pariksha?
Jalabala Vaidya: In the end they (Sita and Rama) finally meet on the battlefield. He has come to an agreement with Vibhishana which is that Vibhishana will rule the kingdom and Ram will leave. So Vibhishana brings Sita all decked up and dressed up, honourably gives her back. This is not the way Sita wanted it. Sita had wanted Rama to come and find her in the Ashok Vatika, the way she was abducted.
So Vibhishana brings Sita all decked up and dressed up, honourably gives her back. This is not the way Sita wanted it. Sita had wanted Rama to come and find her in the Ashok Vatika, the way she was abducted.
So when they meet, this is a very beautiful scene in the play, just the two of them. Both are filled with their own righteousness. He’s done this, fought this war, and at the same time he’s heavy hearted because of so many deaths. She’s hurt that he doesn’t see all that she’s been through. Both want each other’s sympathy. This is what happens in wars! They become estranged.
He says, “You can come home. But, not with me.” She says, “In that case my home will be the fire.” Or, according to a Jain version, “Let’s perform a havan. Let’s hope the past is washed away.” But the past is never washed away. They conduct the havan where Sita’s wooden image is sacrificed but does not get burnt. Those who are watching: Sugriva, Angad, and Hanuman think this is a sign of her great virtue. But she and Rama see that her image remains unburnt with great foreboding.
And in the next scene of the play when they’re back in Ayodhya a year later, they get into an argument. He says, “I have no passion left.” And she says, “You have no passion left for me? Now? When I’m carrying your child?” And she leaves him. He doesn’t do enough to stop her. So that’s how she goes.
Then it goes to fifteen years later when she finds her sons have disappeared. They’ve gone to challenge their father – to stop the Ashwamedha sacrifice. She asks a heart-rending question: “How does one escape this constant return of pain?” And then Rama turns up defeated by their sons, and she sees that he has lost that ego he had. And she says, “I want nothing. I only want to be merged in my love for you.”
And then they become one. But when they become one, they become divine, they retreat from us and are no longer the people we’ve been involved with during the play and I, as the storyteller can only do a complete prostration because they are far, far away.
Anyway, the point is, she’s a strong woman as depicted in Gopal’s play.
Beautiful. And it seems to me much more in line with Valmiki’s original intention, rather than the regressive line taken by Tulasidas?
Jalabala Vaidya: You see Tulasidas, Kamban, etc were all inspired by the politics of their times. Authors invariably are!
But what is inspiring is the undogmatic nature of the Indian tradition which allows such important and primal stories to be re-looked at, time and time again from different perspectives. And people do not say that it’s blasphemy. They are perfectly willing to consider it in a new light.
…what is inspiring is the undogmatic nature of the Indian tradition which allows such important and primal stories to be re-looked at, time and time again from different perspectives…
What is your take on politics: secular and religious, and their impact on women?
Jalabala Vaidya: I have come to the firm conclusion that there is only one real way that women are going to be emancipated. And that is by getting a common civil code. Women need it. Everybody’s personal codes, including those of Hinduism, always makes the woman a victim; the same for Islam or Christianity.
Women deserve to be ruled by the constitution alone. They deserve all the freedom that they can get from it. And they do not owe their personal religions anything. I believe that every woman, whatever her religion may be, must join together in demanding a civil code. She must have equal access to the rights guaranteed by the constitution without the intervention of patriarchal traditions and religious communities.
And if only women would unite themselves by maybe by the next election, this could become a reality. And I feel very, very strongly about this. Because what men do to women is abominable. And it is not just the extreme abomination of what they did to . . .
. . . Nirbhaya?
Jalabala Vaidya: Yes, I wish they would stop calling her that! Why can’t we call her by her real name?
And it’s still happening every day. And I suggest the most severe punishment for men who commit such abominations and rapes.
However, it is not just abominations and rapes. There are a large number of families where there is too much male domination. . .
(Someone interrupts to inform Ms. Vaidya that she has another appointment. It is time to leave, but not before asking her one last question)
What would you say to women who are looking for careers in theatre, or writing, or any kind of creative avenue? What would you say to Indian women especially?
Jalabala Vaidya: It’s difficult, because it’s hard to earn money, and of course you need money to live!
And many, many of the avenues – like publishers, are actually controlled by foreign publishers who are not interested, honestly speaking, in Indian women! They are interested in selling their own books. For every fifteen of their bestsellers they’ll throw in one or two Indian [books]. And then those one or two Indians must be very carefully not to tread on their toes! If you want to get into that category then you have to self-censor yourself.
That really exemplifies the dilemma of an Indian writer, male or female. They’re contesting a world, a business of culture. And you’re expected to toe its line. Of course, the web provides an alternative. But everything that provides an alternative cuts both ways!
So if you have the courage, and if you’re brave enough, then go ahead and do it!
If you aren’t . . . don’t!
Pic credit: Akshara Theatre
Skendha recently graduated with a Masters in Writing Practice and Study. The written word is
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