Samhita Arni, On Her Sita’s Ramayana

An interview with Samhita Arni, on her Sita's Ramayana, a graphic novel retelling of the Ramayana from Sita’s perspective.

Sita’s Ramayana, a collaborative graphic novel by Patua artist Moyna Chitrakar and writer Samhita Arni, is a retelling of the Ramayana from Sita’s perspective.

Interview by Aparna V. Singh

In this 2-part interview with Moyna Chitrakar and Samhita Arni, we spoke to the artist-writer duo on how they found the collaborative process of working on Sita’s Ramayana and what Sita means to them. This interview is with Samhita; you can find here our interview with Moyna.

Aparna V. Singh (AVS): What was it like working together with Moyna and her art to write Sita’s Ramayana?  

Samhita Arni (SA): Moyna’s artwork came first and her images are the primary narrative. So, in the text, I’ve tried to remain true to the spirit of the images, and not impose my perspective if it doesn’t complement Moyna’s point of view as expressed in the artwork.

When retelling the story orally it’s not difficult to switch viewpoints. But in this book, we felt it would be best to stay with Sita’s POV. At a few places I had to ask Moyna to draw a couple of more images. For example, Sita doesn’t see the war as she is imprisoned in a garden. So I used a character from Kamban’s Ramayana, Trijatha, who can relate the events of the war to Sita and had to ask Moyna to draw Trijatha.

It was very interesting meeting Moyna finally and finding out what she felt about the complete product. There were certain details in her images – her plants have faces and so I made them into characters who talk to Sita. She hadn’t thought of that when drawing the images – and so was surprised when she saw the book!

The book was a collaborative process – the result of many back and forth conversations, and included besides Moyna and me, the editor Geeta and Publisher Gita Wolf, and the supremely talented Jonathan, a Japanese-Brazilian designer who did the layout.

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AVS: In the Mahabharata you wrote as a young girl, you describe the female characters of the Mahabharata as being stronger and more interesting than Sita. Has your understanding of Sita changed as you grew older?

SA: As a child, I always preferred the Mahabharata to the Ramayana – I think because the ‘female characters’ in Mahabharata were more assertive – Draupadi, Kunthi, Amba – and so seemed more real and easier to connect with.

Growing up, I never really engaged with Sita’s character. She was a collection of virtues, the ideal woman and wife; submissive and demure.  Yet, when I returned to the Ramayana as an adult and read it carefully – the Sita I encountered was a complex, strong, wise woman. She has to be strong, she’s put through so many trials – I’ve tried to suggest that strength in the narrative.

The Patua version of the Ramayana is an oral, folk tradition. And the folk traditions are sung by women who have often expressed the restrictions and oppression of their own lives in these wonderful songs about Sita, in Sita’s voice. Nabina Dev Sen has done some wonderful work on these traditions, and her work was particularly helpful in thinking about other kinds of Sitas. Also as V. Geetha, the editor, mentions in her note on the book, there’s been a tradition of variant-feminist tellings of the Ramayana that date back to Chandrabati in the sixteenth century.

Women today are confronted by so many complex choices – as we try to juggle the demands thrust upon us as daughters, wives, mothers, career women. I think we can find a lot in common with the dilemmas we face and the choices and situations that Sita herself experienced. It’s important to see Sita not as a just a wife, or queen, but as a woman in her own right – and one who, at times in various retellings, displays a great of sensitivity, maturity and insight.

It’s important to see Sita not as a just a wife, or queen, but as a woman in her own right – and one who, at times in various retellings, displays a great of sensitivity, maturity and insight.

AVS: Was it a considered decision to make Sita heroic? How did this Sita emerge?

SA: In Sita’s Ramayana we have given Sita a voice that hopefully makes a reader empathize, and engage more deeply with her circumstances  – her captivity, her hopes, her fears, the tragedies that consistently happen to her.

Close to the end of the epic, Sita rejects Ram’s offer to return to Ayodhya, if she proves her virtue again. It’s a powerful moment – she rejects returning to be a queen to a people who doubted her, rejects being a wife to a husband who abandoned her even though she was pregnant with his children. Through the ages, many have been uncomfortable with that ending – is it a tragedy? Why, when Ram comes back to her, does she choose not to return?

Over the years I’ve thought about this. I don’t think that decision needs to be seen as a tragedy. I believe it affirms Sita. She emerges as woman in her own right, with her own mind, making her own choices. She grasps, and controls her own fate, with that choice.

AVS: What is your favourite part of the book?

SA: Favourite parts – Moyna’s illustrations! I love the one the book begins with – Sita in the forest, crying, surrounded by plants with faces. It’s so evocative. And the one where Hanuman jumps across the sea – there’s just sea…and it’s a wonderful way of expressing distance.


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