Raja Ravi Varma’s popular painting of Sita depicts her as the abducted wife of Rama, sitting in the gardens of Ravana, lonely and vulnerable; yet there is an evocation of power in her raised head and unblinking gaze. The painting by Raja Ravi Varma captures splendidly the dilemma of the iconic mythological figure of Sita. An archetypal figure of Indian womanhood, Sita is deified in the patriarchal canon; her character is seen as a symbol of sacrifice, loyalty, and wifely virtues. Feminist critics have often seen her as a subservient symbol of the female self and banished her from their emancipated consciousness. Malashri Lal and Namita Gokhale’s anthology, In Search of Sita, explores, through essays, commentaries, conversations, and stories, the figure of Sita as an embodiment of strength and power: after reading the anthology we meet the Janaki who could lift bows and fire arrows, who refused to accompany Rama to his palace after her second exile, and who emerges as a woman who resisted the shackles of patriarchy time and again.
In her essay in the anthology, entitled “Sita: A Personal Journey”, Namita Gokhale writes: “Janaki, the daughter of Janaka, was a strong young woman who could lift the Hara, Shiva’s bow, with one arm . . . Then why do I picture her weeping? When and why did she become a figure of weakness rather than strength?” (XIII). As we read through the collection, this “weeping”, “weak” Sita of the patriarchal canon is challenged and overridden; instead we meet the single mother who raised her twin sons, the assertive wife who took decisions in the forest during Rama’s exile, the willful woman who resisted Ravana’s advances and reduced his self-esteem to shreds.
The classical, Sanskrit version of the Ramayana is believed to have been written by the sage Valmiki, who was inspired to write the epic poem after witnessing a mating bird killed by a merciless hunter. The dominant emotion invoked in Valmiki’s epic is that of love and compassion; subsequent versions, translations, and interpretations of the epic, from Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas to Kalidas’s Raghuvamsha to the Tamil, Indonesian, Cambodian, Burmese versions, have appropriated these broad themes and furthered them to bring in ideas of duty, kingship, virtue, etc. Many of the versions portray Sita as a dutiful wife, unquestioningly in love with her husband. The depiction of Sita has further suffered because of the numerous televised dramatized versions of the epic (the most popular being Ramanand Sagar’s 1986 television serial Ramayana) where Sita comes across as not only suffering helplessly in weak meekness but also as a histrionic, melodramatic heroine. In the commentary section of the anthology essayists like Meghnad Desai and Arshia Sattar have analyzed Valmiki’s version and written how very often Sita becomes an “absent heroine”, someone who dominates Rama’s actions even when she is absent from his life.
Arshia Sattar writes: “She [Sita] seems less and less a victim and more and more a woman of remarkable strength and fortitude . . . As her beloved husband battles his internal demons and external rakshasas to find himself, Sita too, has internal conflicts that she must resolve. Rama and Sita’s final separation, after she is asked to prove herself again (this time for the people of Ayodhya) is at Sita’s initiative. She disappears into the earth without even a glance at the man whom she has loved, and it is Rama who is left alone, abandoned to his public life and duties” (12-13). The ending of Valmiki’s Ramayana has been commented upon by other essayists in the anthology. Meghnad Desai, in “Sita and some other Women from the Epics”, writes: “She [Sita] . . . finally returns to her mother’s womb, thus establishing the autonomy of the female” (9).
Another dominant topic for discourse in the anthology is Sita’s trial by fire, the agnee pareeksha that has become a deep-rooted symbolic icon for testing the Indian woman’s honor. Madhu Kishwar and Rina Tripathi try to decode the agnee pareeksha in a subversive conversation entitled “Trial by Fire” while Smita Tewari Jassal analyzes the recurring motif of Sita’s trial by fire in the jatsaar, the Bhojpuri women’s folk songs. In the essay “Sita’s Trial by Fire and Bhojpuri Women’s Songs”, Jassal points out the similarity between Sita’s agnee pareeksha and the heroines of the Jatsaar who are subjected to various tests of chastity, to be proven by walking through raging flames. Jassal further elaborates on the song of Satmal which is inspired by Valmiki’s treatment of Sita’s agnee pareeksha, which was as much a test of Rama’s loyalty as Sita’s purity: “In Valmiki’s Ramayana, the motif of trial by fire is as much about Rama’s test and transformation in consciousness regarding his own divinity, as about Sita. The song of Satmal offers a glimpse into the anguished mental state of a husband, who, like Rama, must succumb to the censorious pressures of patriarchy instead of offering his wife protection against it” (174). Kishwar and Tripathi also find in Sita a gesture of defiance rather than submission. Madhu Kiswar remarks:
“. . . Even a casual reading of the text shows that like any astute literary writer, Valmiki develops the two agni pareeksha sequences as great dramatic moments to evoke a sense of utter shock and disbelief in the reader as well as all those characters who witness Rama demanding them of Sita. It is similar to the dramatic horror evoked by Othello’s murder of Desdemona . . . Valmiki does not build any defence whatsoever of Rama’s behavior . . . Rama is projected as being highly flawed in his moral judgment . . .” (102).
A very interesting reading is offered by Aman Nath in “Reading Pictures: Sita in Victorian Indian Prints”, where Nath connects the “colonized cleansing” of Indian mythological paintings with the influences of the photo studio. The essay features various Ramayana portraitures, paintings, and landscapes during and after the Nineteenth century which depict the hypocitical moralities of Victorian England, through their lack of sensual images. The anthology astutely presents a composite depiction of Sita, her varied interpretations, and the differing views concerning her character. However one chooses to view Sita, as a revered goddess or as a suffering woman or as a symbol of feminist strength and power, she remains a staunch component of the collective Indian psyche. In Search of Sita rereads mythology and literature to offer fresh insights and interpretations of Sita’s character, of the inevitable pull she exerts on Indian women and womanhood.
Lal, Malashri, and Namita Gokhale, eds. In Search of Sita: Revisiting Mythology. Gurgaon:
Penguin Books, 2009. Print.