By Reya Mehrotra
We all know Sita as Lord Rama’s wife, the Hindu goddess and heroine of Ramayana, the one who was abducted and the one who crossed the Lakshman Rekha. But who was Sita, the woman?
When author Amish Tripathi says that his interpretation of Sita in his 2017 novel Sita: Warrior of Mithila is closer in spirit to the ancient versions —rather than what most modern urban Indians know of the Ramayana, which is largely based on a 1980s’ TV serial—his words make one introspect and reimagine. After all, the author has revisited mythology several times to give it his own twist—be it the Shiva trilogy or the Ram Chandra series.
So, is the Sita we have been watching on screen, big and small, the creation of a filmmaker or a writer’s mind? If yes, then who was Sita? How has she been written about in the original texts which very few of us have gone through? Was she a warrior? Was she strong? And if we have gotten the wrong interpretation—that of a pious woman who is voiceless, suffering and wronged—is there a need to retell her story? Authors believe so.
Author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, who retold the story of Sita in her 2019 book The Forest of Enchantments, seconds Tripathi’s views. “I always felt that there was more to Sita than the traditional patriarchal interpretation which presented her as meek and mild, obedient, passive and long-suffering. When I read the ancient texts for myself, I saw that this was not so. She was courageous, adventurous, outspoken and strong,” she says.
The need to retell
That Sita was strong and courageous is only true. She chose her husband through swayamvar, to live in exile and to step out of Lakshman Rekha, yet to remain fidel and be a single mother. In fact, Volga’s The Liberation of Sita, which follows Sita’s journey into self-realisation into the forest, instead of Ram’s, is one of the most significant retellings of Sita for its symbolism and thoughtfulness. Apart from Sita, the book also follows the journeys of other women who were overlooked or abandoned in the epic.
Not only retellings by authors but each time a parent, grandparent, a story book for children narrates the story of Ramayana, a little bit of the narrator or writer’s mind makes the story their own retelling. Author Amish Tripathi feels that Ramayana has always been told and retold in Indian history. “Indians never tire of hearing the story of Ram and Sita,” he says.
Author and mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik has attempted Sita’s retelling more than once through books like The Girl Who Chose: A New Way of Narrating the Ramayana and Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of Ramayana. In the former, he writes that no one in the Ramayana, except Sita, had choices. He calls her both Gauri and Kaali—the goddess who follows her husband wherever he goes because it is her duty to be by his side and when she raises her children and Kaali when she is unbound by rules of civilisation. “Rejected, she refuses to return to Ayodhya as queen or wife. She does not feel the need to follow her husband, this time, as wife. She does not feel obliged to represent the prosperity of the household that rejected her,” he shares.
To retell her story with this authenticity instead of the patriarchal lens forced through misinter-pretations of the epic, becomes more so important in today’s time.
Interestingly, author Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, who comes from Kolkata, shares that for them and parts of east India, Diwali is a celebration of Kaali instead of Lord Rama’s return to Ayodhya. “And for me Sita is Kaali,” says Kundu, whose book Sita’s Curse explored how the protagonist paid a price for her beauty, felt unloved by her husband and eventually escapes with the man she loves. It explores suppressed female desire.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni says, “Sita remains a major character in our Indian culture and girls are still told they should try and emulate Sita’s virtues. It is important to therefore understand what these virtues are and how they relate to today’s world.”
Lack of accessibility to the original texts and lack of adequate unbiased versions in epics are what is driving contemporary authors to relook at stories of characters. Aditya Iyengar, who wrote Bhumika: A Story of Sita in 2019, feels that there must be more retellings from her perspective and that along with finding new perspec-tives on the Ramayana, we need to make accessible some older works as well.
But as retellings emerge, authors say originality must be preserved. Amish Tripathi advises authors to hit that ideal middle ground, between giving modern liberal philosophical messages and a respect to the ancient traditions, while keeping the storyline fast-paced. “That’s what I try to do,” he adds.
Recently, author Chetan Bhagat’s book 400 Days published by Westland released. The book talks about a girl child Siya who goes missing and her mother’s search for her. Keeping in mind the timing of the release and the reference, he shares, “There’s a certain referencing. It makes the reader connect. But the storyline is not related to Ramayana. Yes it’s a search and the name Siya fit here, would make the people connect with the referencing.” However, he says mythology is not his cup of tea and he would rather write a motivational book or OTT series next.
Sita on screen
Ragini, wife of a cop is abducted by Beera, a bandit. Yet she comes across as someone unafraid of death. Later, he confides in her his reason to avenge his sister who was held hostage and gangraped by a bunch of cops. Unable to take the humiliation, she had committed suicide. When her husband Dev comes to rescue her, he accuses her of infidelity in order for her to lead him to Beera. When he traces the bandit, he shoots him even though Ragini tries to save him and Beera, dies with a smile—like a hero.
It was probably that the audience was still not ready for a Ramayana retelling placed in a modern setting more than a decade ago in 2010. The Mani Ratnam film Raavan starring Aishwarya Rai as Ragini and Abhishek Bachchan as Beera brought as fresh perspective to Ramayana even though it failed at the box office. Earlier, films like Ram Rajya (1943) and Sampoorna Ramayana (1961) had been successes but had never humanised Ravan or Sita like Raavan did.
In the small screen, the 1987 Ramayana starring Arun Govil and Dipika Chikhlia remains one of the most popular TV series of all times and was even re-telecast during the lockdown for people to get a message. Yet the 2015 TV series Siya ke Ram, though not as popular as the cult classic, brings a fresh approach to the table with Ramayana being retold through Sita’s eyes. Talking about present times, the epic Ramayana seems to have become a golden script for filmmakers with several films on it in the making. With Sita’s character being portrayed by modern actors like Alia Bhatt as Sita in RRR, Kriti Sanon in Adipurush and Deepika Padukone in Ramayana 3D, it is yet to be how many shades are accorded to the character and how she is placed in the contemporary setting.
For filmmakers attempting a retelling, Chitra Banerjee advises to keep the original works in mind but also ask themselves, ‘how would their films affect the current generation? How can they balance authenticity with relevance?’
Sita in modern-day literature
Sita’s Ramayana by Samhita Arni (2011)
The Missing Queen by Samhita Arni (2013)
The Girl Who Chose: A New Way of Narrating the Ramayana by Devdutt Pattanaik (2016)
The Liberation of Sita by Volga (2016)
Sitayana by Amit Majmudar (2019)
Sita: A Tale of Ancient Love by Bhanumathi Narasimhan (2021)
Sita’s Fire Trilogy by Vrinda Sheth (upcoming 2022)
Bhumika: A Story of Sita
The Forest of Enchantments
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Sita: Warrior of Mithila
Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of Ramayana
Penguin Random House
Sita’s Curse: The Language of Desire
Sreemoyee Piu Kundu
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Author of The Forest of Enchantments
“I always felt that there was more to Sita than the traditional patriarchal interpretation which presented her as meek and mild, obedient, passive and long-suffering. When I read the ancient texts for myself, I saw that this was not so. She was courageous, adventurous, outspoken and strong in holding on to her values under pressure. I wanted to write a book which brought out these heroic and timely qualities that might inspire our current generation”
Author of Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of Ramayana
“I don’t think Indian women are passive or victims. And I don’t think Indian men are brutes and louts. And I think Ramayana is not just a piece of literature designed to celebrate gender oppression as many Western academics seem eager to project. It is a vast narrative that has shaped the Indian mind for 2,500 years. I wanted to draw attention to the whole story to the best of my ability. And it means locating Ramayana in the vast jigsaw puzzle of Indian thought”
Author of Bhumika: A Story of Sita
“I think I was watching a play on the Ramayana, and I suddenly wondered what would have happened if Sita never met Ram? What would her story have been like? It was an interesting starting point that I feel led me to some interesting conclusions. At the same time, I was quite inspired by Telugu writer Volga’s novel The Liberation of Sita–somewhere I felt I could draw upon those themes and write my own feminist novel”
Sreemoyee Piu Kundu
Author of Sita’s Curse: The Language of Desire
“While Ram was fulfilling his duties, Ravan was the only man who desired Sita and respected her enough not to touch her without consent. If I were to write a retelling, my book would be placed in the modern times where Ram is an IITian and does not acknowledge his wife enough. She would rather make her modern-day Sita elope with Ravan, whom she wants to portray as a dark, masculine and bad character who eventually falls for her”
Author of Sita: Warrior of Mithila
“I just open my laptop and the world opens up and I record what I see. I write more like a witness rather than a creator. Having said that, seeing Goddess Sita as a warrior, is actually inspired from an ancient version of the Ramayan called the Adbhut Ramayan, which is also credited to Valmiki ji”