Saturday, April 5, 2008

A Story in Multiplicity

On 25th February, 2008, ABVP activists vandalised the Department of History, located in the Faculty of Social Sciences Building, University of Delhi and assaulted the Head of the Department, Prof. S.Z.H Jafri. They demanded the withdrawal of an essay that is part of the existing curriculum on the grounds that it hurt the sentiments of Hindus through its “malicious, capricious, fallacious and offensive” portrayal of Ram and other characters of the Ramayana. The essay in question, namely, “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation” by A.K.Ramanujan is one of the readings for the University of Delhi concurrent course on Ancient Indian Culture, a part of the B.A.(Honours) History programme, offered in several colleges from July 2006 onwards. The demand for the removal of this essay has been gaining momentum since January this year. In mid-January, Jafri received two memorandums forwarded from the V.C's office, sent by two bodies namely the National Awareness Forum and Gyan Parishad which raised objections to the inclusion of this essay and more specifically to certain terms used in this essay. In response to this, Jafri organised a Departmental Council meeting and on January 21st issued a note explaining its stand. Soon after on January 29th the ABVP staged a rally, protesting against a compilation of essays put together allegedly by Upinder Singh, a professor at the History department who also happens to be the Prime Minister's daughter. As it turned out this was a misconception and no such book actually exists. Another note was prepared by the Departmental Council to clarify this matter and released on 4th February. It was following this that the attack on Jafri took place. On 26th February, the history students all over the University staged a protest against the atrocities of the ABVP.
The ABVP activists— who according to some reports weren't even students of the University, were supported by the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti who had earlier organised campaigns against a national Adolescence Education Programme and the new NCERT books. The protest has been read by some, to be a result of an animosity towards Prof. Jafri for his role in organising the United History Congress, at the University of Delhi, in December 2007, where around 1600 historians gathered and had criticised the content of NCERT textbooks prepared during the N.D.A rule. The fact that the protests happened almost two years after the course had been started renders suspect the reasons provided by the ABVP and associated bodies.
In spite of this discrepancy however, the entire episode exposes certain fault lines in our society. One can see here a struggle/contest over the academic space—one of the most important of all ideological sites. According to the second note prepared by the Departmental Council,
“the aim of the course is to teach University students(who are after all young adults) to be able to analyze a variety of source material academically, analytically and without embarrassment or denigration”.
For the ABVP and other right wing Hindu organisations, this inclusion of a “variety of source material” can only result in an undermining of the Hindu religion.
A.K Ramanujan's essay first appeared in a collection of essays edited by Paula Richman called, “Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in India”, published in India in 1992. In his essay Ramanujan draws attention to the existence of multiple “tellings” of the Ramayana. He favours the term “tellings” over “versions” or “variants”, because the latter terms presuppose the existence of “an invariant, an original or ur-text-usually Valmiki's Sanskrit Ramayana, the earliest and the most prestigious of them all”. He thus emphasizes the fact that each telling is as privileged as any other. The purpose of his article according to Ramanujan is to figure out,
“how these hundreds of tellings of a story in different cultures, languages and religious traditions relate to each other; what gets translated, transplanted, transposed”.
With this end in mind, he offers a glimpse into the multiple tellings of the Ramayana ranging from-Valmiki's Ramayana, Kampan's Iramavataram, the Jaina Ramayana of Vimalasuri called Paumacariya, a South Indian Folk narrative sung by an Untouchable bard and the Thai Ramakirti or Ramakien. All of these tellings in their own way subvert the accepted telling of the Ramayana. By presenting all these tellings, Ramanujan draws attention to the social, political, cultural conditions of the telling of these narratives—it is in the context of the performance of these tellings that the interpretation of the discourse changes. He says,
“the story may be the same in two tellings, but the discourse may be vastly different. Even the structure and sequence of events may be the same, but the style, details, tone and texture-and therefore the import-may be vastly different”.
While the Hindu right wing admits to plurality of traditions it also considers it essential to curb any deviant telling, which could interrogate and possibly destabilise the privileged telling. Including a text like Ramanujan's in a university curricula would lead to precisely that. At the fundamental level the issue is that of preserving the hegemony of totalising narratives that allow no space for alternate or critical traditions be it of women, tribals or dalits.

Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia
Ed-Paula Richman, OUP, New Delhi, 1992

18 comments:

Abi said...

Thanks for this post. I particularly appreciated its detailed discussion of the events prior to the goons' trashing of Prof. Jaffri's office.

I just wanted to let you know that A.K. Ramanujan's article is available online.

Here's the link:
http://content.cdlib.org/view?docId=ft3j49n8h7&chunk.id=d0e1254

Perhaps you can add this in your post?

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