There was a time, till not very long ago, when a common greeting was “Jai Siya Ram!” Even in practising Muslim households such as mine, I recall Sita maiyya being held in the highest esteem. While the charismatic figure of Ram, the mard-e kaamil (perfect man), whom Allama Iqbal memorably described as Imam-e Hind (spiritual leader of Hindustan), remains the subject of a great deal of Urdu poetry, Sita is by no means absent. There exists a large corpus of Urdu poetry, including several versions of the manzum (verse) Ramayana, which paint evocative word pictures of the luminous beauty of this daughter of Janak, her willing embrace of banwas forsaking the luxuries of her palatial home, her heart-wrenching abduction and her pining for her Lord.
There are said to be over 300 versions of Ram kathan in Urdu in the Awadh region alone; of these, a great many are in verse and some even in the daunting yak-qafiya, which maintains the same rhyme scheme throughout the long poem, with every verse ending in the same sound! All of these are replete with scenes from the life story of Ram and Sita; almost all speak in tones of hushed reverence of the pakeezgi (purity) and masumiyat (innocence) of the princess for whom even the fragrance of flowers weighed heavy (“nikhat-e gul ka bojh bhi bhaari”), yet who willingly endured the hardships of exile. Agha Hashar Kashmiri, the prolific playwright and screenplay writer known as the Shakespeare of India, wrote an entire play called Sita Banwas, the 14-year exile in the forest written from the point of view of Sita. In fact, the banwas of Ram and Sita has been viewed both in a political and metaphorical sense. There’s Kaifi Azmi’s poignant Doosra Banwas referring to Ram leaving Ayodhya when the domes fell on December 6, 1992. There is also the banwas that is a spiritual exile that falls to the lot of Everyman, the one that Nasir Shahzad alludes to in Ban Baas (2004): Ek kaata Ram ne Sita ke saath/ Doosra ban-bas mere naam par (There was the exile that Ram endured with Sita/The second was the exile he endured in my name).
Like the banwas (also spelt ban-bas), the Urdu poet and creative writer has seized upon Ravan’s abduction of Sita for its allegorical import. In Qurratulain Hyder’s novella, Sita Haran (1968), Sita Mirchandani, a Hindu refugee from Sindh is traumatised by the forced separation from her homeland. Translated into English as Sita Betrayed, it speaks of the loss of home and family and links the post-Partition tragedy of Sita Mirchandani with the travails of Ram’s Sita in exile.
Of the several depictions of Sita sighting the beautiful deer, crossing the Lakshman Rekha, going out of the sanctuary of her home to give alms to Ravan disguised as a brahmin and the terrible consequences of her innocence and kindness, one of the most evocative is Munshi Banwari Lal Shola’s long poem, Sita-Haran: Baahar jo kundli se chaliin to dhoka khaa gayiin/ Raavan ke chhal mein hai! Maharani aa gayiin (Stepping out of the hut she was caught in an entrapment/Alas, the maharani was caught in the deceit of Ravan).
While several poets take a simplistic position of Sita crossing the boundary that demarcates the safe haven of the marital home from the wicked world outside, some poets play on the notion of good vs evil, such as this verse by Wajid Chughtai: Kis se poochhun kho gai Sita kahan/ Ban ka har saaya hii Raavan ho gaya (Who shall I ask where Sita has gone/ Every shadow in the forest has turned into Ravan)?
Or, this by Pratap Somvanshi: Lakshman-rekha bhi akhir kya kar legii?/ Saare Ravan ghar ke andar nikleinge (What will the Lakshman-rekha achieve?/ All the Ravans will be found inside the home).
Others take a more sanguine view of Sita’s longing for the golden enticing deer, such as this by Gauhar Hoshiarpuri: Ishq be-khabar guzre khair-o-shar ke uqdon se/ Aarzu ki Sita ko Ram kaun Ravan kaun (Love is heedless of the mysteries of good and evil/ For the longing of Sita, who is Ram and who is Ravan)?
Here’s a woman’s perspective on Sita crossing the line, holding the bowl of alms, signifying her selfless goodness that puts her in danger, in Aziz Bano Darab Wafa’s retelling: Ab bhi kharhi hai soch mein duubi ujyalon ka daan liye/ Aaj bhi rekha paar hai Ravan Sita ko samjhai kaun (Even today she stands lost in thought holding the alms of light/ Even today Ravan is across the line; who can make Sita understand)?
Nasir Shahzad refers to the separation of Rama and Sita that creates a sterile, barren emotional landscape: Ravan ne phir juda kiya Sita ko Ram se/ Phir kalpana bujhaii gaii qayaas chhiin kar (Once again Ravan has separated Sita from Ram/ Once again imagination has been stifled by snatching assumption).
Taking the suffering that Sita endured, after her abduction and then again when her purity was put to the test, Sahir Ludhianvi puts her ordeal at par with the ignominy and injustice of life: Zindagi ka naseeb kya kahiye/ Ek Sita thii jo sataii gayii (What can one say of the fate of life/ It was a Sita who was tormented). Kaifi Azmi, too, views Sita’s dilemma in much the same way: Chand rekhaon mein simaon mein/ Zindagi qaid hai Sita ki tarah (In a few lines and boundaries/ Life is imprisoned like Sita).
Giving Sita her rightful place beside Ram and Lakshman as the embodiment of the “culture of Hinduism”, Zafar Ali Khan declares: Naqsh-e tehzeeb-e hunood ab bhi numaaya hain agar/ To woh Seeta se hain, Lachman se hain aur Ram se hain (If there are still any visible signs of the culture of Hinduism/ Then they are because of Seeta, and Lakshman, and Ram).
However, it was left to Bilquis Zafirul Hasan, a modern woman poet to put an end to the valorisation of sabr (patience): Khud pe ye zulm gavara nahiin hoga ham se/ Ham to sholon se na guzreinge na Sita samjhein (I shall not tolerate this cruelty upon myself/ I shall not pass through flames; don’t take me for Sita).
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