Diwali marks Ram’s return to Ayodhya, victorious from the battle with Ravan. Ahead of the festival this year, we look at the many versions of the epic, which has shaped our culture, arts and politics. It is a splendidly various tradition, from the rationalism of the Jain Ramayana to the humour of the Mapilla Ramayanam. It is both a political ideal and a deeply personal experience. It is the mega-story that contains a multitude of narratives of India.
In John Richard Freeman’s English translation of the Mappila Ramayanam, there is a passage called ‘Surpanakha’s Overtures of Love’. An interesting exchange between Ram and Surpanakha occurs here, where he says to her, “For a man, there is a woman, and for a woman there is a man: this is the law in the Shariat!” To this, her reply is: “If a man keeps four or five women, there is no problem. But that’s not allowed for the woman; that’s the law in the Shariat.”
This mention of the Shariat in the ancient epic shouldn’t be surprising at all. After all, this is the Ramayana, a much beloved story that has inspired storytellers, poets and writers for millenia. As AK Ramanujan pointed out in his essay 300 Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation, the story of Ram is found in an astonishingly large number of languages, from Bengali to Balinese and Tamil to Tibetan, with Sanskrit alone having about 25 or more versions.
In fact, many Ramayana storytellers come from Muslim communities. The Manganiyars of Rajasthan, for instance, who converted to Islam about 400 years ago, draw on Tulsidas’s poetry to sing of Ram’s life. In the Malaysian tradition of Wayang Kulit (shadow play), the puppeteers are Muslims, but the stories they perform are influenced by the Ramayana. The Mappila Ramayanam, coming from the folk song tradition of the Malabari Muslims or Mappilas, is another example of how the epic has crossed cultural boundaries.
It’s not easy to pin down the origins of the Mappila Ramayanam. Like with most oral compositions, the actual story of its creation is lost to us. Perhaps it began with a labourer who wandered around doing odd jobs in Kerala’s Malabar region over a 100 years ago. Nicknamed Piranthan Hassankutty (Crazy Hassan), he set his version of the Ramayana in the form and metre of the Mappilapattu (Mappila folk songs). It could even have been composed earlier, with Hassankutty being the last of its transmitters.
On the other hand, writer and academic Dr MN Karassery, who first recorded the text of the Mappila Ramayanam, believes that Hassankutty didn’t actually exist. “We don’t have any evidence for it,” he says. “It could be that Hassankutty was a real wandering bard or a poet or that he was simply a character used in this version as a narrator. I personally believe the latter.” Only parts of the Mappila Ramayanam are available to us, having been collected by Karassery.
He recalls, “I was doing research on Mappilapattu and another scholar called KK Karunakaran approached me with a tip about the Mappila Ramayanam, which he had heard being recited by TH Kunhiraman Nambiar, a scholar of vadakkan pattu (ballads of medieval origins from north Malabar). Nambiar had heard the ballad years ago and memorised some portions of it. In July 1976, I finally met Nambiar and recorded the lines that he had memorised.” The Mappila Ramayanam was published by Karassery in his book Kurimanam. Nambiar, too, before he died, published it in his book, Mappila Ramayanavum Nadan Pattukalum.
In 1976, Karassery immediately understood the importance of the composition, indicative as it was of a time of harmony, when communities that lived cheek-by-jowl were open- hearted enough to also poke gentle fun of each other. At a time like the present when the Hanuman Sena, a right-wing Hindu group, forced critic MM Basheer to stop writing a column on the Ramayana simply because he’s Muslim, the Mappila Ramayanam assumes greater importance. “It’s not a work of devotion, and despite its humorous tone, it is not meant to offend anyone. It is meant only for vinodam, for enjoyment,” says Karassery.
The tone is comic, with scenes such as the one where Ravana is shown struggling to shave because he has 10 heads, or the one where Surpanakha uses charcoal and honey to blacken her hair before she sets out to seduce Ram. The ballad is flavoured by the Muslim milieu of its origin — besides the reference to the Shariat, Ravan is called Sultan and Surpanakha’s friend is called Fatima. The song is marked by the phonetic features of Arabi-Malayalam dialect, a version of Malayalam written using a modified Arabic script specific to the Mappila community. For example, the initial ‘r’ is replaced by ‘l’, so it’s Lama, Lamayanam and Lavanan. Also, the ‘h’ is dropped from ‘Hanuman’, who is then referred to as ‘Anuman’.
A close reading of the text shows that the composer was deeply familiar with, and, indeed, imitated the Adhyathmaramayanam Kilippatu, the Malayalam version of the Sanskrit Ramayana, written by Thunchaththu Ramanujan Ezhuthachan in the 17th century.
While interest in the Mappila Ramayanam was at its peak when Karassery brought it to the notice of a wider audience in Kerala, it is still a popular choice at annual programmes in schools and college, and festivals held during the rainy month of Karkadakam, when Kerala’s Hindus traditionally recite the Ramayana. Dr KM Bharathan has been reciting the Mappila Ramayanam at various gatherings for over 20 years. He does not perform it as regularly as before, but he has made sure to teach it to others to ensure the continuity of the oral tradition.
“In some places, the audience didn’t like it. Mostly, it’s fundamentalists on both sides who get offended. Once, when I had an invitation to perform it in Perambra, in Kozhikode district, I had to have police protection because posters had come up objecting to the performance,” he says.
Another time, some people associated with a Hindu right-wing group objected to a school teacher in Palakkad teaching the Mappila Ramayanam to students for an annual programme performance.
“Some Muslim clerics have also questioned me about why I choose to perform it, and there have been critical letters published in newspapers too. My only response to them is that there’s no harm meant by it. We should just enjoy it. Moreover, to me, it is a symbol of the communal harmony of Kerala. That alone should make it a very important composition,” says Karassery.
*The story was originally published with the headline The Sultan of Lanka and Other Stories