The first-ever Ramayana to be written in a regional language, the Bichitra Ramayana claims a special place in the larger tradition of Ramayana writing as much for its independent retelling practice as for its indigenous, secular distinctiveness. Originally written in Odia in the mid-fifteenth century by Siddheswar Das (later known as Sarala Das), it owes its origins to the 'Uttarakanda' of Valmiki Ramayana. Its great departure and divergence from the master text shows that it has an agenda and politics of its own, demonstrated so powerfully that it makes the original invisible.
Rich with folklore and legends and composed in the oral tradition, the Bichitra declares itself as a text for the layman. The voice of the common people supercedes the voice of the wise; the natural replaces the rational; the religious paradigm is substituted by a secular identity, and the mind is overtaken by the heart.
The chief attraction of the Bichitra is the issue related to the position of women in a patriarchal society and the relationship between the two sexes. Siddheswar offers them freedom on a silver platter. He makes Sita the central character who is not merely a moral or socio-cultural touchstone. He fills the cowherd woman with courage to fight for her individual liberty, even if it leads to licentiousness. He allows Kausalya to rebuke Rama harshly for his misdemeanour.
Written by a Shudra poet with an humble background and no formal education, the Bichitra Ramayana is a classic of Odia literature.
Siddheswar Das, later known as Sarala Das, lived and wrote during the fifteenth century in Odisha. Bichitra Ramayana is important not only as one of the earliest instances of vernacular epic but also because of its innovativeness in terms of characterization and plot. The composition is, as acknowledged by the poet, inspired by Valmiki's Ramayana, yet, in the hands of the poet, gains a distinct Odia character.
Basant Kumar Tripathy is an academician, poet and translator. He has co-translated Phakirmohan Senapati's autobiography, Atmacharita and two of his novels, Lachhama and Prayaschitta. His other works of translation include Tika Gobindachandra (2015), Mathuramangala (2016) and Huma-Bimaleswar (2017). He has also published two anthologies of Odia poems.
Adikabi Sarala Das Chair of Odia Studies has started its activities at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) with the financial help of Govt. of Odisha from 25 December 2017 in Centre of Indian Languages (CIL), School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies (SLL&CS). The Chair intends to represent Odisha, its language, literature and culture, in all its multilingual and plural manifestations. The Chair en-courages comparative studies across a wide range of domains and also aims at disseminating knowledge of Odia language, literature and culture both at National and International levels.
Odisha was the first Indian State to be formed on a Linguistic basis on 1 April 1936. Odia is the only Indo-European spoken Language in India to be accorded the status of a Classical Language in 2014. So, the Chair has taken translation projects with the objective of rendering into English the classical and non-classical Odia texts. Translating Odia Classical texts into English is a challenge and difficult affair. Prof. Basant Kumar Tripathy has accepted this challenge by translating, Bichitra Ramayana by Siddheswar Das, a classic.
Epic writing in Odia language started six hundred years ago, in the fifteenth century, the leading exponent being Siddheswar Das/Sarala Das, the author of Bichitra Ramayana, Mahabharata and Sri Chandi Purana.. His works were a milestone in the history of Odia literature for reasons, more than one. The poet was a Shudra by caste, used the oral tongue and the popular rhyme scale known as Dandi Brutta. Though Valmiki's Ramayana and Vyasa's Mahabharata were the chief sources of his inspiration, he shunned Sanskritization and enriched his works with variations, deletions and additions so as to suit the local environment and mindset. The qualities of Siddheswar's Bichitra Ramayana are similar to a secondary epic. It begins in medias res, with a hero who is larger than life. The actions are fast-moving and there are elements of anthropomorphism, applied both to the gods and the goddesses. They behave as human beings and participate in human affairs most actively. Action on the earth runs parallel to the action in heaven. To retain the epic qualities, there is a cataloguing of names of kings while describing Dasharatha's family tree. There are epic similes too, though rare. It is surprising to note how Siddheswar, in the long past, was able to construct his epic with such discipline.
Kujantam Rama Rameti madhuram madhuraksharam; Ahuya kabita sakham vande Valmiki kokilam.
[ I bow to Valmiki, the cuckoo, who, sitting on the tree Of poetry, melodiously sings the sweet syllables - Rama, Rama]
The increasing popularity of the Ramayana, composed by the celebrated Sanskrit poet, Valmiki, had such a ripple effect across the Indian subcontinent that it inspired many regional writers to retell it in their own mother tongue, breaking the mould of the shastrik identity of a text of the highest order and substituting it with an indigenous, secular distinctiveness. Towards the end of the sixteenth century the production of the vernacular avatars of the Ramayana had been unexpectedly very high. Failing to estimate their exact number, A.K. Ramanujan, in his essay 'Three Hundred Ramayanas', asks,
`How many Ramayanas? Three hundred? Three thousand?' In fact, most of the languages had many versions of it; in Odia alone there are as many as thirty Ramayanas3 in existence. Sage Tulsidas goes a bit forward to say 'Rama Katha Kai Miti jaga nahi',4 which implies 'It is not possible to keep count of Ramakathas in the world'. To tell the truth, this exercise of retelling the master text is not confined to the mainland only; it is also found in almost all Southeast Asian languages, such as Burmese, Cambodian, Thai, Javanese, Khotanese Laotian, Malay, Indonesian and Tagalog. In Thailand, it is known as Ramakein, in Indonesia Serat Rama, in Malaysia Hikayat Seri Rama, in Myanmar Yama Pwe and in Philippines Maharadia Lawana. These localized texts, far from being similar to each other, have distinctive features of their own and the degree of their departure and divergence from the source text varies. Some of them belong to shruti which abide by the master text and are allowed to provide it with new interpretations. The others belong to smruti, the authors of which are at liberty to administer additions, deletions, changes and innovations into it and give it the look of an original text.
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