Dr. David Shulman on Kamba Ramayana

Pluralism and Performance : The Many Voices in Ramayana

Supported by Ford Foundation

Summary of the lecture given by Dr. David Shulman, Professor of Sanskrit and Head of the Indology Department, Hebrew University, Jerusalem By Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan

Kamba Ramayana:

Dr, David ShulmanDr. Shulman began his lecture by stating that Kamba Ramayanam was one of his favourite books. He found the atmosphere around it very interesting. To make his point clear, he read several passages from the Balakandam of Kamba Ramayanam.

The details with regard to the time when Kamba Ramayanam was written are not very clear. Some think it is a text written in 9 th century A.D.  as it contains several technical details with regard to the Chola period. It was supposed to have had its “Arangettam” at Srirangam temple. Others feel that it was written during the 12 th century as there are many details connecting it with the high Chola period. The manuscript was supposed to have been written within two weeks.

The two most notable factors with regard to Kamba Ramayanam are

  1. It is probably the first or earliest vernacular Ramayana written in India.
  2. It was a new kind of book in Tamil language.

It was not written as a Kavya, but a dramatic text, suitable for enactment. Seventy to eighty percent of the text contains dramatic dialogues between various characters. Rama does not talk much. Everybody else talks. In the smaller dialogue sequences there are speech marker signs such as the terms “inran” , “kotiyan” at the end of lines, rhyming and  “nityaksharaprasam” which give a clear idea of its dramatic tone. Kamban was a magician of sound and used alliteration constantly. Another quality of the text is that it is written in simple, easy language understood by the common people. With his simple and poetic language he weaves a text of ten thousand verses which are hypnotic and mesmerizing.

Because of its dramatic quality, Kamba Ramayanam is the text which is used for the “Tolpavakuttu” (leather puppet play). The shadow puppeteers use the ten thousand verses of Kamba Ramayanam as their base text. This leather puppet shows are usually held for forty one days at Bhagavathy temples. Bhagavathy is the chief spectator. As she had gone on some business during the Lanka war, the puppeteers are reciting and enacting the drama for her benefit. The leather puppets are moved behind a white curtain and the pulavas recite the narrative dialogues along with the movement of the puppets.

Difference in the content:

Kamba Ramayanam is different in content from the earlier texts.

Some of the differences are:

  • Rama and Sita were in love even before the breaking of the bow and the formal wedding; falling in love is described as a miracle in some lovely verses known as “kalaku”. In this respect it is a very South Indian piece.
  • There is no Uttarakandam in Kamba Ramayanam; it ends with Abhisheka. It was felt that Uttarakandam was pedantic and heavy; so it was omitted retaining the magnetic poetic text. All verses in Kamba Ramayanam are interesting.

Among the stories connected with Kamban, the author of Kamba Ramayana, there is one which deals with how Kamba Ramayanam came to be written. Kamban’s great rival was another famous poet Ottakutthazhan. Both were favoured poets in the court of the Chola king. While Ottakutthazhan was the court poet, Kabmban was the temple poet. The king commissioned both of them to write Ramayana in verses within a certain period of time. Ottakutthazhan took the matter seriously and set about writing verses in very scholarly and difficult Tamil and finished the job on time. Kamban, who was a low class drummer,  meanwhile was spending his time with beautiful women (vesyas) and having a good time.While Ottakutthazhan finished the Kishkinda Kandam and entered the Sundara Kandam, Kamban finally woke up to the situation and finished writing the entire ten thousand verses in two weeks. He did not write these verses in Kaveri delta but retired into the Tiruvottiyur temple in North Madras where he sat and wrote day and night. He improvised the entire book in such a short time; story goes that Bhagavathy held the lamp for him to enable him write without any break in writing. This story actually illustrates to us the kind of poet Kamban was, an imaginative, instinctive poet, very different from the scholarly poets who thronged the kings’ courts in those days.

He was a new kind of poet; his language was different; the earlier poets used elaborate ornate language whereas he used Viruthamizh, with its gripping power, free metre, simple and rhythmical, lifelike, with technical ways of pausing. Karnatic music singers use Virutham verse during concerts. There is tremendous freedom to shape the verse; only Virutham allows it. Invents metrical form; fast paced story, dramatic psychological content, highly integrated singular text in the whole of Chola Tamil world. In its encapsulation of an entire civilization it can be compared to Dante’s “Divine Comedy”.

Kamban wrote the book, but when it came to the “Arangettam” of the text at Srirangam temple as a devotional text, as a Tamil Bhakthi text, the temple priests were hesitant to give their approval. Srirangam temple being a classical Saiva temple did not want this Vaishnavaite text to be performed there. So, they imposed a condition that all communities have to sign and agree before the performance or recital was allowed. Even though the content of the text is Vaishanavaite, as it is the  story of Rama, an incarnation of Mahavishnu, the feel of it with its non-ornate texture was that of a Saiva text. Story goes that Kamban got the signed approval of all the communities. The Jains, the Dikshitars of Chidambaram temple, the Vesyas from red light areas, all of them found themselves in the text. All of them signed their approval and agreed to its arangettam. There is a beautiful verse in Yuddha Kandam on Narasimha which was unacceptable to the votaries of the Vatmiki text. They wanted to disqualify the text on that count. But, story goes that the “Mottaisingham”, the Narasimham statue itself roared indicating that the God himself wanted it to be recited and enacted. The style of the book indicates that it comes more from the Nammalvar poetic tradition, rather than the Vaishnava Alvar tradition, the scope and the range of the poem gives the feel of the presence of the poet who gave voice to the Tamil civilization; South Indian Tamil world is captured.

There is a story on how Kamba Ramayanam came to be written. Kamban had a son, Ambikapathi who fell in love with a chola princess. He was a poet also and he wrote four hundred love poems, of the genre of Sangam period love poems. They came to be known as Ambikapathi Kovai. They were very different from the Bhakthi poems of Manikkavasagar with an erotic register which used to be the general style of poems in those days. The chola king found out about Ambikapathi’s love for the princess and gave orders to kill him. Various people intervened on Ambikapathi’s behalf. So the king decided to give a chance of escape to Ambikapathi by asking him to compose a text with verses which has nothing to do with love, a text devoid of love. It was to be a one hundred verse text with the emotion of Chitrimbam (little joy) and no Perimbam (great joy). The princess was also present there and Ambikapathi was to recite the full text in public. It was to be an invocation of Ganapathy. He recited ninety nine verses, expressing metaphysical love, thought he had already completed the required one hundred verses, stood up and cried with joy the hundredth verse expressing chitrimbam, pure joy, pure love. The king had him executed and Kamban recited a tragic verse expressing the idea, could you not have recited one more verse, could you not have stopped your love for the duration of another verse, but when in love, there was no counting, there was no bargaining. This was the verse expressing Dasaratha’s grief after Rama, Lakshmana and Sita left for the forest. The situation is so similar as it was after all Dasaratha’s momentous love for Kaikeyi that caused his later grief and tragic death. Desperate with grief, like Vatmiki was when he saw one of the Krauncha birds being killed the first verse sprang from his imagination. “Sokath Sloka” (From grief the verse) becomes true in Kamban’s case also.

The text of Kamban is very different from that of Vatmiki in that it is very personalized. Vatmiki’s main theme was Viraha (separation) and his poem had an unhappy end. Vatmiki Ramayanam is more about the God who had taken an incaranation in the form of the human being, Rama. Kamban’s Ramayana is about human beings. Rama is like all of us, most of the time he forgets that he is God. Kamban shifted to a mysterious awareness of God, but not in an obviously eloquent way, he was exploring god beyond words. God to him becomes  a part of our world with feeling, taste, colour, passing through it, ravished by it, horrified by it. It was visala (vast) by nature. There was no happy resolution, it reflected the tamil assymetrism, a tragic sense of the tamil bhakti verse. It is a case of a woman who waits all night, knowing the lover won’t come, a sense of expressing the idea, even if he leaves me, he cannot make me leave him.

In Kamban’s portrayal of Rama, there is an underlying sense of pathos. The relationship with God is one of waiting for his presence, not knowing how to relate to him. Sometimes Rama is in  a deep meditation on the awareness of what he feels, sometimes he shows it when watching an event such as Agnipariksha; he was watching it, knowing that he caused it, there is an inner turmoil. The same thing happens when he kills Vali covertly.  Vali does not know why he is killed in this manner, he questions Rama’s action, attacks Rama; but Rama is reduced to silence. His heart is broken too, but he remains silent. God doesn’t say anything even when  all people around him reacts. Vatmiki’s is a shame culture, whereas Kamban’s is a guilt culture. Kamban seems to have preferred Ravana to Rama. Ravana’s faith in love, the way he puts his life itself at risk for love. His character comes out in Mandodari Vilapa. He was a complex personality. He was a full fledged character, a real character,  with no moral dilemma.

Rama matures into a kind of silence. In Ayodhya Kandam he has to speak. First half of Ramayana shows growth and deepening in Rama’s character. Gods too can grow. In South Indian Tamil devotional world, God never refers to the fact that he is God. He grows and matures into silence.

Kamba Ramayanam is a book of characters, revealing the depth of characters. It reflects tragic asymmetry of Gods and human beings. Opening chapter is about “Uyir” (aliveness). It is the very life breath. A real person’s ultimate ground in the text is infusion of “Ullam” sharing Uyir with God . God breathes, exhales, creates world, inhales, takes in , human beings share a world with him and with one another, it is a singular arc, not particularized or individualized. Sarayu becomes Kaveri, a weeping, flowing, rushing force, turning into a single flow, breathing with God, tightening also with obstructions, deep, agonizing meditation on Uyir. Then comes Unarvu, deep intuitive knowledge with restlessness, one dynamic moment. It is part of a great tension, a notion of what it is to be human; of humaneness, full blooded, intense; cognitive, describing graphically; but each verse has its own intensity too. Kamba Ramayanam does not have a Siddha or Sri Vaishnava scenario, the text is racy, alive, human.

What is the book about? The cultural world revealed is of a different configuration. It is something about being human, human awareness, what it feels to be a human being, the mental awareness and experiences he goes through. He talks more about being alive, degree of aliveness, different intensities of human awareness.  South Indian culture, feelings, deeper sensual intensity, richness, fullness, all that becomes alive, because of the language used.  Walking among us is God; God too has different intensities; the point of the text is to enhance awareness of God, to wake him up; with the ritual of words making God alive, working on the reader, making her aware of the living, breathing God.

The language is also taut, structures of Tamil land, particular attitude towards language, A singularly South Indian language, magical, intensely lyrical.

----- Adishakti _ Breathe theatre! ----- All rights reserved. © 2015 _ @nOOps!