Redrawing the boundaries: Sītā and modern Telegu Rāmāyaṇas
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Sītā’s fire ordeal and final banishment by Rāma are among the most controversial episodes of the Rāmāyaṇa. The four modern Telugu authors in question here turn these events into the central theme of their Rāmāyaṇas: Chalam (“Sītā Enters the Fire”), Pathabhi (“Sītā”), Volga (“Reunion”) and D.R. Indra (“Rāvaṇa’s Prophecy”) make Sītā the protagonist by granting her a definitive voice in protesting the treatment meted out to her. In the process, she is transformed into a metonymical figure representing all women who have been unjustly treated by a patriarchal Indian culture. But just how are texts with such a radical interpretation of Sītā received? While this dissertation offers a literary examination of these texts, its larger aim is to present an integrated study of the literary, social and ideological aspects of the Rāmāyaṇa, including a view from the other side – the audience – for whom these texts were written. In other words, it seeks to study not just how the Rāma narrative influences, but also how it reflects, the social and cultural complexities of a living society. This study adopts A.K. Ramanujan’s “Many Rāmāyaṇas” model in ascertaining the boundaries of the Rāmāyaṇa in the real world, in conjunction with Vernon K. Robbins’ “Socio-rhetorical interpretation,” which sheds light on how the rhetorical aspects of these modern narratives inform and reflect the social and cultural textures of society. Socio-rhetorical criticism recognizes that a text is a part of a larger context – the world in which it was produced and one in which it functions. In examining the intersection between a traditional text and modern society through four Telugu texts, this study thus offers a new approach including author, text and reader that seeks to highlight and understand the complexity of the Rāmāyaṇa in modern Indian society.