The Ramayana is to Asian civilisation what Homer’s Odyssey is to European civilisation – a timeless myth strongly shaping identity, writes Vasantha Yogananthan. Even more significantly though, unlike the dead, if venerated classics – the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Ramayana is a narrative, embedded in and embodied by, the living traditions of South Asian and South East Asian peoples and their diasporic populations.
With an undeniable presence in the public socio-cultural spheres of people spread out geographically, the Ramayana must necessarily be recognised in its contemporaneity and in its multiple forms of existence. Its influence, reaching far beyond religious doctrine, permeates not only the visual, performative and literary arts,¹ but also the everyday fabric of life in these cultures. An illustrative example of this is the proverbial use of the Ramayana as a metonym for a long text or speech; an instance of its ubiquity, as manifested in its seepage into everyday language and signification..
Interested in exploring this phenomenon that is the Ramayana, its place, functions, and use as a vehicle for other socio-political positions, Vasantha Yogananthan’s evolving photographic series is an ambitious project looking to chart out the realms of the imaginary within cartographies of the ordinary. Using non-staged photographs taken in regions associated with the cultural text of the Ramayana in India and Sri Lanka, it desires to invoke myth and legend in a modern context; foregrounding the magic of ritual, storytelling, legend, rhetoric, art and life within broad social, cultural, religious, national and other political contexts.
Conceptualising the project as an attempt to use the Ramayana as a common entry point into sensitive, contemporarily relevant issues such as gender, family, religion, etc, Yogananthan’s long term goal is to publish a multi-layered photo book, which he believes is the primary medium for original approaches to narratives and narration. A project that seeks to draw modern day portraits of India and Sri Lanka through the diaphanous lens of fiction, as Yogananthan realised, requires multiple zones of engagement to produce a nuanced and rich reading. His proposed methodology is to thus, yoke together his photographs as allegorical representations with extracts from various texts recording different versions of the tale, visuals reflecting various vernacular iconographies of figures and events from the text, and press clippings or images relating to political instrumentation of the epic.²
The popular appeal of the Ramayana lies primarily in its deceptively simple story, and its power to mobilize the self reflection of communities uniting around a heroic archetype situated in a mythical contest between good and evil. Though there are countless versions of this text, produced in different localised contexts, each Ramayana may be seen as a specific crystallisation located within a common pool of characters, names, and geographies. The Ramayana has been often conceived of as a metaphoric water body: a river – “a tradition with innumerable tributaries and branches” (Pattnaik, 2013); or an ocean that remains constant, even as both “the tides and the waters change” (Vatsyayan, 2004). This intuitively implies an inherent fluidity, an intrinsic possibility for interpretation and interpolation; for remodelling, revisioning, and retelling.
Endeavouring to do just that with this project, Yogananthan has set for himself a challenging task: to produce a tale of modernity through the ancient tale of the Ramayana and to (re)contextualise the Ramayana in the contemporary moment; to reveal reality in the (re)construction of fiction, and to reveal dreamed worlds in reality.
Featured below are a few photographs from the series that trace a brief outline through different allusions, of the Rama-katha.
– Shilpa Vijayakrishnan
- For more on this read Vatsyayan, Kapila. The Ramayana Theme in the Visual Arts of South and Southeast Asia. In Ed. Bose, Mandakranta. The Ramayana Revisited.London: Oxford, 2004.
- Such as the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the riots that followed, and the landmark Supreme Court judgment.