In the graphic novel Sita’s Ramayana, Bangalore-based writer Samhita Arni and artist Moyna Chitrakar retell the 3,500-year-old epic Sanskrit myth Ramayana, which chronicles the trials of Prince Rama as he fights to save his kingdom from Ravana, an incarnation of pure evil.
Unlike most of the more than 300 versions of the Ramayana myth now popularized across southern Asia, theirs draws mainly from the oral folk versions of West Bengal’s Patua community, which center on the female protagonist, Sita. Rama’s wife and a representation of virtue, Sita is abducted by Ravana and temporarily banished by her husband after her purity is called into question.
We talked to Samhita Arni about pervasive—yet shifting—mythologies throughout Asia.
What attracts you to mythology?
Myths have survived in India for centuries. They are part of our everyday consciousness. We watch them on television and in films, and we see them in the paintings and carvings of our temples. There’s some eternal human truth in myth. Different facets are revealed over time, and this process both revitalizes the myth and keeps it relevant. I find that fascinating.
You’re also working on a novel about Sita, set in a modern urban landscape. What about this story interests you so much?
In India, we encounter the Ramayana on television, in advertisements, court judgments, and property disputes. And increasingly, there’s an emphasis on just one version, the Ram Charit Manas by Tulsidas. I wanted to focus on the questions that the Ramayana raises about the place and role of women, the idea of justice.
Why did you choose the graphic novel as a medium, and specifically Moyna Chitrakar’s Patua art style?
It’s an exciting medium, and in India, storytelling has often been visual. The Patua Ramayana is influenced by a sixteenth-century version by the poetess Chandrabati. It’s one of the more subversive versions, and Moyna’s art builds on those ideas. The text is just meant to frame it and give context. I can’t imagine this book with another art style.
You grew up in India, Indonesia, Thailand, Italy, and Pakistan. Have these different experiences influenced the kinds of stories you want to tell?
Absolutely. I came back to India when I was eight, after living in Pakistan for three years. When I was 12, I wrote and illustrated a version of the Mahabharata myth from a child’s perspective. I think, in retrospect, I found in it a sort of echo of the India-Pakistan situation—two sides of a family quarreling over property and inheritance.
And you came across many different versions of the Ramayana in these places?
Yes. In Indonesia, the Ramayana is very important, and regularly retold in the Wayang Kulit shadow puppet performances. In Thailand, the Ramayana is everywhere! Kings bear Ram’s name, the city of Ayutthaya takes its name from the kingdom in the story, Ayodhya. It’s been so influential and proliferated in so many forms, so I grew to realize that there isn’t just one Ramayana. It belongs to Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Muslims, everyone. It’s pan-Asian.
For more on Samhita Arni visit her website.