Should artists be allowed to portray epic characters however they please?
Wickedness, for all its diabolical designs, takes a lot of work. The sinister nature of the work does not go unnoticed in the way most Indians approach the great epics of the country. In the popular imagination, these works are often linked to the narrative objective.
This means that far from being monochromatic, key characters from epics such as Ramayan are seen in different hues. The epic’s main antagonist, Ravan, for example, can rely on subtext to get past his devilish 10-headed air. Which leaves plenty of room for a fuller reception of him and a thoughtful understanding of the symbolism that accompanies him – the dangers of overlooking the satvik (the balance of moral attitudes) for the pitfalls of tamasic (the wild pursuits in the dark).
When opposing the divine cause of principled conduct and righteous action of the protagonist Lord Ram, the Shiva-worshipping scholar king of Lanka’s demonic bend is seen more in the vice of arrogance and ego self-destructive. He is rarely seen as descending into downright diabolical forms. Alongside that, there is the challenge of geography. In some parts, his devout and scholarly Shiva-worshipping nature and sometimes even his regional identity are alluded to to downplay his dreadful side.
This could be one of the reasons why Ravan’s portrayal in the teaser for the next Bollywood movie Adipurush was not well received by part of the public. The clean cut, beard, and fierce eyes evoking the imagery of a barbarian ruler probably don’t fit neatly into what might be called the memory of the visual representation. The common frame of Ravan’s face, while performing his dastardly deeds, has generally not exceeded his haughty laughter that echoes on stage during thousands of Ramlilas performed every year.
It’s also the image a generation has had of Arvind Trivedi’s portrayal of the character in Ramanand Sagar’s TV adaptation of the epic in the late ’80s, America’s most-watched TV show. Indian history. Even in its rerun during the Covid lockdown in 2020, the first four episodes alone were watched by 170 million viewers.
This all went into creating a visual reference for an epic that Valmiki first wrote between the fifth and first centuries BCE. Since then, the epic and hundreds of its local versions have left various clues to visualize the different characters of the story in their own way. This also means that such a visualization can also appear in its own way.
In Ramcharitmanasthe iconic Awadhi version of the epic, writes Tulsidas in the Sundarkand section, “Jaaki rahi bhavna jaisi, prabhu murat dekhi tin taisi. How one approaches the Lord or whatever one feels, one only sees the Lord in that image. In the process, Tulsidas makes a strong case for the freedom to imagine divinity in any form as well as the freedom to interpret it. Can this be extended to assume that looking through the prism of Tulsi one might have different ways of visualizing Ravan’s demonic ways – the different forms of the antagonist tamasic inclination? At the very least, these possibilities are unhindered in the way Tulsidas saw them.
A wide range of representations would have been endorsed even by ancient Indian performing arts texts. The Natya Shastra, Bharat Muni’s Sanskrit treatise on the performing arts believed to have been written between 200 BCE and 200 CE, contains a chapter on gods upholding the idea of freedom of artistic expression and, by extension, the right of representation. Interestingly, the chapter talks about the intervention of the gods when the demons were offended by their portrayal in a play. The treatise offers a theory of aesthetics in the performing arts, evoking eight different moods and emotions – hasya (comic), sringara (sensual or romantic), Rudra (angry), bhayanak (scary), Karuna (compassionate), vibhatsam (repugnant), fire (heroic), and adbhuta (marvellous). By reflecting on artistic expressions for such moods, the treatise had unfolded a wider canvas of dramatic arts that was alive to many possibilities.
It is therefore no exaggeration to assume that contemporary attempts to portray Ravan, whatever their merit, may find defense in this Natya Shastra envisioned for the performing arts more than 2,000 years ago. This should not, however, cause us to lose sight of the fact that visual reference in popular culture is a common Ravan framework that militates against diabolic variants. The effigies of Ravan burning in thousands of Dussehra grounds suggest that India’s relationship with his wickedness is quite complex. Wickedness, in many ways, takes a lot of work to undo.