Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Adaptations of Epics

I have recently been enthralled by the modern day rewrites of epics such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Vedas.  After reading The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, a rewrite of the Mahabharata from Draupadi's point of view, I immediately began gobbling up similar books.  I moved onto Ka, a retelling of the Rg Veda, which manages to capture the abstraction, philosophy, and beauty of language that is in the original Sanskrit. (Though I haven't read the Rg Veda in Sanskrit, just heard excerpts from professors).  Then, I finally began Ashok K. Banker's Ramayana series - a full, 7 series book that reinterprets, adapts, and personalizes the epic.

I was disappointed.  Not to say it wasn't a fun, accessible read, but I didn't really think of it as the Ramayana.  The author injects his extremely polarizing opinions into the novel to the point where I questioned whether I could think of this as similar to the great epic altogether...more or less, questioning the "essence" of the novel.  It made me wonder, is it possible to take a storyline and mould it around your own opinions and thoughts so much that it no longer represents the original epic?

This brings up an important question: can a work have an "essence" to begin with? One that, when changed enough, or in the right manners, makes it a different work altogether?

I thought about why I felt this way specifically when it came to the Ramayana and it was the combination of a few things:

1. The story prose itself was kind of "eh".  I am usually not the biggest obsessor when it comes to prose within books.  For instance, I love Harry Potter and couldn't give a damn about the writing. In fact, I didn't even notice the construction for the most part.  Yet, in this book, it was something I grabbed onto immediately.  I wonder if the lack of some sort of ode to the original Sanskrit within the prose nagged at me a little bit.

2. The story itself was altered immensely.  I have read, translated, and heard direct translations of many scenes within the Ramayana and the subtlety of right and wrong is pretty huge.  However, Banker's series is obvious: Kaikeyi is an evil queen. Manthara is a psychotic, Ravana-loving asura worshipper. Ravana is a terrible demon. Dasaratha, Kausalya, Bharata, Shatrugan, Lakshmana, Rama, are without reproach.  Scenes that never happened were inserted into this series.  Does that make it bad? No. Each artist must reinterpret as they see fit.  But I have never seen an Indian epic so cut and dry when it comes to right and wrong.  And to me, this is huge when rewriting manuscripts as these stories were meant to be vehicles for ideas such as dharma and karma.

3. The lack of Sanskrit philosophy.  Sanskrit grammar and prose come with enormous philosophical questions - and this book abandoned such intentions of the Ramayana completely.

I suppose this is just a poor adaptation in my opinion.  But I must take into consideration that each time the Ramayana was re-written by a major writer (Tulsidas, Kamba, etc) it went through it's own seive.  Tulsidas made the epic quite religious, and Kamba removed much of women's original voices.  If I had been Valmiki and read the second and third versions I probably would have been aghast as well.  So perhaps this is simply along the lines of such alterations.

And definitely a fun book regardless!

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