Rediscovering the Ramayana

Speaker and scholar Dushyanth Sridhar, in his narration of the life story of Lord Rama, presents a new perception with the aid of illustrations
Rediscovering the Ramayana

CHENNAI : Ninety thousand words, 108 chapters, and 60-plus illustrations. Though there are several retellings of the Ramayana, renowned public speaker and scholar Dushyanth Sridhar undertook the monumental task of presenting the epic in a two-volume series. The first book, Ramayanam (Volume 1), was launched on Saturday. The hall was packed with hundreds of readers, the sound of excited chatter and the riffling of pages filling the air.

The Ramayana has been intrinsic to the Indian civilisation from time immemorial, inspiring a galaxy of poets and dramatists who have delved deeply into its narrative. From Adikavi Valmiki, to Tamil poet Kamban, Avadhi poet Tulsidas, great composers like Tyagaraja and Purandaradasa, mystic saints like the Alwars, and polymaths like Vedanta Desika, numerous figures have contributed to preserving and nurturing this epic. Sridhar cites these illustrious figures and the famed commentators on the Ramayana as his primary sources of inspiration.

“Indian civilisation boasts a plethora of significant works, such as the Mahabharata and the Puranas, including the Bhagavata and Vishnu Purana, as well as Tamil works like Thirukkural and the Nalayira Divya Prabandham. Each of these works has been accompanied by meritorious commentaries that help readers understand their nuances much better. Valmiki’s Ramayana, believed by Hindus to be a faithful record of Rama’s life, consists of approximately 24,000 verses housed in seven cantos.

Over the last millennium, great commentators such as Maheshwara Tirtha, Govindaraja, Madhava Yogin, Pravarambaka, Narayana Tirtha, and Vamshidhara Shivasahaya have explained these verses with philosophical and theological insights. However, the nuances of these commentaries have not reached the public on a large scale, particularly through English translations,” explains Dushyanth.

The book launch featured a panel of distinguished personalities like Anand Ranganathan, a renowned scientist and author known for his thought-provoking works and commentary; Sachin Sharma, associate publisher at HarperCollins; S Gurumurthy, a prominent journalist, chartered accountant, and commentator on political and economic issues; Ranjani and Gayatri, celebrated Carnatic vocalists; and Rangaraj Pandey, journalist and media personality. The panel discussed the importance of the Ramayana and the impact this version aims to have on readers across the globe.

Research and retelling

In an age where the Ramayana is retold repeatedly and adapted to a vast variety of mediums, what sets Dushyanth’s Ramayanam apart? Anand Ranganathan addressed this question with elegance. “Dushyanth is one among tens of thousands of people to write the Ramayana. Out of the billions who fall in love, there is no single expression of love greater or lesser than another. Similarly, Dushyanth’s masterpiece also stands out as a genuine expression of love and bhakti,” he says.

Highlighting the research that went into the book, Dushyanth shared that he felt it was high time to present the work with minimal creativity but with a broad expanse of inspiration drawn from traditional commentaries. He juggled over 250 lectures, spent half a year in travel, aided the production of several grandiose dance performances, organised heritage tours around the world, and managed his trust all the while penning a novel with such expansive content.

This made the research process quite intense, especially since he is not a full-time author. “Primarily a speaker, I engage in various other activities besides writing. Transitioning into an author was tough, and taking on a vivid, trusted, and time-tested work like the Ramayana was even tougher. Nonetheless, with the well-wishes of those around me, I was able to pull through,” he says.

During his research, Dushyanth found the references in the Ramayana to be particularly enlightening. In Hinduism, the Ramayana is believed to be one of the first works given by Valmiki. This makes it one of the earliest epics, filled with numerous teachings and insights from acharyas and teachers who consider it the first human narrative. Dushyanth provides a richness to these references.

Wishing to clarify the unknown, ambiguous, misrepresented, misinterpreted, and wrong information in modern retellings, Dushyanth started the project with thorough evidence-based research. He also specifically incorporated the back stories of cross-references present in the Ramayana like the stories of Savitri-Satyavan, Varaha avataram, and Vamana avataram, which can only be understood otherwise after reading other works such as Mahabharata or Vishnu Purana. This way, Ramayanam is a holistic, wholesome piece that can be read as a stand-alone.

Renditions from an epic

Renowned cartoonist Keshav has collaborated with Dushyanth to create the black-and-white illustrations. Dushyanth would send his writing to Keshav, chapter by chapter, who would read, understand, meditate upon them, and then draw illustrations that are very depictive of the story in each chapter. Additionally, there is another set of black-and-white illustrations by Upasana Govindaraman, an artist based in Boston, who has managed to incorporate ancient artifacts that depict incidents or characters referenced in the epic.

Dushyanth shares that one of the most rewarding aspects of the book has been the acknowledgment by four esteemed women achievers: Sudha Raghunathan, a Carnatic vocalist; Sivasankari, an acclaimed author and writer; Padma Subrahmanyam, a Bharatanatyam dance exponent; and Vasudha Narayanan, a professor emeritus in Hindu Studies from Florida University. Even before the book launch, 9,500 copies were pre-ordered.

At the event, musical sisters, Ranjini and Gayathri presented a surprise performance that left the audience in a daze of devotion. The stage was also graced by several other visionaries of the arts such as Anitha Guha who presented a prolific production of Hanuman’s journey with dancers from Kalakshetra, and the Carnatic duo Anahita-Apoorva, who shared a stage with the Bharatanatyam prodigy, Pranauti.

(Inputs from Leina Louis)

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