Articles and Reviews

Monday, October 18, 2010

Kannada Oral Epics: Women And Society

     Women that inhabit the world of Kannada oral epics are at the very center of ambiguities and contrary pulls that give those epics their distinct form.  On the one hand, these women in these narratives are proud of their womanhood and are more assertive  than their counterparts in the written tradition; on the other hand, they also hold the classical Sita as their role-model.  Consequently, they constantly oscillate  between fierce assertion of their womanhood and pativratya, fidelity to their husbands in mind and body.

Sankamma,  in ‘The Story of Sankamma,’ an extract from Male Mahadeshwara typifies all these self-contradictions.  When her husband is about to leave for annual hunting expedition and demands an ‘oath of fidelity’ from her, she refuses to swear such an oath despite unimaginable physical torture she is subjected to.  However, when he returns and challenges her to prove her chastity, she meekly obeys him and undergoes nine ordeals one more awful than the other. 

     In the extracts from Kenchavva of Madaga, and Kumara Rama, we come across two women who as the victims of male superstition and male cunning, suffer and end their lives tragically.  As Kenchavva of Madaga and similar narratives and documents show, it was a common practice in the medieval period to sacrifice a woman (often, a pregnant woman), to get a tank filled with water or to see a fort stand.  

What is heart-rending in such instances is that the victim would invariably be a daughter-in-law of a family, and not the wife or daughter of the person concerned.  Almost always, the victims knew what was in store for them and would accept it, either because there was no other recourse or because tradition would have made them believe that self-sacrifice for the good of the community was an ideal.  

However, the narrative makes it clear where the singer’s sympathies lie when he shows with what affection and regret the woman bids good bye to the cattle in her house, and   plants and flowers in her garden.  There are many other long poems on the unfortunate women who would commit Sati, after the death of their husbands.  

Such narratives document the various steps and measures that would be undertaken by the local chieftain on such occasions: shutting the portals of the village /town with huge rods, sending her gifts if he approved of her intended action, her procession on the village streets, etc.  In this context, the collector of these narratives, Krishnamurthy Hanuru makes this sad comment: “ Ironically, in the Hindu society, death would often come to women either in the form of water or in the form fire, the two most essentials for life” (1983).

     The short Lavani (similar to a ballad) “ Water for the Tank” that follows this long narrative affords us a good instance of the way different cultures deal with the same theme differently.  In the climactic moment of this Lavani (called a Riwayat), the irony of the whole situation is exploded (“ My parents themselves / Stand here holding me; and if I think of beseeching the king, / The king himself is standing here, ready to sever my head”) , and the king changes his mind of sacrificing the boy.

     Ratnaji, the victim in Kumara Rama, brings to mind Phaedra in Hyppolytus by Euripides and in Phaedra by Racine.  She is tricked in broad daylight into a marriage with an old man; and till the very end she remembers it and justifies her action.  Even at the moment of death she declares that the man she fell in love with was Kumara Rama and that she will continue to love him in her next birth also.  This text also establishes how a ‘woman’s text’ differs from a ‘man’s text.’  There is a long written work on the same subject, in the tradition of traditional epics, called Hosa Kumararanaba Sangatya.  Though both are on the same subject, whereas the literary epic focuses on wars and the hero’s brave exploits and barely pays attention to the suffering of Ratnaji, the oral epic, sung by a woman, constantly focuses on Ratnaji and the ways in which she was deceived.

     The extract from Mailaralinga exemplifies the degree of humanization of gods and goddesses in oral narratives.  Shiva, in this work, in the guise of an old  Goravayya ( a name of a nomadic tribe), falls in love with Komali, a shepherd-girl; and, in order to win her, he goes even to ridiculous extent of awaiting her near water-wells, spending a whole night in a dusty and dark shrine expecting her, and rolling on a dung-heap to impress her.   In the oral tradition, gods are no better or worse than the human beings; they have the same flesh and blood, and they are subjected to similar emotions of love, anger and jealousy.

     That woman in the Indian oral tradition reflects all the ambiguities and self-contradictions the epics are woven with is borne out by the depiction of women in other epics also: Siri in the Tulu epic Siri, Manchala in the Telugu epic Palnati Veerula Katha, and Kelam in the Rajasthani epic Pabuji.
Dr. C. N. Ramachandran

See also:  The story of Madeshwara

1 comment:

Unknown said...

dear sir

i joseph alexander would like to have discussion on some epic on male mahadeshwara temple. will send your contact number please. my number is 9449332783. very urgent