Two Long Questions and Their Short Answers
A friend asked me these two questions and I tried to answer them off the cuff. I'm not sure if it makes sense.
1. Do we have an Indian concept of epics? Who came out with it and when? As we have Bhartrihari as Grammarian and Bharatrmuni for Natyashastra, do we have someone in Indian classical literature who defined ‘epic literature’, as Aristotle gave concept of epic/drama in the West?
A. A sense of classic was always there in Indian scholarship. In the pre-mediaeval times, before the arrival of the Mughals, when India, as we know it, was a cluster of city states, each city with its own language and distinct culture. Yet, Sanskrit was the language that was revered and studied; Sanskrit was the classics and the texts written in Sanskrit, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, or Kalidas’s plays were considered classic.
The Indian equivalent of the word ‘epic’ is the Sanskrit word ‘Mahakavya’, meaning ‘grand verse’. Since both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were narrated in verse form (Sloka), and since there were other verses that were being produced, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were always referred to as grand among verses. Hence, epic, since epic, Aristotle also mentioned, is the highest form of poetry.
However, the idea of these two texts as epics in the Western sense came much later, after the arrival of the British, when the indophile scholars (Max Mueller included), discovered the writings of the Sanskrit tradition, and worked towards documenting these writing. It was a process and we cannot point to one or the scholar.
The problem with these two Indian texts as epic begins with the fact that there was no definitive versions of the original verse. Though Valkimi and Vyas are mentioned as authors of these two texts, it was hardly the case. These two tales grew in telling, and each narrator added something of his own in each narration. Therefore, the narrative changed drastically with each age.
For example, though now The Ramayana composed by Tulsidas is considered to be the authentic version of the tale, in reality, it is a version of the tale according to Tulsidas, composed for his contemporary audience. Like the New Testament chapters, where each of Jesus’s apostles offered their impressions of the messiahs, each retelling of these two Indian texts offer an impression of the person who is narrating the tale. Thus, Tulsidas’s text varies greatly from, for example, Kamban’s text in Tamil or Ananta Kandali’s text in Old Assamese or Kritivas’ tale in Bengali.
So, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are epics, yes, but not strictly in the sense of Western poetics. Classic Indian poetics did not define epic as a genre. One reason may be, as I have mentioned earlier, the lack of a cohesive text. If you need a definition, India poetics would classify these texts as kavya (verse, poetry), but kavya of a higher order (‘Maha’), due to its length, and scope.
2. When we write about Ramayana performances, what are the things to be kept in mind? Performances as a) oral rendition of the Ramayana, b) theatrical presentation and c) folk presentation as Ramlila, etc? What are the aspects to be touched and included?
Answer. Each kinds of performances to be considered. The focus can be how a performance is designed for the audience. Who are the target audience for the Ramayana as a theatrical representation? Who are the target audience for Ramlila? Audience inform the performance, not the other way round. Then comes the question of spiritual (religious may be too narrow a word) and entertainment aspect of the performance. While a Ramlila performance is more geared towards spirituality, the Ramayana as a TV serial as presented by Ramanand Sagar mostly aimed at entertainment. If you go deep into the issues, you will find several different aspects at work here.