Sri Rama Vanquishing the Sea by Raja Ravi Varma (Photo: Alamy)
It’s sometime in the last quarter of the 19th century. There is an oleograph by Raja Ravi Varma and though the title says Sri Rama Vanquishing the Sea, and the descriptor says it is Varuna, the Lord of the Ocean, pacifying Sri Ram, angered at the intransigence of the sea to give him access to Lanka, the slim-bodied, fair god looks irritated rather than furious; more like an ascetic, less of a warrior.
Cut to Amar Chitra Katha from 1971. On the cover, Sita is sitting demurely, while a muscled Ram is sitting by her side, aiming an arrow into the distance. Inside, the comic is all about his strength, whether it is killing demoness Tadaka or easily lifting the bow to win her hand.
The year is 1987, and Ramayana is on TV. This retelling of the epic will go on for 18 months through 78 weekly 45-minute episodes. Lord Ram here is not merely martial but also political, carrying around a clump of earth from his janmabhoomi even while he is wandering in the forest.
Cut again to 2015, and in Amish Tripathi’s Scion of Ikshvaku, Dashrath places his hands on Ram’s shoulders. ‘Become the man that I could have become; the man that I did not become.’
The Supreme Court verdict may have finally put an end to all debate on where Ram was born, but his image in popular culture is still open to discussion. In over a century, we have seen him going from stately to kinetic, mellow to martial, carrying his bow and arrow as mere accessories to actively using them, calendar god to pop culture icon, even as the chant that greets him has gone from the egalitarian ‘Sita Ram’, once a rallying cry for peasant mobilisation in the 1920s, to the more masculine 1980s slogan ‘Jai Shri Ram’.
Traditionally, Lord Ram was always depicted together with Sita, Lakshman and Hanuman—in a serene pose as befitting the maryada purushottam, the ideal man. He had won his throne after exile and battle, and was at peace with the world, points out professor of media at New York University, Arvind Rajagopal, who wrote the influential Politics After Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India (2001).
In over a century, we have seen Ram going from stately to kinetic, mellow to martial, carrying his bow and arrow as mere accessories to actively using them, calendar god to pop culture icon, even as the chant that greets him has gone from the egalitarian ‘Sita Ram’, once a rallying cry for peasant mobilisation in the 1920s, to the more masculine 1980s slogan ‘Jai Shri Ram’
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In an equally seminal analysis of the changing iconography of Ram, theatre teacher and critic Anuradha Kapur writes of how in the Ramcharitmanas, Ram was shown as being ‘udar’ and conspicuously lacking in ‘masculine assertiveness’. He radiated ‘tranquillity, compassion, the shanta rasa’ and was rarely portrayed using his bow because Hanuman provided him with the coercive force he needed. The imaging changed in the 1989 election campaign with advertising hoardings showing Ram as a source of strength and power. Apart from his customary bow, he sported a trishul, a sword and an axe, looking ugra (angry) and toned. This was meant to embody the rise of the Angry Hindu.
And, as Rajagopal says in an email interview, Ram was not always solitary. “The Ram Janmabhoomi andolan publicity always depicted Ram alone because one can identify more easily with an individual figure than with a whole family. Ram would be shown going to battle, in what was again a highly non-traditional iconography. The idea was not to make his fans feel serene and devout but to rouse them up for struggle. Amish’s books take up many of the styles of representation we saw in the TV series; the TV versions of Amish’s books go further, and make it seem as if the Dandaka forest was more like the jungles of the Vietnam War—the echoes are of American war movies.”
But two things common to most of these pop culture depictions (as well as traditional iconography like the Ram-Lakshman-Sita-Hanuman combination most people worship) are Ram with his bow by his side, and standing tall with his palm raised to signify his protection from fear and its causes as well as the portrayal of his face as calm, smiling, and self-mastered. Indeed, the Lord Ram on the cover of Scion of Ikshvaku is a complete reversal of the almost boyish figure of Lord Ram in the Raja Ravi Varma painting. Here his torso is muscular, his long hair is in a topknot, and he is taking aim at the Pushpak vimana. As Emma Dawson Varughese, senior fellow at the Manipal Centre for Humanities, notes: ‘The mythology-inspired fiction has in part responded to the call for the revisioning of India and its identities.’
Amish Tripathi still remembers watching Ramayana on TV every Sunday morning. Speaking from London, where he is director, Nehru Centre, he notes, “We would all take it seriously. I had relatives who would even take off their shoes as they watched it as a mark of respect. But we were equally informed by all that we were taught by our elders. I come from a Shaivite family but my grandparents were Ram bhakts as well, which was not uncommon. And one of the key things we were told repeatedly at home was that the most important part of Ram’s life was Ramrajya, which is still the gold standard on how a nation ought to be run regardless of language, creed or colour. The main Ramayana is essentially the journey of how Ram becomes Lord Ram. The philosophy of Ramrajya is to be found in other texts such as Yog Vasisht (which is attributed to Valmiki and is the discourse of Vasisht to a young prince Ram).”
To him that is the most important aspect of Lord Ram and the genius of Mahatma Gandhi who understood its political import, that if the Congress was to transform itself from an elite, Anglicised, lawyers’ club pre-World War I, then it had to become a mass movement that embodied the principles of Ramrajya. Tripathi says that for all the bows and arrows of TV’s celebrated Ramayana, it had many philosophical discussions as well, whether it is the one with Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva talking about how Vishnu needs to take the form of an avatar to save the earth or the episode where Kumbhkaran tells Ravan he has made a mistake by abducting Sita.
Though conventional wisdom tends to place pop culture’s evolution of Lord Ram in a straight line from composed to combative, coinciding with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, some disagree. Vamsee Juluri, Professor of Media Studies, University of San Francisco, believes the move from a passive to a strident Ram is not monolithic. In popular images from earlier media examples, Lord Ram’s depiction was never lacking in its representation of some of his virtues as a brave warrior-protector of the people and of dharma. As Juluri says, “The oldest images I can think of are from the Chandamama magazines that were incredibly popular in Telugu, Tamil, and other languages in my childhood, and also the Amar Chitra Katha titles from the 1970s. There were also the cinematic depictions, for example, in the Ramayanas directed by the great artist-cartoonist Bapu Garu aka Sattiraju Lakshmi Narayana (and written by his creative partner, Ramana Garu aka Mullapudi Venkata Ramana).” The only change in the popular landscape was that in the Ram Janmabhoomi poster; Ram was not simply standing with a bow, but in a more energetic posture, sometimes holding an arrow in his hand too. This was, perhaps, the beginning of the action-figure-isation of our gods.
As Juluri notes: ‘Hinduism has always been close to popular culture, and even if one aspect of popular culture today involves multinational/global funding and top-down control, the dynamism and creativity of a people who see Ram as their own prince, friend, son or brother, will prevail.’ And in the words of Ram from Tripathi’s Scion of Ikshvaku, ‘The only true One God is the one who belongs to everything.’ Athletic or angry, in repose or in resistance, he is pop culture’s ideal man.