Ram Leela In The North, Ravana Leela In The South

Anil Dhir

In 2016, on the day of Dussehra, effigies of Ram, Sita and Lakshman were burnt in Chennai by Periyar supporters. At a well-publicized event, activists of the Thanthai Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam (TPDK) held a “Ravana Leela” to protest against the Ram Leela held in New Delhi and other parts of North India. The Periyarites had been demanding a ban on the practice of burning Ravan’s effigies and insulting Dravidians in parts of North India. A dozen of the activists were arrested and released after a few hours of detention.

Since its inception, the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu has tried to disassociate itself from the Hinduised idea of India. Periyar Ramasamy kindled the anti-Ram consciousness in the sixties through his book “The Ramayan: A True Reading”.  In a letter to the Prime Minister, Kumaron, one of the office-bearers of TPDK had written that Ramleela is a festival of joy, merry, mirth and pomp for the people who live in North beyond the Vindhyas, but for the people who live in the South, it was a festival of shame, humiliation and ridicule.  He demanded that the Government of India must put an end to the practice of celebrating Ramleela, with the participation of VIPs like the President, and the Prime Minister as it ridicules the constitutional policy is secularism.

There had been no response from  Delhi, instead, PM Modi participated in the “Ram Leela” at Lucknow as a chief guest and gave a lecture that “it’s a day when good defeated evil”.

For the TPDK, it condemned Ramayana’s racist portrayal of the Dravidians as demons and labelled the Ramleela celebration as racist. Saying that the GOI had challenged their self-respect, the Thanthai Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam organised a Ravan Leela at  Mylapore, opposite the Sanskrit College. The venue was significant, as Mylapore is seen as the seat of Brahmin presence in Chennai, and Sanskrit is seen as a symbol of Brahmanical hegemony over the Tamils.

In 1998, it was  DMK’s Karunanidhi, then chief minister of Tamil Nadu, who had raised the issue of Ram versus Ravan and Aryan versus Dravidian. He created a stir by speaking out in support of the DMK activists who had attempted a Ravan Leela on October 1 that year.

Commenting on this incident, the acclaimed social thinker of Tamil Nadu Dr M.S.S. Pandian remarked: “It was a response to the way Indian nationalism was putting out certain Hinduness as the defining feature of India. The non-Brahmin movement in Tamil Nadu was not just a non-Brahmin movement, it was a movement which aligned itself with certain rationalist texts. Ramayana was all along treated by the North Indian leaders as an allegorical story of the Aryan invasion of Dravidians. So, the same allegory was taken up by the Dravidian leaders because Indian nationalism was imposing a certain vision of India based on Hindu, Hindi and Hindustan. As a response to that, Ravana got recuperated as an icon of south India. Rama was looked upon as someone who was promoting Brahmanical values, though he was a non-Brahmin.”

The anti-Ram sentiment has existed since the beginning of the Dravidian movement in the 1920s. The 1940s saw the publication of works such as Raavana Kaviyam (Raavana Epic) and Iranyan Allathu Inayatra Veeran (Hiranya: The Unparalleled Warrior) which eulogised Raavan and Hiranyakashyap, who had both been depicted as asuras in Hindu mythology. The intention of the Dravidian movement was to oppose the depiction of Dravidas as asuras in all these epics.

There are several versions of the Ramayana, as many as 300- all over the country.  A.K. Ramanuja’s “Three Hundred Ramayanas” and Paula Richman’s “Many Ramayanas” are well-researched books. Many oral versions of the epic are also popular all over the country.

The politics of Tamil Nadu politics has been based on antagonism towards North India, Brahminism, Aryans and Hindi. The protest against Ram Leelas is being revived by some groups after the BJP has come to power. Raavan acts as an anti-BJP symbol. This Raavan Leela is a reaction to the BJP’s attempt to revive Ram Leela. One has to see how successful it will be in the years to come.

Anil Dhir

Researcher & Columnist

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