BLF2020 | Mythology via Women – Madhavi S Mahadevan, Rashmi Terdal and Samhita Arni with Mani Rao

Mythology is long-lived, and its retelling is spread across in various formats, from poems to fictional novels. It’s the second day of the Bangalore Literature Festival 2020, and we had a panel of women writers who have written around mythical characters and stories.

Mani Rao, an author who featured in the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry, was the moderator. In the panel, we had Madhavi; she’s a book critic and writer of children’s stories and short stories. She has written two books based on the characters of the Mahabharata. Next, we had Samhita Arni, known for her books ‘Sita’s Ramayana’ and ‘The Prince.’  Then we had Rashmi Terdal, journalist and writer, well known for her translation of ‘Uttara Kaanda’ by S. L. Bhyrappa.

Mani began the conversation by asking the ladies what led them towards writing around mythology and mythical characters.

Madhavi responded that she had heard the stories since her childhood, but it’s only now she realizes how bleak they are. She feels these tales not only need a retelling but a reinvention from a women’s perspective because the role of the women is undermined in the epics. She gives an instance from one of her books, the central character named Madhavi is a surrogate mother. And this story dates back to the Mahabharata times. It was an incident of commercial surrogacy, which is a huge business now.

Samhita shared her view that she had always heard mythical stories that glorify only men’s achievements. If we want to challenge our system for a change, both men and women should join hands and not just either of us. Thus, it is essential to bring forth victories and stories of women from the legacy to influence the future and current generations.

Rashmi said that the versions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata that she had read were abbreviated and subdued from a women’s perspective. The female voice is kept submissive and mellow, whereas the men’s heroics are glorified. These things drew her towards writing on the mythical stories from the perspective of the women characters.

Mani asked the panel if their being women influenced their writing and if it would be different for a male writer?

Madhavi said that her being a woman has definitely helped her get to know her book’s character, ‘Madhavi’ more precisely. Samhita said that she was subconsciously driven since she is a woman even though she never wanted her gender to be influential. Rashmi adds to her previous point that Ramayan has always been obsessed with the duties bestowed upon women. She gives an instance where king Dasharatha reminds Kaushalya of her priorities (husband, children, and kinsmen). Then she jumps to another example where Sita leaves the Dharma-Sabha where her exile’s decision took place. Ram was disturbed after Sita left and expressed his concern to his minister, which is highlighted in the book ‘Uttara Kaanda’. She appreciates the writer for giving Sita the voice she deserved and that we need more such writing.

“A woman rejected by a man can cross oceans, but a man rejected by a woman cannot do anything.” – Ram’s words to his minister from the book ‘Uttara Kaanda.’

They concluded the session with a note that Sita was liberated when she left the Dharma-Sabha, and this is just one character from the mythology. There are great stories of women who rose above everything that needed to be told and written about.

About the Author: Puja Ambalgekar is an IT employee who finds writing, reading, and books in general as an outer space experience. She believes that words have the power to make the difference you intend to. She likes writing poetry, mythology, and technology. You can find her here. She currently writes for TheSeer.

Retold

Three potent female writers celebrated mythologies on the stage at the festival, talking about the narrativizing the retelling of a story. Karthika Nair and Samhita Padikkal both retold Mahabharata while Gayathri Prabhu chose the stories of Vikram and Vetal as her subject. The session was moderated by Jonathan Gil Harris. Their books challenge the belief that a story is worthwhile only if it is original. These three authors believed that retelling is an art as important as creating an original. Retelling helps in identifying identities and cultures for people over a period of time. 

 

As we all know, oral literature was initially the medium of spreading and preserving literature. Samhita tells us her real life story and how she feels relatable to the characters of Mahabharata. She herself went through a dilemma of unacceptance and that is when she resorted to Mahabharata. Gayathri on the other hand chose a framed narrative. She explains to the audience, how a writer or author after making the text available for the audience has to leave it open in a space where they modify it according to their own understanding and each time a person tells a story to someone else, it is their version of it. She believes that the listener is a part of this act as much as the teller. 

 

“Battle never looks the same, to various actors.” is the premise with which Karthika starts her book. She believes that in a book there are several voices which are in conversation with themselves and as we have several characters each of them would have a different perspective towards the narrated reality. 

 

The intellectuals sketched a map that each retelling affirms that there is an origin, but does not mean the story when retold has any less significance than the original as our personal identities refute and communicate with the original text. Human beings have a great power to recall an incident from memory and recreate it for others through the medium of language; this itself is a function of language and thereby retelling is no less of an art than creating an original text.

 

 

 

About the Author: Aditi Dua is a Masters student in English with Communication Studies who has a knack for aesthetics and poetry. Apart from being a literature enthusiast, she highly celebrates challenging ideologies and provide disputing ideas of death. Always available for a conversation over good coffee. She currently writes for TheSeer.

Bestsellers – Smart Women Have Hearts Too

Samhita Arni was in conversation with Anuja Chauhan today on a sunny afternoon at the Tughlaq in the Bangalore Literature Festival. Samhita made a big bang start by opening the conversation with “A fireside chat with the hottest author in Bangalore, a peek into her past work and cue into her future”.

 

Samhita’s first poser to Anuja was on the subject of her books, which are not just entertaining, but also have substance, history, and politics. In response, Anuja said that she tries to write books which she reads personally. “The vital thing a reader can give another reader is their voice. Your life experiences are your raw data”, responded Anuja, and went on to add that her father having been an army man, her experiences come into her writing. 

 

Anuja confessed that she was partial to autobiographies and hopes to write 20 autobiographical books before she dies! Her book “Baaz” relates to the crushes she had on fighter pilots, “The Zoya Factor” takes on from her stint in advertising and “The Battle of Bittora” storyline is taken from the election campaigns on which she accompanied her mother.

 

Anuja had some very interesting tips to share on how to cater to diverse audiences. She advocated to write in a light, breezy, bouncy zone, or it will scare the idea away. She suggested to talk to people who are not like you and help to enrich your life. Importantly, she said, “base your characters on traits of people you know”. As an example, she spoke about the grandmother character from ‘The Battle of Bittora’. Pushpa Pandey, the name, was based on her mother’s first name. The character is based on a three-time Member of Parliament from a north Indian village. The traits of the character are a lot like her mother, grand mother as well as her mother in law. There are readers who ask her what is the risk that people might recognize themselves in her books. She ruled out this possibility by assuring that she is good at disguising people, in bringing only traits and not the entire person into her book. 

 

Samhita quizzed her on which medium she leans towards, books or movies, considering that quite a few of her books have made it to the movies, Anuja definitely prefers the written medium since only a book is complete. She then added with a smile that a movie made from a book does have its perks such as the money and being invited to Bangalore Literature Festival.

 

Samhita gave it away when she said that Anuja is working on a web series for Hotstar that has strong women protagonists. Anuja said that this is a medium close to her since the content has to be really sticky and its structure is different from that of a book. 

 

Anuja reflected on having written five books in 10 years; and felt this is too slow. “I’m no speedy Gonsalves”, she said. She wonders how Agatha Christie has been able to complete 70 books. She quoted that Meg Cabot and Vikram Seth are her favourite writers. According to her, the best compliment an author can get is to be re-readable. Samhita added on the compliment to mention that her protagonists are staunch, feisty women.

 

In response to an audience question about her transition from the ad world to writing books, she mentioned that self-motivation is the key; she pushes herself to write at least 1000 words a day.

 

Pepsi’s Yeh Dil Maange More was one of her famous ad campaigns, which was created by building upon Pepsi’s international tagline ‘Ask for more’ and giving it an Indian twist. “Thoda dil daalke bolo – Yeh Dil Maange More”, in her own words.

 

Anuja advised that advertising was a good start to a career before getting into writing. She mentioned that the ad world crushes your ego, and you become receptive to criticism. Her humorous anecdote about Jemima Goldsmith’s father telling her that Imran Khan would make a good first husband sent the audience into splits of laughter. She spoke about the 3Rs of advertising – Rapidity, Resilience, Repertoire. “Read the masters, read, read and read”, is the one liner she had to say to the upcoming writers. Having been glued to every word that Anuja said through the half hour session, the audience gave a thundering applause, almost as if they said ‘Yeh Dil Maange More’!

 

 

 

 

About the Author: Usha Ramaswamy craves to get more creative in addition to being an avid reader, traveller, vlogger, marketer of events, mobile photographer. One day, she wants to write a book but for now, she pens her reflections at her blog and puts up photos on instagram. She also works as a software process consultant and is a mother of two. She currently writes for TheSeer.