Illustration by Ahmed Bilal

Of Narratives and Subversion: Dr Arshia Sattar Talks Epics

Epics are long, old, and usually considered the purview of “tweeded professors.” But they are also tales of journey and transformation. They force us to ask questions about the values that societies hold at a particular time and place.

Nov 27, 2022

It’s a Thursday evening and the clock is ticking backwards in time, taking us 2000 years into the past. The world we live in , the one with four rows of red chairs neatly lined up and tables set up with snacks and beverages, is fading into the background. In the mostly full Reading Room of the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery, every person is silent except for one, listening with rapt attention to the oft-recited tale of Rama and Sita, two of the central characters in the Hindu epic, the Ramayana.
Sitting behind a desk that separates her from the group of professors, students and academics that occupy those red chairs is the storyteller. She is Dr. Arshia Sattar, an Indian translator and writer with a Ph.D. in South Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago. Leaning back in her chair, Sattar has an easy grace about her. Every so often, she will pause at crucial moments, looking up at the audience with a smile and a distinct twinkle in her eye. Her voice is clear and carrying (a fact that led her to abandon her microphone) and her frequent witticisms prompt ripples of laughter to spread across the room. A worn copy of the Ramayana rests on the desk before her. Students from the Foundations of Literature I: Epic and Drama class would recognize it as her own translation, about 30 years old.
Sattar was invited to collaborate with the Literature and Creative Writing and Theatre programs to discuss the fate of the epic genre in the 21st century, with a particular focus on Hindu epics. The program consisted of an open class on Wednesday, Nov. 23, to discuss the use of the frame narrative (a literary device that establishes the angle from which one approaches a text), and a talk on Thursday, Nov. 24.
In the open class, Sattar expanded on the notion of the frame by establishing its various implementations in the Ramayana — first in its synopsis-esque introduction of the tale by the divine sage Narada; then by Valmiki, the alleged author himself; and near the close of the epic by the two young bards, Lava and Kusha, in a thrilling public recital to Rama himself. This pattern of asking for a story and being told to listen immerses the text itself in the historical tradition of orality and the collective formation of stories that have since distilled into the epics we are privy to today.
Why zero in on the frame narrative? Other than proving the historicity of the text, it dispels the image of the individualized author as we have built in the 21st century. Valmiki is not an authority on the text unto himself, but a witness and carrier of Rama’s tale. There is no singular Ramayana, and every subsequent intervention of the text that locates it in a specific time and place reiterates its porous nature: it offers space for the reader, and for retelling and reimagining.
And what does that space look like? In recent years, a debate has ensued on the value and place of classic texts, including some in the epic genre. In a canon that largely centers around white, male authors, with a sprinkling of white, female authors in between, the “classics” tend to include few works by BIPOC authors. These texts can also be problematic. Consider the racist depiction of Jim in Mark Twain’s novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Or, in the Ramayana, think about the treatment of Sita, asked to prove her chastity not once but twice by her husband after she is kidnapped by Ravana (a ten-headed, twenty-armed villainous Rakshasa king) and detained in his house.
Back in the Reading Room, there is a pause.
“Why should we read epics if they do not speak to us?” Sattar asks. She is referring to the place of women and “others” in epics like the Ramayana, where such characters may end up humiliated, dismissed, or even mutilated. “Where are we in these stories?”
Sattar goes on to emphasize, here, that this is why we must return to the epics — so that when we criticize them, we know what exactly about them we must pick apart. It is not enough to read their retellings alone, to rejoice in their subversion, without knowing where exactly they intervene in the established canon. But the seeds of subversion are sown in the text itself, where we can find ourselves if we look close enough to know the difference between what it states and what it does. Sita, for example, is acclaimed and admired for being the ideal wife — submissive and loyal to her husband — and an example for Indian women. A deeper look into the Ramayana reveals a different truth, that she is assertive and wise in her own right, impeccable in her conduct and nuanced in worldview. At several instances, she stands up to her husband and scolds, reasons and counsels the men around her.
As Sattar remarks, “We need to know what we are up against if we want to change the world.” To upturn patriarchies and hegemonies, we must go to their foundations.
The epics, a historically masculine genre written by and for men, present versions of the ideal. The ideal warrior, king, brother and wife, though perhaps not the ideal husband or father. They are long, old and usually considered the purview of “tweeded professors.” But they are also tales of journey and transformation. They can be uplifting and disturbing at the same time. They force us, as Sattar emphasizes during her talk, to ask questions about the values that societies hold at a particular time and place. They are “the very best of literature… [they are] stories about us, us as we were thousands of years ago, and us as we are now.”
Each response to the Ramayana tells us something about the society and time that it was produced in. The retellings of this epic are vast and varied, each one a political act in how it questions the “original” (Valmiki’s) version. The culture of their time is not the same as it is now (even situated in the same geographical space). These interventions are the spaces we find and make for ourselves amid the myriad verses, proof that the Ramayana is as much a living, evolving entity as it was during its creation in the 5th Century BCE.
So the next time we pick up an epic, perhaps we think of the plurality of its voice — the author(s), the translators, and the readers. We find our place within the story, maybe read against the grain, and make it our own.
Amrita Anand is Deputy News Editor. Amal Surmawala is a contributing writer. Email them at
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