CFP: [General] Non-Western Living Epics and Myths: Memory, Community and Identity, ACLA, Long Beach, CA, Apri.24-27

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Non-Western Living Epics and Myths: Memory, Community and Identity

In 1919 A. A. Macdonnel had commented that "Probably no work of world
literature, secular in origin, has ever produced so profound an influence
on the life and thought of a people as the Ramayana." On September 2007
this observation was re-enacted when the Archaeological Survey of India
got deadlocked in a legal battle with the Hindu political hardliners over
a shipping canal project in the Indian Ocean known as the Project
Sethusamudram. The project involves destruction of a series of
underwater islands built of sand and limestone and are otherwise known
as Rama's bridge. According to a popular Hindu belief, the army of
that helped Rama to reach Lanka, also built this bridge. On September 11,
2007 the Archeological Survey of India published a report stating that
the bridge is a natural formation and that there is no scientific proof
that supports the belief that this bridge was built by Rama's army.
Moreover they also stated that Valmiki's Ramayana or Tulasidas's
Ramcharitmanas are mythological stories and hence cannot be accepted as
"historical" truths. Following this report, the world saw an
unprecedented wave of support in favor of keeping the bridge. Support
also came from the diasporic Hindu political groups, followed by
prolonged political and social agitations by the proponents of Hindutva
in India. Finally, on September 14, the Indian government had to relent
and declare publicly that Rama was, indeed, of a "historical" character
and that the language of the ASI report requires a thorough revision.

This is a classic example of how Ramayana remains enmeshed within the
complexities of the communal quotidian life of South Asia in significant
and complicated ways as a "living epic." A "living epic," therefore, is a
cultural-textual entity that, unlike the textually fixed canonical
versions of the western epic tradition, continues to evolve and morph in
multiple narrative modes and plot-outlines, often contesting and
complicating each other. Thus, "living epics," by definition, resist
attempts to be tied down to official, standardized versions. This becomes
especially evident if we attempt to compare the respective ideological
universes of the medieval North Indian poet Tulasidas' Ramcharitmanas, an
attempt to interpret Ramayana from a Bhakti perspective and Michael
Madhusudan Dutta's nineteenth century rendition of the epic in
Meghnadabadh Kavya (The Slaying of Meghnada). Similarly, one can also
contend that the other South Asian epic Mahabharata too operates as a
complex epic tradition with multiple and often contesting cultural forms.
As the noted Indian folklorist A.K. Ramanujan reminds us, The Mahabharata
provides materials and allusions to every artistic genre--from plays to
proverbs, from folk performances to movies and T.V. Indeed, the
Mahabharata and the Ramayana have appeared as serials, week after week in
popular Tamil weeklies. When they were published by Bharatiya Vidya
they became and probably still are, the most read paperback renditioned in
English of the epics [...] Thus, a text like the Mahabharata is not a
text but
a tradition.

This panel is interested in exploring the scope of the South Asian and
other non-western living epics as they evolve in interactions with
multiple literary and artistic forms, influencing a culture's religious,
political and social dimensions and invoking multitude of audience
reactions and responses. Questions that the contributions might address
include but are not limited to:

-- What role do living epics play in constructing national identities and
         imagined communities?
-- How have the epic traditions in India/South Asia contributed to the
         consolidation and reification of the dominant classed/gendered/
         casteicized hegemony? Similarly, how have the epics been used by
         the marginalized groups in South Asia as modes of narrative and
         political resistance? (One can think of the distinctly "women's
         perspective" presented in Chandrabati and Molla's attempts to
         rewrite Ramayana from Sita's point of view, or, the multiple
         re-interpretations of the Slaying of Sambuka episode of the
         Ramayana by the Dalit artists and writers)
--Is it possible to think of the re-interpretations of the epics as
         falling into predominantly two different kinds--the authoritative
         telling and the oppositional telling(as scholars like Paula
         Richman has suggested)?
--What were the narrative/artistic/ideological/political choices made by
         19th/20th century South Asian writers and artists when they
         revisited the epics?
--How are identities and histories performed within the performative
         genre of the epic?
--How have epics functioned in diaspora (e.g. The Ramlila in Caribbean or
         Fiji, the televised epics and the Indian Diaspora, the Diaspora
         and the Hindu fundamentalist politics)?
--How have Indian epics influenced the culture industry, both within and
         outside India? ( TV serials, comic books, Bollywood films, anime,
-- How does a folkloristic approach complicate our knowledge and study of
         the India epics?
--Are these concerns generic to all living epics?
--What is the pertinence of these questions with respect to living epics
         that are beyond the realms of South Asian tradition?
--Can these questions be addressed in context to a mythological character
         that does not belong to any epic tradition per se but have
         importance among its significant audience as epic characters?

Paper proposals can be submitted on the ACLA web site at

Seminar Organizers: Nandini Dhar
University of Texas at Austin(
Ronita Bhattacharya
University of Georgia

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Received on Mon Oct 22 2007 - 15:24:08 EDT