The festive season in India begins with Nag Panchami. Ganesh Chaturthi follows. A few weeks later come the ten-day festivities of Dussehra, culminating in Ram Leela where effigies of Ravana are burnt in public functions in towns and cities across north India. Finally, there is Diwali, the festival of lights.
Almost all Indian festivals – from the ever popular Diwali to Holi, Dussehra and Onam – have their own stories of the “triumph of good over evil”, at the centre of which is a “demon” who is killed by an armed divinity, the epitome of good. But increasingly this narrative is being challenged by scholars, students and activists – dissenting voices which claim that these stories are actually about dominant brahmanical groups conquering the indigenous populations, including Adivasis, Dalits and those belonging to other pre-brahmanical indigenous faith traditions.
People down south say that Dussehra, based on the legend of Durga slaying a dark-skinned curly-haired male adversary called Mahishasura, is a celebration of the Aryan conquest of Dravidians. Mahishasura has been portrayed in the dominant narrative as a creature who was half-buffalo and half-man. However, many indigenous populations commemorate him as a benign king and elder. One community in central India, the Asur tribe, mourns his death on the tenth day of Dussehra. Increasing numbers of celebrations are being held every year by those who seek to counter the dominant narrative of brahmanical subjugation of the leader of an indigenous people group.
Also, in south India, Diwali is celebrated on Naraka Chaturdasi, one day before it is celebrated in the rest of the country. According to the dominant narrative, Narakasura was a “demon” king, so cruel that his subjects had to appeal to Vishnu for help. Vishnu promised to kill him by appearing as Krishna, and he did just that. Before dying, he is said to have asked for his death to be celebrated with colourful lights, which is the reason Diwali has been called the festival of lights. On the contrary, the indigenous non-Brahmin narrative refers to him as the powerful king of Pragjyothisha.
One of the best-known Dussehra events is the one held at Ramlila Maidan in Delhi and often attended by high-ranking political personalities. These celebrations, of course, have reference to the Ramayana. Ravana is depicted in the Tulsi Ramayan as a “demon-king” with ten heads who abducted Rama’s wife Sita from the forest to avenge the insult meted out by Lakshmana, Rama’s brother, to his sister, Shurpanakha. Ravana’s effigy is burnt to symbolize his defeat in the war in Lanka where to Rama who was able to rescue Sita with help from Vibhishana, who was Ravana’s brother. Ravana is regarded in south India as a brave king who did not harm Sita even while she was in his custody.
But the Dussehra (spelt Dasara in south India) festival is a low-key affair in south India (except in one or two pockets), because it is seen here as the celebration of migrant Aryans’ conquest of Dravidians. The Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu, which incorporates a rationalistic and Tamil linguistic stance, had raised a flag of defiance against this tradition in the 1960s. Periyar symbolized this defiance. He organized Ravana Leelas in Tamil Nadu in which effigies of Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and Inderjit were burnt. Even after his death in 1973, Maniammai, longtime Dravida Kazhagam (DK) activist, Periyar’s personal assistant and later his wife, continued the tradition. In 1974, she was arrested for holding a Ravana Leela. The practice petered out after her passing away in 1978.
In 1998, a Dravida Kazhagam activist again attempted to burn a Rama effigy and was arrested. The then CM of Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi, came out in support of the activist, and got everyone talking. This year, the Thanthai Periyar Dravida Kazhagam (TPDK) organized a Ravana Leela.
The TPDK was born in August 2012, when the Periyar Dravida Kazhagam, which was itself a splinter group of original Dravida Kazhagam, split again into two – TPDK led by K. Ramakrishnan and the Dravida Viduthalai Kazhagam led by Kolathur Mani. A member of TPDK told Forward Press: “Periyar launched the Dravidian movement as a non-brahmanical movement. So, our organization is a mix of SCs [Scheduled Castes], BCs [Backward Castes], MBCs [Most Backward Castes] and even FCs [Forward Castes]. But Brahmins are not allowed. Moreover, we don’t know anyone’s caste. We don’t ask them because we are [working to] eradicate caste.”
The TPDK decided to hold a Ravana Leela in Chennai this year in response to the ruling BJP’s poster campaign in Lucknow following the “surgical strikes” (by the Indian army on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir), in which Pakistan was shown as Ravana and Prime Minister Narendra Modi as Ram.
The TPDK, though, first wrote to the PM demanding that the government stop the annual Ram Leela in the Ramlila Maidan in Delhi. When there was no response to the letter, they went ahead and announced their plans to hold a Ravana Leela in Chennai. The event was to be held opposite the Sanskrit college in Mylapore, an area where many Brahmins live, on the 12 October 2016. Most Tamilians view Sanskrit as a cultural and religious imposition on them by the Brahmins, hence the choice of venue. According to a statement and visuals released by TPDK, at the announced time of the day, despite the deployment of about 200 police personnel, the activists managed to outwit them and set alight the effigies of Rama, Lakshmana and Sita. Eleven of the activists were arrested and remanded to custody for 15 days, while 40 others were detained and released later that night.
However, the arrested activists were released on 18 October, only six days into the custody. They received a hero’s welcome from the TPDK cadres and led a procession that ended at the statue of Periyar on V M Street in Chennai.
The TPDK activists also held a function on Naraka Chaturdasi, on Saturday, 29 October, on their office premises to remember Naraka martyrdom and honour him. A host of speakers shared their thoughts on pertinent cultural issues and then took part in a “Dravida Virundhu” (Dravida community lunch) in which beef was served.
For more information on Mahishasur, see Mahishasur: A People’s Hero. The book is available both in English and Hindi. Contact The Marginalised, Delhi (Phone: 9968527911).