Fifty years ago, on April 27, 1955, a remarkable play, Bhoomikanya Sita, was published in Mumbai. Written in 1950 by Bhargavram Vitthal Warerkar for Natya-niketan, a leading theatre company of the time, it was the only one of his body of 37 plays, which had not been performed even once in the five years between its writing and its publication.
Warerkar was a 'non-matric' postal clerk from Ratnagiri, who had read his way through the best of world and Indian literature to emerge as a politically conscious playwright of modern India. When M. G. Rangnekar, founder-playwright-director of Natya-niketan invited him to write a play based on the Ramayana, he had no idea what he was letting himself in for. Warerkar had been waiting for just such an opportunity to write a play based on the Valmiki Ramayana in which Urmila would be the chief protagonist.
Urmila, Sita's younger sister and Lakshman's wife, is given no more than three lines by Valmiki. Lakshman, all set to accompany Rama and Sita into exile, comes to bid her farewell. She asks to go with him. He says that wouldn't be wise since all his attention would be concentrated on protecting Rama and Sita. So she'd best stay at home and look after her three mothers-in-law. That is more or less that. Valmiki doesn't tell us how Urmila survives those 14 years of her young life alone, without her husband. Many writers have been troubled by this neglect. Rabindranath Tagore included Urmila in his article Upekshita (Forgotten Women). Maithili Sharan Gupt told the Ramakatha through Urmila's eyes in his epic poem, Saket. But neither work gave Urmila substance or voice. Warerkar wanted to do that.
In the first part of the play, Urmila is everywhere. She protests when she hears about the ordeal by fire that Sita has had to go through to prove her chastity. But Sita's trials don't end there. Rama orders Lakshman to take the pregnant Sita away and abandon her in the forest near Valmiki's ashram, because his subjects are still not satisfied that she is chaste. During the 12 years since that abandonment, Valmiki has composed the first part of the Ramayana. He is in Ayodhya with Luv and Kush who sing it outside the palace. Rama is moved by what he hears. Valmiki enters the palace in the hope that Rama will now take back his wife. He calls Sita in, vouches for her chastity, but Rama still insists she take the oath that will satisfy his subjects.
Urmila can remain silent no longer. Even as Valmiki advises her restraint, she bursts out angrily: "Why are women alone doubted constantly? Why are our characters always suspect? Are men entirely blameless? Shurpanakha came to you in the guise of a beautiful woman, urging you to abjure your wife and accept her. Did Sita doubt your character then? Did she even mention the episode to you?"
When Rama pleads helplessness against public opinion, it is Sita's turn to protest. "What kind of a Ramrajya is this? We had nothing in the forest, but we had justice. We had Sita-Ram Rajya. I will not take the demeaning oath you demand of me. I'd rather ask mother earth to take me back. When I do so, it will not be to prove my chastity. It will be to protest against the dishonour you have heaped upon me. Oh Rama, you are a king. You care most about your subjects. But I am a woman. I care most about my sisters. I care about their future. If I submit to your unjust demand now, women will have to bear the brunt of my action forever. Therefore I make a last plea to you, oh king of Ayodhya. Do not ask me to take this oath." Rama is unrelenting and Sita disappears into her mother's womb.
Predictably, Natya-niketan flinched from staging this play. When they finally did, as part of a festival of plays in 1958, it received stronger resistance from within than from the audience. Shahu Modak who played Rama, was popular for his all-noble-no-warts portrayals of mythological heroes in Marathi and Hindi films. He rebelled bitterly against Warekar's flawed Rama, and ended up playing him with no conviction whatsoever. That was the last anybody saw of the play.
Bhoomikanya Sita is thus a forgotten play about a forgotten woman. On Sunday March 8, I re-read it as a personal salute to a brave and just play and my Women's Day was made.
Published On : 11-03-2015