Anita Ratnam's 'A Million Sitas' reclaims the voices of Sita and four other women characters of the Ramayana, exploring the identities and politics of women who have remained in the shadows despite playing decisive roles in the narrative.
As a character in the Ramayan, Sita has long been upheld as a paragon of virtue, patience and resilience, and yet few acknowledge the powerful role she plays in the epic. In ‘A Million Sitas’, renowned performer, writer, speaker and cultural mentor Anita Ratnam reclaims Sita and four other women characters of the Ramayana, exploring their identities and politics.
Drawing inspiration from this unique feminist retelling of the Ramayana, Kanakavalli celebrates the women of the epic through the kanjivaram, styling Anita in five different saris and colours to reflect the five characters from her performance - green for Mandodhari, purple for Manthara, red for Surpanakha, grey for Ahalya and mango yellow for Sita. Shop Kanakavalli's 'A Million Sitas' collective online.
MANDODHARI: THE EMPATH
We begin with Mandodhari, the wife of Raavan, the King of Lanka. Married to a man with ten personalities Mandodhari has to repeatedly draw on her deep sense of empathy as she tries to navigate ideas of right and wrong. In the story, Mandodhari never loses her balance or dignity, remaining poised even as she struggles to reconcile her love for her husband with his actions and flaws.
A symbol of the politics of compromise, Mandodhari wills her husband to return to the path of righteousness, pleading with him to release Sita from captivity. Portrayed as a woman of great beauty but little agency, and rarely more than a shadowy figure in the margins of the story, Mandodhari is often the real voice of reason in the epic tale. In ‘A Million Sitas’, Anita Ratnam reclaims this voice, and explores the many facets of her personality.
In some versions of her life story before the Ramayana, it is said that Mandodhari was cursed to assume the form of a frog and live in a well for twelve long years. In a nod to her fascinating origin story, Kanakavalli curates a selection of gorgeous kanjivarams in shades of green for Mandodhari. The hue is also evocative of a sense of calm and peace, perfectly suited to Mandodhari’s unwavering personality, loyalty and gentle poise.
MANTHARA : THE WHISPERER
As we continue to explore the identities of the women in the Ramayana through Anita Ratnam’s ‘A Million Sitas’, we turn to Manthara, another incredibly multifaceted character whose role in the epic is often undermined.
Conducting an orchestra of intrigue to protect her position, Manthara’s whispered schemes into powerful ears propel life changing events and shifts in power dynamics. Yet she is a character who is barely acknowledged, beyond being portrayed as a figure of cunning and deceit. The truth, however, is that without Manthara there would be no Ramayana. Her plot to exile Rama to the forest safeguarded her own status in his father’s palace.
‘A Million Sitas’ views Manthara through a feminist lens, revealing a woman who possessed the sharpest of minds, but was destined to live a life of marginalised servility. Representing the politics of difference, Manthara, with her strategic power play, would have made a forbidding political opponent if she had the opportunity.
For Manthara, Kanakavalli curates a selection of gorgeous kanjivarams in shades of purple. The palette is at once shadowy and strong, murky and vibrant, echoing the complexity and depth of Manthara’s character.
SURPANAKHA: THE SHAPESHIFTER
Each women character in the Ramayana that Anita Ratnam brings to life in her performance ‘A Million Sitas’ is one who makes courageous decisions and whose actions move the plot along. Surpanakha is perhaps one of the most misunderstood women of the epic.
Lover, sister, friend and Shapeshifter. Refusing to conform to expectations, Surpanakha forges her own path as she consistently challenges patriarchal ideals of womanhood. In ‘A Million Sitas’, Anita Ratnam portrays her as a woman of colour—a bold, strong woman who isn’t afraid to question the status quo.
Representing the politics of feminism in ‘A Million Sitas’, Surpanakha is not bitter or ugly-hearted, as she is often depicted, but a princess who has suffered indignity and violence. She challenges norms of how a woman must look and behave, and as a result is demonised and cast as a villain. Yet in many ways she is the very epitome of empowerment—refusing to be silenced, and continuing to stand up for herself.
Kanakavalli curates kanjivarams in a palette of reds for Surpanakha. Red, the colour of fire, passion and life, suits the bold, fiery and fearless Surpanakha.
AHALYA : THE FLAWLESS
Created by a male god’s ego, Ahalya is flawless, living in the shadowy control of her creator, destined to be seduced, punished and eventually redeemed. Ahalya is perfect in the eyes of her creator—virtuous and chaste—but she is lonely. Thus, she seeks to negotiate her equality and freedom to live on her own terms.
To Anita Ratnam in ‘A Million Sitas’, Ahalya represents the politics of desire. Married to an older man, she longs for tenderness and companionship. When she seeks it from another, she is punished and turned to stone, until Rama eventually frees her. But Ahalya is left wondering if she was more free, more in control of her own destiny as a rock than she will ever be as the trophy wife of a man who does not truly desire her.
In tribute to Ahalya’s quest for true freedom, Kanavalli curates a selection of exquisite kanjivarams in shades of grey. She is turned to stone for straying from her virtuous and chaste path of perfection, but for her, this rock is a symbol of transcending her burdens.
SITA: THE UNBROKEN
We turn to a woman who has etched herself in our cultural DNA: Sita.
Buffeted by patriarchy, bound by rules, kidnapped, tested, rejected—Sita’s bold choices in the face of all odds define the narrative, even as she remains Unbroken. Sita is upheld as the ultimate symbol of womanhood, virtue and sacrifice. The choices she makes truly shape the story of the Ramayana, and yet we often do not acknowledge her agency and voice.
Two of the most crucial turning points in the narrative of the Ramayana involve Sita and the decisions she makes—the Lakshman Rekha (the line that Sita chooses to cross despite her brother-in-law Lakshman’s warning) and the Agni Pareeksha (the test of fire). These defining moments belong to Sita, who makes a powerful statement through her choices. In ‘A Million Sitas’, Anita Ratnam seizes on these events to reclaim Sita’s voice and celebrate her identity as a strong, independent woman.
For Sita, Kanakavalli curates a selection of fine kanjivaram silk saris in brilliant shades of mango yellow. In some interpretations of the story, Sita was born from a ripe mango. This colour, with all its vitality, is the perfect choice for a woman whose story has endured the ages.
Anita Ratnam’s ‘A Million Sitas’ gives us a unique lens through which to view the Ramayana, and the incredible women characters who build and carry the narrative. At Kanakavalli, we had the opportunity to view these women through the kanjivaram and its rich palette of colours. This special curation celebrates the women of the great epic and their indomitable spirits.
Discover Kanakavalli's Vault collective of heirloom worthy kanjivarams here.