A first-class recitation of the Rāmāyaṇa

The story

Like every student of Sanskrit, I had always wanted to read the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa,1 but in the face of several distractions, this had always been a “To-do someday” item: I think I had not even fully read the mere 100 shlokas of the first sarga (Sankshepa Ramayana), despite there being useful resources to do so.

Then on 2017-Oct-31, a mailing list post by Suhas Mahesh mentioned something:

The full Ramayana recitation by Sri Sriram Ghanapathi on is a treat to the ears. Finally a good recitation that is also recorded well! Unfortunately, a file has to be downloaded separately for each Sarga. Does anyone have a workaround for this? I also fear that the website will go down and all will be lost.

I saw this post a few days later, and on the back of the strong recommendation and curiosity/the technical challenge, I went and listened to the first sarga. This is what it sounds like:

It is 16 minutes long, and within the first couple of minutes, I couldn’t stop listening. It was a revelation: here I was, consuming the (raw, unfiltered) text of the Rāmāyaṇa directly, and understanding much of it! I was surprised by how much I understood: not every word, but more than I expected, and indeed more than I had understood when I had previously tried just reading it directly.2

I downloaded all 500-odd files, made a small donation to the website, and privately wrote this email to Suhas and Vishvas, 2017-Nov-10:

Thanks for introducing this! It is indeed a pleasure to listen to the Ramayana this way. I listened to the first sarga this morning, and hope to listen to the rest… I don’t know when I’ll get a chance to read the Ramayana with the attention it deserves, but I feel more optimistic about listening to the ~55 hours here.

Suhas also replied with:

I don’t think I will be as happy reading the Ramayana anymore. It is clearly meant to be listened to! Sriram Ghanapathi also manages the awkward anustubhs beautifully. Very well done indeed.

This further motivated me to continue listening. I put the audio files on my phone and over the following year (i.e. most of 2018), I listened to it all, mostly while driving. Each time I started the car it would connect to my phone over Bluetooth and resume playing from wherever it had last left off. Frequently I would pause it for various reasons—55 hours over a year works out to an average of about 10 minutes a day, and obviously I drove more than that—but usually I was glad to have it continue, eager to listen to what was next.

I began to look forward to driving. Often after reaching my destination I would wait an additional minute or so before getting out of the car, wanting to finish the current sarga (if it was short enough).

Obviously there was a lot of the Rāmāyaṇa that I missed by consuming it this way: “distracted by driving” when navigating tricky exits and lane changes, not hitting pause quickly enough if someone else was in the car and started talking, etc — but mostly because I didn’t understand the Sanskrit well enough. Overall I’d estimate maybe I understood about 80–90% of it. There was even an entire sarga here and there (out of the ~500) where I barely understood anything. No doubt they must have been the best ones.

Nevertheless it was a great joy (it really grows on you) and a year I remember fondly (despite various ups and downs in life); this is me on 2018-Dec-15:3

Over the last year or so, I have been listening to the Rāmāyaṇa off and on, mostly while driving. It has been a richly rewarding experience (despite my limited attention and understanding). As I near the end, …

This was my first time listening to a recitation (as distinct from reading a book or listening to an audiobook etc), and I want to say a bit more about the unique experience of listening to a recitation generally, and this one in particular.

Recitation as a format

Listening to a recitation is a unique experience that IMO sits between that of:

  1. Reading a book, and
  2. Experiencing a performance, like a movie, song, narration, audiobook, dance, lecture, etc.,

along two dimensions (that I can think of). It is not necessarily better (and not a substitute for anything else), but it is different.

The first dimension is timing/pacing. With a book, you read at your own pace; it can take longer or shorter depending on how much you dwell on certain parts here and there—some parts you may want to pause to savour more or understand better, others you may skim, etc. With a performance on the other hand, the pacing is predetermined for you: if you walk into a movie theater you know you’ll walk out some X hours later having consumed it all, with X being determined by the makers. Similarly with a song/dance/lecture based on the work.

Here, listening to a recitation falls into the latter category: you start listening to this Rāmāyaṇa recitation and exactly 55-odd hours of listening later, you’ll be done. This is what originally attracted me to this recitation—reading the Rāmāyaṇa “with the attention it deserves” would take me an unlikely amount of discipline and deliberate effort, while this was easier and more likely to complete—but there’s also a more positive effect: when you let yourself be carried along in this manner, the narrative structure and Vālmīki’s pacing choices reveal themselves to you more easily than if you were reading (where you’d need to make conscious effort to “zoom out” and keep the “big picture” in mind). For example, the “video-game feel” of the Yuddha-kāṇḍa where waves of formidable opponents are vanquished building up to the “final boss”, punctuated by well-chosen pauses in the action, was probably more unmistakable in the recitation. (Similarly the magnificent build-up to the grand Khara-Dūṣaṇa-14000 battle in the Araṇya-kāṇḍa…) The Sanskrit language allows for careful construction, so Sanskrit literature rewards and encouraging close reading, which means that even long works (even some plays!) are often best read as collections of muktakas, examining each jewel closely before proceeding—but if you do that and don’t get to experience the “big picture” and “flow” in narrative epic literature of the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata, where else would you get them?

The second dimension is the role of imagination in interpretation. We’ve all had the experience of watching a film based on a book we’ve read earlier, and finding that the film’s portrayal differs from what we had imagined.4 Invariably any song, film, play, narration, lecture, etc. based on a text will bring some interpretation of the performer (and ideally thus enhance it). (An audiobook also falls into this category: I’ve heard bits of Stephen Fry’s Harry Potter audiobooks and enjoyed them: he performs the sentences, doing a different voice for every character, etc.) In fact the best performances bring out some nuance of interpretation that we may have missed.

When reading a book, though, it’s entirely up to you: every line of text is printed in the same format; the text’s presentation itself isn’t modulated to match what is going on in the content. (With exceptions like bold and italic fonts,5 but even those are rarely used in Sanskrit printing practice.) Good typography is supposed to be pleasing and uniform. This is what the recitation format does: you feel like you’re getting direct access to the text itself, for you to interpret, without the recitation intruding in any way. (And this particular recitation by the Ghanapāṭhi-s is like a book with really good typography, typeset in the best fonts and laid out tastefully on high-quality paper. They never stumble over any of the verses, and their clear-as-a-bell recitation helps you know where words/morphemes begin—overcoming the usual Sanskrit-beginner difficulties of sandhi and samāsa—much more easily than if you were reading. Their recitation is conscious of the “meaning” precisely to this extent and no further.)

If we were to summarize this as a table:

Format Pacing Interpretation
Book Free Free
Performance Fixed Premeditated
Recitation Fixed Free

— a recitation has the pacing of a performance and the interpretability of a book. This makes it unique and I enjoyed the experience, though one could equally well view both of these points as negatives. :-) And having not heard other examples of the recitation format, I suspect that much of my enjoyment in this case was because of the special combination of reciters and language and text.

Train analogy

As I was writing all this, it struck me that a perfect analogy was that of taking a train journey through a region to see it for oneself, rather than say walking through or living in those areas (reading), or taking in someone else’s depiction of it (performance):

The last two remind me of a poem we read in school, From A Railway Carriage by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1885:6

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.

Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
All by himself and gathering brambles;
Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
And there is the green for stringing the daisies!
Here is a cart run away in the road
Lumping along with man and load;
And here is a mill and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone for ever!

I’ll only add that if recitation is like taking a train, this recitation, by Veda•bhāṣya•ratnam Brahma•śrī Salakṣaṇa•ghanapāṭhī V. Śrīrām and Svādhyāya•ratnam Brahma•śrī Salakṣaṇa•ghanapāṭhī Harisītārāmamūrti, is like travelling first-class in the best train.

You can find the audio files here, or aligned with text here and here.

  1. For example, in this recent video (07:00 to 13:00), B. N. Shashikiran exhorts every student of Sanskrit to read the Rāmāyaṇa, praising Vālmīki and saying that learning Sanskrit would be a waste if one doesn’t do so. ↩︎

  2. In hindsight there are a few reasons making the first sarga especially easy to understand: it is mostly narrative rather than descriptive, and moreover telling a story we already know, so there’s a lot we can fill in from context. Still, the comprehensibility is mainly due to the recitation format and the particular reciters; more on that later. ↩︎

  3. As an aside, that post indirectly led to Avinash Varna creating an audio⟷text alignment in 2021 for which I wrote a proof-of-concept web UI in a few hours, and another UI that he and Hrishikesh Terdalkar came up with, which I have some TODOs for, etc — but more on all that some other time. ↩︎

  4. Who’s your favourite Sherlock Holmes on screen? The Granada series with Jeremy Brett is very good and true to the stories, but the actor who comes closest to the Sherlock Holmes of my imagination is Vasily Livanov. ↩︎

  5. Other examples may be Terry Pratchett’s uppercase for DEATH’s lines, and some experiments in “kinetic typography” — actually, I remember Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch (I think) with subtitles that danced and splattered on screen. ↩︎

  6. I cannot help reading this poem in the voice from 20:00 to 23:00 here: W. H. Auden’s “verse commentary” set to Benjamin Britten’s score and narrated by Stuart Legg, from Night Mail↩︎