Reimagining Tales from Puranas and Itihasas: A Writer’s Journey of Engaging with Epic Heroines

Start Date:21-Feb-2022

End Date:21-Feb-2022



Watch the full conversation here.

“It is a singular and as yet unexplained phenomenon in the psychology of mankind that out of so many magnificent civilisations, so many powerful, cultured and vigorous nations and empires whose names and deeds crowd the pages of history, only a select few have been able to develop a thoroughly original and self-revealing literature. Still fewer have succeeded in maintaining these characteristics from beginning to end of their literary development. …the Hindus have revealed themselves the most perfectly, continuously and on the most colossal scale, precisely because they have been the most indomitably original in the form and matter of their literature. . . And this immense body of firstrate work has left us so intimate and complete a revelation of national life & history, that the absence of pure historical writings becomes a subject of merely conventional regret.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 1, pp. 146-147)

Over the long march of time and despite all the ebbs and flows in India’s cultural landscape, one remarkable facet of the Indian literary mind – a mind that has immersed itself in the literature that expresses the eternal spirit of India – can never be missed. It keeps expressing the timeless truths revealed to the ancient sages and seers in new forms and with contemporary vocabulary, touching the hearts and minds of generations across ages.

For this month’s Insightful Conversation, AuroBharati invited one such author, Ms. Saiswaroopa Iyer, who has mastered the art of telling stories inspired by the vast body of Indian literature, which in the words of Sri Aurobindo, is “thoroughly original and self-revealing.”

What is unique about Ms. Iyer books is the focus on women protagonists. She reimagines and retells stories from the Mahabharata, the Puranas and various other ancient texts of India which continue to reveal for the Indian mind those intimate and detailed aspects of a truly national cultural life and history – history that lives in collective memory of the race – which are often ignored or deliberately rejected by the official historiography.

The conversation between Dr. Beloo Mehra and Ms. Saiswaroopa Iyer started off with Ms. Iyer sharing about her journey as a writer. An avid reader since her early years, she spoke about growing up with stories from Puranas, Mahabharata and Upanishads. She mentioned how reading the Krishnavatara series by K.M. Munshi had a deep influence on her and in a way put her on a writing path, and influencing her approach to writing about stories from our ancient texts.

Starting from Abhaya, and then Avishi and Mauri – most of Saiswaroopa’s books have highlighted the warrior aspect of the leading woman character. She shared how researching and reading about strong women characters from the great body of Indian literature inspired her and hopes that her portrayals – though in fictional accounts – can do the same for girls and women reading her novels.

Speaking about her works Abhaya, Draupadi and Rukmini – all of which have women who love Krishna as the lead character, Saiswaroopa opened up about her deep love for Sri Krishna, right from her childhood days. She briefly shared about her own inner journey and how with a deepening of her bhakti and love for Krishna also helped her grow as a writer.

The conversation also touched upon the author’s intense research process that she undertakes when writing about female protagonists from the ancient Indian texts. Saiswaroopa shared with us the kind of thought-process that she went through when determining the particular aspect of Draupadi or Rukmini that she wanted to write about in her novels inspired by these fiery women. Interesting details about the political landscape of India in the Mahabharata era made this part of the conversation highly delightful.

Speaking of what should be the concern of a contemporary writer reimagining tales and characters from purānas and itihāsas, Saiswaroopa shed light on two key questions: what are some key things that a contemporary writer – who is most likely carrying in his or her subjectivity modern or contemporary sensibilities and biases – must be conscious of or mindful of; and how to balance that with the writer’s own creative freedom. The most important points emerging from this discussion are: approaching our ancient texts with sraddha and reverence, bowing down in humility to the vastness of vision of rishis such as Vyasa and Valmiki who wrote the Mahabharata and Ramayana, and constantly aspiring and working toward growing in one’s consciousness and widening one’s vision.

We also discussed how Saiswaroopa’s deep immersion in Indian purānic literature have shaped her as a person, and how her writing has deepened her understanding and appreciation of the spirit of Indian religious-spiritual culture. Several other facets related to Indian view of woman as Shakti, India’s cultural and political history, and a few other aspects, which spontaneously emerged during the conversation made it highly interesting and informative.

About Ms. Saiswaroopa Iyer:

An alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur and an investment professional turned writer, Saiswaroopa Iyer is the bestselling author of several novels, all based on legendary female protagonists from ancient Hindu literature. She has also curated an anthology of short stories based on the Kurukshetra battle of Mahabharata, published by Bloomsbury.

Saiswaroopa is a curator at Indic Academy and holds a certificate in Puranas from Oxford School of Hindu Studies.