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Sonal Jha

Sonal Jha: Arun Kolatkar

Sarpa Satra Arun Kolatkar’s adaptation
of a “self-indulgent epic”1

This is a study of Arun Kolatkar’s poem Sarpa Satra within the larger framework of adaptation theory and attempts to bring out its merits as an adaptation. The poem is an adaptation of the incident of the snake sacrifice in The Mahabharata. Despite their aura and canonical status, epics are not untouchable or cast in stone. Their survival over many years has been aided by the fact that they are not ossified monoliths but fluid stories amenable to retellings. The oral nature of these texts has ensured that there is no absolute form of the myths. The stories have been passed on through generations and have been appropriated by different groups of people. This is evidence that the concept of adaptation and retellings is not new. The current literary climate is heavy with adaptations. However, academic awareness and theorisation of these has grown only since the twentieth century.

Walter Benjamin notes that “storytelling is always the art of repeating stories” (qtd. in Hutcheon 2006: 2). T S Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” claims that any new writer creates literature based on everything that precedes him. Literary history guides the literary present. Individual talent builds upon centuries of tradition. This puts into question the stress laid on literary originality. According to Linda Hutcheon, both the Romantic championing of an individual genius writing original works of literature and the capitalist notion of individual authorship are challenged. This destabilises the authority of the original text and leaves any text open to multiple use by different writers and to interpretation by as many readers. This also devalues the literary canon because the reading of an adaptation does not necessitate the prior knowledge of the source text. Somewhat contradictorily, while adaptations devalue the canon, they also depend on it for their existence. They are, however, free to either pay homage or to lay into the source text with critical ferocity. This helps to incorporate political motives into the reworking of the source text. There is great subversive potential to these works because the writer is free to interpret and remodel the source text to suit the political questions of his times.

Most retellings of Indian epics have some political impulse inherent within them. Women’s folk songs from various corners of the country draw upon Sita’s experiences—as a motherless girl, a child bride, an abandoned wife, and a woman forced to give birth alone with no assistance—to speak of their own travails as women in a patriarchal system. Nina Paley’s film Sita Sings the Blues takes the plight of woman, through Sita, to a universal level by depicting its resonance in the life of a western woman, far removed in space and time from Sita. Sarah Joseph’s collection of stories based on The Ramayana constructs the milieu of the epic through the eyes of subaltern characters like Manthara and Surpanakha. Chitra Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions has Panchaali narrate The Mahabharata from her perspective. All of these retellings have in common  a ‘from the below’ take on what are essentially brahminical texts, a trait that Sarpa Satra also shares.

Linda Hutcheon takes on the charges of lack of fidelity and originality that are regularly laid upon literary adaptations. There is a view that these works are less than their original sources. She demonstrates how no text can ever be original because, even if we lay aside the presence of intertextuality, no text is ever produced by one individual. Designers, editors and publishers control how the writer’s final draft is presented to the reader. They can change the ideological focus of a book by a cleverly designed cover or a publicity campaign. The idea of fidelity is also a poor marker to judge a literary adaptation because adaptation, in essence, is not about replication but about reinterpretation. There can be no literary merit in a work that retells exactly the original story.

In fact, a well-executed adaptation only adds to the intertext that informs the source text, since there is no hierarchy when it comes to intertextuality and all texts exist in a continuum. According to Hutcheon, that which comes second need not be secondary. It is not a vertical succession but a horizontal plane of co-existence. She insists that an adaptation has as much literary merit as any other supposedly original text because it requires as much, if not more, literary jugglery.

All adapters relate stories in their different ways. They use the same tools that story tellers have always used. . . But the stories they relate are taken from elsewhere, not invented anew. (Hutcheon 2006: 3)

This leads to a work of literary adaptation resembling the Barthesian text. Roland Barthes in “From Work to Text” made a distinction between work and text. As opposed to a conventional literary work, a text is a plural web of significations that a reader negotiates without reducing it to a single level of meaning. A text is a “stereophony of echoes, citations, references” (Barthes qtd. In Hutcheon 2006: 6). In its myriad allusions an adaptation resembles this. In conjunction with the source text and other retellings, if there are any, an adaptation forms a palimpsest, with numerous layers of meaning. In this manner, while it can be read in conjunction with the source, it still holds meaning on its own. As Hutcheon notes, despite being reworkings of other texts, adaptations do not lose the Benjaminian aura. They are not copies in an age of mechanical reproduction, rather they are creative reinterpretations.

Julie Sanders states that “a culture’s mythology is its body of traditional narratives” (2006: 63). In our case this mythology largely stems from the two great epics—The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. According to Sanders, myths depend upon perpetual reinterpretation and recycling to retain currency in every generation. She quotes Roland Barthes’ Mythologies according to which “the fundamental character of mythical concept is to be appropriated” (2006: 63). He sees myths as a kind of metalanguage that speaks over generations to different cultural groups—“mythical speech is made of a material which has already been worked on so as to make it suitable for communication” (Sanders 2006: 63). With each instance of adaptation it renews its meaning. This makes myth a fluid concept. It constantly adapts, changes, recycles and alters.

Sarpa Satra is the reworking of the myth of Janamejaya’s snake sacrifice from The Mahabharata. The son of Parikshit and the great grandson of Arjun, Janamejaya vows to annihilate all snake people, the Nagas, to avenge the death of his father who died of a snake bite. The poem begins with Janamejaya’s perspective. He recounts how a “scheming snake” (186) thwarted all measures of security taken by his father and bit him, killing him and destroying the whole palace as a result. It is a short section that is embittered by the venom of the snake it talks about. Interestingly, he says “It was a scheming snake, I’m told” which puts the reliability of this narrative, and the motivation behind the whole enterprise into question. With the first line of the poem itself Kolatkar deflates the grand brahminical enterprise of the sacrifice. Janamejaya comes across as a man obsessed with the idea of avenging a supposed wrong which he never even witnessed.

The bitterness and hollowness of his side of the story is in sharp contrast with the narration of the actual proceedings of the sacrifice and the commentary on it by Jaratkaru, a Naga woman. She narrates the story to her half-human son Aastika, who is fated to intervene and stop this massacre of the Nagas. Her narrative appeals to the common sense of the listener and works to bring out the senselessness of the act that is being paraded as a holy sacrifice; the demolition of a whole race just to satiate the whim of one man—“one man’s twisted logic and madness” (Kolatkar 2010: 203). This theme has immediate resonance for the modern reader. The obvious reference is of course to the holocaust, but it reminds one of any one of the many dictatorship-led genocides of the twentieth century.

Her narration is suffused with irreverence as she mocks different personages and their pretensions. She exposes the sycophancy of the so-called learned people of the court who instead of advising the king to do better are more interested in making hay while the sun shines. They “invent a yajnya/ a complete innovation” and they want to “bag the contract for constructing/ the sacrificial township” (Kolatkar 2010: 190). They want to “wangle a job for themselves”; the “plum job” appeals to these men who until “the day before yesterday/ (were) living volcanoes of conscience” (Kolatkar 2010: 191). The theatricality and artificiality of the whole affair is mocked—

chief actors in this theatre
of the macabre
and are all busy playing
the various roles allotted to them...
in black--
black dhotis, black shawls
and black pigskin slippers to match
in which their vedic
costume designers have dressed them (Kolatkar 2010: 203).

She talks of the “wiping out of a whole species” (188) which brings to mind the struggles of modern society to maintain ecological balance—

soon we’ll start thinking of fresh air
as something unindian, alien
and antinational (Kolatkar 2010: 204).

Not only does this echo modern environmental concerns, it is also a dig at certain right wing groups who claim to be the custodians of what is ‘national’ and ‘Indian’.

She carries forward the irreverence to mock the very epic which is the source text of Sarpa Satra and calls it “self-indulgent... way too long if you ask me” (192). Not only is this a denigration of a brahminical text, it is also a rejection of official history that she undertakes

before venerable Vyasa gives
his own spin
to the whole of human history. (Kolatkar 2010: 194).

She recounts the burning down of the Khandava forest by Arjun and Krishna, the initial act that set the gory cycle of revenge into motion. The voices that Vyasa would want to suppress belonged to the “Simple folk/ children of the forest” who have “gone without a trace”, and gone with them is “their language/ that sounded like the burbling of a brook... the secrets of their shamans” (Kolatkar 2010: 196). This incident echoes the annihilation of tribal people and native populations all over the world by those with the power and resources to overcome them. The loss of ancient languages, cultures and knowledge systems along with these people is also mourned here.

She criticises the act of Arjun and Krishna, portraying them as boys with “new toys” in their hands; they “burnt down one of the largest rainforests in the land” (Kolatkar 2010: 195).

just for kicks... the fact
that now they had all these fantastic weapons...
they just couldn’t wait
to test their awesome powers (Kolatkar 2010: 197).

This is eerily reminiscent of the decimation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States of America, with their newly invented technology of the atom bomb, and even of the nuclear threat that now permanently looms over the globe.

There is also a brief reference to the issue of terrorism, a notoriously modern construct, in Jaratkaru’s criticism of Takshak—

he was always an extremist...
It only shows what cowards
all terrorists are
behind their snarling ferocious masks” (Kolatkar 2010: 193).

By exposing the hypocrisy of Takshak in abandoning his family and people in their hour of need while seeking pleasure in the arms of a Puluvan girl, she castigates not only so-called leaders who vanish when the public needs them but also men who cast aside their wives in search of pleasure but are immediately willing to claim property damage should anything happen to the wife, as happened in the case of Takshak.

Jaratkaru’s narration ends with her urging her son to take up the mantle of the saviour of both his people—the humans and the Nagas. Unlike the supposed wise old men of the court whose judgement is “clouded by rage, power, ego, pride” (Kolatkar 2010: 206), Aastika represents youth, and it is with hope in the youth that her narration winds up. The youth of today, idealistically, remain uncorrupted by history, prejudices and the lure of power. They cannot “Just sit back/ and watch this holocaust” (Kolatkar 2010: 207). She pins all her hopes on her son and sends him off to end the sacrifice.

However, the poem does not end there. It ends with another short section titled “The Ritual Bath” which recounts the end of the sacrifice. We are not shown what happens when Aastika approaches the court. It is evidently of no consequence. After all is said and done and life supposedly returns back to normal, the poet indicates that the destructive fire of revenge has still not been extinguished—“the fire lit for the purpose/ can never be put out” (Kolatkar 2010: 213). The image of a ceaselessly burning fire can be associated with an endless cycle of revenge that started with Arjuna’s mindless act of burning down the forest, led to Parikshit’s death, which in turn led to the massacre of the Nagas. The ominous ending is a reminder of the need to resolve disputes which could eventually lead to the implosion of the global community. However, the lack of a full stop at the end is indicative of the poet’s lack of faith in this happening.

The poem is rife with social commentary. This is where the skill of Kolatkar as the adapter is visible. He moulds events from an epic so as to provide a comprehensive critique of his contemporary reality. Even though the event and the characters are far removed from the modern scenario, the poem successfully overcomes any disconnect between the two worlds.

The process of adaptation sometimes involves a change of medium. In this case however, it is only a change of genre—from the epic form to the poem. There is also a change in the frame of narration. Its thrust is more modern and suited to modern audiences. An adaptation like its source is always set in a context which includes a certain time, place, society and culture. The writer, therefore, adds elements to bring contemporary resonance to a work in the process of adaptation. This includes the incorporation of a modern idiom and colloquial language—phrases like “mantra mutter” and “vedic event managers”—that a modern audience would identify with. While this is incongruous to the set-up of the story, it brings an element of humour to the narration which adds to the irreverent tone—

(Vyasa’s) self indulgent epic...
I mean 24000 verse, Lord have mercy!
What it badly needs/
is a good editor (Kolatkar 2010: 192)

Not only does this help the reader make connections with contemporary issues better, it also adds to the subversive intent of the poem through the humorous use of colloquialisms.

Changes are required when the adaptation transcends two different cultures. In the case of Sarpa Satra, the world of the original epic and the world that Kolatkar is attempting to reach out to are so temporally disparate that they might as well be two different cultures. Not only is a change in language required to bridge this, but also a shift in political thrust. Hutcheon pertinently notes that “adapters of travelling stories exert power over what they adapt” (2006: 150). Most adaptations employ a new take on racial and gender issues. Kolatkar too does this in adopting the perspective of the subaltern in Sarpa Satra, with a woman as the narrator of the main story, and a woman from a marginalised group at that, voicing the concerns of other marginalised groups of society.

Hutcheon’s use of the term “travelling story” immediately brings stories from the Indian epic to mind. These are stories which have travelled over centuries, generations, social divides and even communal barriers to become part of the social and cultural fabric. They are “accepted classic(s) with some universal truth at (their) core... (which) manage to transcend the time and place of creation” (2006: 154). In being adapted the story is transformed, the focus is changed and this leads to a shift in interpretation. Hutcheon evokes Darwinism to imply that stories too change with their cultural environment—stories evolve through adaptations.

However, the pleasure of adaptation lies in its retention of familiarity, along with its assertion of difference. After all these stores “affirm and reinforce basic assumptions” (2006: 176). It is because of this cultural resonance that these stories still find currency even after so many years of repetition. J Hillis Miller insists that “we need the ‘same’ stories over and over, then, as one of the most powerful, perhaps the most powerful, of ways to assert the basic ideology of our culture” (qtd. In Hutcheon 2006: 176). Adaptations also represent a desire to capture stories that may not speak to a new audience without a cultural repackaging, however are essential to preserving the cultural heritage of a people. The audience receives these adaptations as palimpsests which pack all the previously lost layers of meaning within them.

Kolatkar’s Sarpa Satra appears to be a successful work of literary adaptation, when examined through Hutcheon’s lens. It revivifies and reinterprets its source. It is politically motivated. Despite its deceptively simple form the poem manages to capture various layers of meaning within it. Kolatkar reinvents the myth of the snake sacrifice in the modern context in order to echo the chaos and disorder of the contemporary world. The dramatised flow or narration poignantly captures the duplicities of the modern world with its relentless use of irony, satire and parody. Sarpa Satra stands as a work of literature on its own, even as it is an adaptation of another source.


  • Hutcheon, Linda.A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
  • ---.“In Defence of Literary Adaptation as Cultural Production.” M/C Journal 10.2 (2007). 18 Oct. 2013. Web.<>.
  • Kolat?akar, Arun. Sarpa Satra. Arun Kolatkar: Collected Poems in English. Ed. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2010. Print.
  • Sanders, Julie.Adaptation and Appropriation. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.

1. Arun Kolatkar: Collected Poems in English. p. 192




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