kiskiKAHANI (the Ramayana Project)

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Book review: Holy Graphics

Rajashree Gandhi’s review of the much talked about Ramayana: Divine Loophole by Sanjay Patel.

Guess who’s the latest to get a drastic makeover? Rama! Yes, Rama, along with the entire crew of characters from the ancient Indian epic Ramayana, have got a graphic makeover, with strong colours, bold angular edges and a rather chic Pixar-esque look in Sanjay Patel’s graphic novel, Ramayana: Divine Loophole, published by Chronicle Books in 2010.

The graphicsspread over 184 pagesare accompanied by write-ups of various episodes of the Ramayana. Though Patel doesn’t claim any authorship over the stories or their content, as they are shortened but unchanged versions of the original/traditional Ramayana (if there is a single one), he wants his artwork to do most of the storytelling and they do manage to create an animated film on our retinas.

The style is almost linear, yet draws upon Indian folk painting/carving arts. While the colours provide a code to the characters -  all the demons are black, brown and dirty green; Rama is blue, Hanuman is white and quite unusually, Sita is dark brown – the relative sizes of the figures in various scenes denote the power relations between them, be it good over evil, or humility over ego. Interestingly, the design of the palaces of Ayodhya, Mithila and even Lanka, as Patel shows it, seems to have been borrowed from Mughal architecture, and it is a tiny bit shocking to see Dashratha smoking a hukkah.

Not only have the graphics got a new avatar, but even the words, phrases, titles, plots are presented in their contemporary version. Patel, an NRI who realizes the South-Asian extensions of the Ramayana, brings an international appeal to the stories. He achieves this by using phrases like ‘Cosmic Bully’ for Ravana, ‘kind of like a heavenly waiting room for near enlightened-souls’ for Swarga Loka, and ‘Monkey God’ for Hanuman. Words like ‘gross’, ‘smooch’, ‘sweetheart’, which aren’t likely to be found in a book telling a holy epic, make an appearance.

“What do you do when you have fourteen years to kill? Well, for starters Rama, Sita and Laxmana decided to hit the trails and explore the forest…Eventually, the three built a cottage in the lush hills of Panchavati. They found comfort in their routine and lived peacefully under the watchful eye of a great guardian eagle named Jatayu. Little did they know that their journey was about to come to a surprizing end, all because of Rama’s  good looks.”

The content of the stories travels from the  familiar to the interesting, serious to funny and from reinterpreting to reinforcing established interpretations. The empathy the characters share with nature and the forest is well highlighted, especially when Rama, Laxmana, and Sita become experts on plants, trees, roots and animals over the years, and when Rama asks Hanuman to replant the Dronagiri Mountain after they are done with using the Sanjeevani herb to bring Laxmana back to life. The scene where the monkeys scatter to find Sita is hilarious, and so is Hanuman’s outfit which resembles that of a Karate champion. Soorpanakha seems utterly cute when she fondly carves a heart with Rama’s name on the bark of a tree.

The reinforcing of identities, moralities and power relations takes place when Patel refers to Ravana as the ‘baddest demon’ without any sort of principles, Vishnu as the ‘God of Justice’ and Soorpanakha as the ‘Nosey Demon’. Kaikeyi and Manthara still remain villainised, and questioning characters like Vali and Vibhishana remain invisible.

“One day a demon named Soorpanaka, who happened to be Ravana’s sister, spotted Rama and fell in love with him. I know, gross, but hey, demons have hearts as well, even if they want to eat everyone else’s most of the time…Love can be complicated, but sometimes it can be downright dangerous, especially when a bloodthirsty demon wants to give you a smooch. And even though this demon can transform into a beautiful maiden, she isn’t fooling anybody, especially happily married Rama…”

The author’s cultural and regional identity reveals itself through the book. A Hindu Gujarati , settled in the United States, Patel expresses his awe for characters like Hanuman and Rama, whose values and actions worth worshipping were possibly taught to him since he was a child. He calls the story of Ramayana ‘the bedrock of Hindu and Indian Culture’. His work as a chief animator at Pixar shows itself in his rough sketches provided at the end of the book. The ‘Geography of Ramayana’, the scenes showing war, the bridge-building, the burning Lanka and Sita’s Agni-Pariksha are the most aesthetically rousing scenes.

Patel’s Ramayana is an interplay of words and graphics and hence appeals to the senses and sensibilities of its readers in a much better way than many other mainstream narratives of the epic. It doesn’t claim to change or challenge any part of the story, but it manages a fairly good job at its retelling and re-imagining; and for those who haven’t come across the story of Rama in its written or spoken form ever, Ramayana: Divine Loophole is a great, short and sensible start.

Sanjay Patel’s Ramayana: Divine Loophole is available at Open Space.

Rajashree Gandhi spends almost all her time either grabbing diverse ways of learning and expressing, drinking books and browsing through coffee at Open Space or loitering around the city of Pune.