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Using Art as Narrative, Graphic Novelists are Retelling Indian Epics

Written by Arnav Diwan,

November 1st 2020,

When star-spangled patriotism first crossed with vigilante literature of century past, the image of fighter jets breaking skies in trail of American boy scouts became popular. We credit the recent ‘gritty, grim and realistic’ depiction of superheroes to the genre becoming mature. But to look at the post 9/11 sentiment in America, and how its industrial, hard power clamour militarized the superhero, it would be better to say that fervent nationalism has always driven the engines of entertainment. In the shadow of alien gods now rose mortal men prodigious in the ways of technology- weapons manufacturer Tony Stark led the Marvel Ensemble, and the Dark Knight traded spandex for Kevlar, his flashy muscle ‘batmobile’ for a decommissioned war tank. 

In the beginning, the Indian version of the superhero genre was limited to imitations, direct and indirect. “Pavitr Prabhakar”, written in 2004 by Sharad Devarajan, was an iteration of the webslinger as a dhoti-clad Brahmin living in Metropolitan Mumbai . The near carbon copy retelling of the story denied Indian epics a global reach.

But there was, side by side, the development of another tradition. Towering figures of polytheistic Indian mythologies, initially revered as idols, were being adapted for Television soaps and Janmashtami specials, since the advent of Doordarshan in the 50’s. There was no move to carve superheroes out of idols yet, but the foundation had been laid.

Abhimanyu Comic from Amar Chitra Khata

 Later, when the original medium of comic books finally crossed with its rich canon, India found its own way to reinvent the epics, and thenceforth, its own superhero brand. Amar Chitra Katha was the first of these adaptations. Anant Pai’s quaintly appealing illustrations and unaltered narratives served to, in the creator’s own words, ‘remind the Indian youth of their rich cultural history’. More importantly perhaps, these comics put an unquestionably Indian hero at the center, reframing history around the portraits of individual protagonists, with historic battles, struggles becoming part of their legend. Amar Chitra Khata brought Hindu epics, Mughal rule, and the Independence Struggle to a new impressionable generation as daring endeavours of heroic figures.

Post- Amar Chitra Katha novels have gone further in experimenting with the artwork. The narrative is still  maintained within the broad contours of the original epic, but the setting is still abridged, in a sense. The original material has been held in great regard by Western graphic novelists such as Grant Morrison, a prolific Batman writer in the New 52, who attempted to adapt the epics for American audiences in 18 Days

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Heroism has always had a religious intent in its design. With graphic narratives, the super in it has acknowledged the mythological tradition by reinventing its setting. In the change-up, the aesthetic and terminology of relics is adamant, but it is now powered by the media-engine of franchise driven tropes. The Pandava army in Morrison’s 18 days are not called kshatriyas, but Super-warriors.

Morrison’s style seems inspired by the behemoths of  space-opera cinema, with their superfluous coloring of technology with all things ‘ethnic’ ( the kryptonians in Man of Steel or other aliens in Star Wars). The result is a world blended with popularized tropes of High Fantasy and Science Fiction.  Everything, right from superfluous aesthetic to mechanical necessity, comes garbed in Indic inlays, engravings, marking the setting into new, futuristic fantasies. 

The Indraprashta kingdom of 18 days Mahabharata is an ancient world prematurely exposed to technology, where armies wield atomic maces, hellfire arrows and power-armours, fashioning Pushpak vimanas that draw design values from the Millenium falcon and Thropters of Star Wars and Dune.

By freeing the epic from its historical frame we’re able to refresh and recharge Mahabharata using the imagery of science fiction and superhero stories– Grant Morrison on 18 days Mahabharata.’

 Campfire’s The Kaurava Empire is another example of engraving the Arabesque in military steel. Kurukshetra in its blazoned warglory repeatedly gets struck by tectonic terraforms, as piston-powered engines havoc entire battalions; Bheeshma Pitmah dons armours reminiscent of Call of Duty juggernaut suits, with silver glyphs burnished in the metal; antimatter arrows zip around with laser residue. Giant maces bulge with data lines gleaming with technological menace, leaving thermal flares in their wake. Even Indraprastha is transformed; from golden palace to giant spaceship a la Justice league Watchtower.

Strip from The Kaurava Empire

The general idea here seems to be to locate these stories out of their time, and retain the greyness of their characters, the quicksilver tides of their battles and place it in new, cinematic traditions of  VFX futurism, in the hopes of luring western- or western hegemonized- audiences.

Once could say that hegemony is the new medium of passing entertainment across cultures.

At the other end of the spectrum, Vikram Balagopal’s Simian adopts a more unsettling, abstract, and minimal approach. Simian delves into an alternate perspective of the Ramayana, as an ailing Hanuman on the brink of death darkly recounts to his cousin Bheema the myths and malfeasance behind the war waged by Lord Ram on Lanka. Balagopal expertly reworks the dark and grey of dhamma and duty in the static cinema of his comic strips, doing away with the bravado in the process. 

Cover Art for Simian

In conversation with us, Balagopal explained his reasons behind shifting the perspective of the epic. “My grandmother used to tell me stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata at bedtime when I was very young and the episode of Hanuman meeting Bhima was the story I requested most often. I could never tire of it. Later I would discover that it was even a famous Kathakali piece called Kalyana Sougandhikam. Anyway, once I entered my teens I began to question certain aspects of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata that I couldn’t come to terms with, and soon found others asking the same questions. So, in some ways, Simian was born in reaction to that, to explore these questions but more so to examine the enigmatic character of Hanuman that had enchanted me for as long as I could remember.” The more grim tone that the novel adopts, drove him to colour it in black and white. He says, “at the heart of Simian, it is a story about choice and consequences. The regret of heroes. And there is nothing, I feel, that is more human than regret.”

The epics are as abundant with narrative depth as they are with visual imagination. To graphic novelists, they are the ideal stories to constantly revamp and reimagine for not just an Indian audience, but a global one. As Balagopal tells us, “These stories were originally passed on orally from generation to generation by storytellers, accompanied by the illustrations on temple walls, so they have had a visual life of thousands of years that translates well to any visual medium.

Experience Further: Beethoven’s most iconic pieces were reinvented as high stakes trailer tracks,with electronic beats and ambient landscapes, much like the modern renditions of these age old epics.

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Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

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