An epic retelling

Why is it that many of us can narrate certain stories from our epics even in our sleep? Why do some of these characters and their destinies (Sita, for instance) perturb us so much that we tend to question the way society functions? Our epics and puranas are a source of endless inspiration — be it for writers, filmmakers, or artists — and the multitude of characters and threads take myriad shapes and directions in their able hands. The retelling of our epics is not new — in fact, it is said that the Ramayana has 300 versions. But what makes Amruta Patil’s and Ira Mukhoty’s books based on the epics special, is the treatment.

Ira has chosen to tell the stories of eight women from Indian history for her first book Heroines, while Amruta presents a graphic retelling of the Mahabharata in Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean (2012) and Sauptik: Blood and Flowers (2016). For Ira, it all began with Draupadi. She was working on a manuscript on Draupadi, when she and her editor came up with the idea of doing something similar to Heroes by Lucy Hughes-Hallett. She picked eight women from our epics and history because, “...they were names that would at least be familiar, if not beloved, for those who have grown up in North India. The idea was not to discover unknown women, but to look at familiar ones and try and understand the reason that made them so recognisable and adored,” she writes in an email interview.

An epic retelling

Ira says that she has long been interested in women from Indian mythology, especially the Mahabharata, with its “Complex and textured work, where nothing is really what it seems.” Heroines talks about two women from mythology and six others from Indian history. Ira’s interest was furthered by her two daughters. She searched for female Indian role models for them, rather than the “usual fare of Anglo-Saxon material that is available to us.” She found very little. Thus began her search that culminated in Heroines.

Ira delved into the “vibrant, ambiguous,” and especially “dark” Indian women. Skin colour came into the picture because she finds the topic “very noxious and loaded”. Who other than Draupadi, the “quintessential dark heroine of Indian mythology” to write about? Ira wanted to find out why the notion of skin colour changed over the ages — why was ‘fair’ skin more important than an attractive personality? Apart from Draupadi, Ira also picked Radha, a character that “had a rather unconventional life despite her later deification.” The six other historical women were chosen from “different eras of Indian history, to convey a sense of how women’s stories have changed over the ages.” Her ultimate aim was to explore how these stories were altered with time.

Amruta breathes new life into stories from the Mahabharata through her gorgeous visuals. In the graphic novel Adi Parva, the sutradhaar or narrator is the river goddess Ganga, while in Sauptik, set long after the Kurukshetra war, the narrator is Ashwatthama.

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The author and painter, says about her two narrators: “I wanted Sauptik to be what Adi Parva is not: passionate, embarrassingly personal, even as it periodically nudges the multiversal. And so I chose two sutradhaars that were as far apart from each other as possible. Adi Parva’s Ganga is a sublime river goddess, a queen, an unsentimental mother who can drown her babies unflinchingly. She straddles the worlds, involved and detached at once. There is nothing sublime about Sauptik’s Ashwatthama. He is the anti-Ganga: a warrior who could never be the best; a roiling, insecure man who spent his life yearning for his father’s approval, who assassinated his childhood friends’ sleeping children. In this character, racked by jealousy and a hopeless quest for validation — I saw the most human of struggles.”

Amruta feels that, “mythology is one of the earliest efforts to engage with and document human psychology”. She adds that her interest in mythology came from her “interest in the preoccupations and neuroses of human beings”. Amruta explains that our epics are a “visual person’s delight”. “The risk with any picturising of these worlds is that you take away from what was the turf of individual imagination. Which is why, I enjoy playing with media and the colour palette, and slipping in and out of visual styles — it allows me not to be too homogeneous.”

She talks about the techniques used in her novels: “You will meet Roerich-esque mountains, Rousseau-esque forests, Kalighat-style Hanuman, gopis that reference abhisarika nayika (from the ashtanayika pantheon), war scenes whose compositions come from Angkor Wat friezes. Beloved traditional iconography of Gajalakshmi or the mourning Shiva with Sati’s corpse on his shoulder are taken the extra distance — not gratuitously, or as a gimmick. I have lived with this inside me for years, allowed it to tell me what to do next.”

Amruta talks of how “rivers, and the decaying body of inhabited spaces” have always formed an important part of her writing. Sauptik, for instance, is said to be an ‘ecological tale’. The story cannot be more relevant to the present times where “forest is pitted against civilisation”. The waters of the Yamuna, explains Amruta, the “loyal backdrop of Sauptik”, grow “darker and oilier with the turning of times”. In essence, Sauptik is an “unabashed love note to soil and water, fire and flower”.

Taking note

Amruta and Ira pored through reading material while researching for their books. Says Amruta, “There were many insightful readings en route, but at some point, you need to stop reading too many things too close to the theme at hand. The sanctum of self must be guarded from clutter and derivativeness during the most important hours of work. Also, very importantly, my references come from all over the place, not just from the epics. So I kept the reading list diverse, and observed the fears and hungers of human beings, online and offline!”

Ira explains, “The research was astonishingly laborious! There is so little written history in India, even less so for its women. The challenge was to find sources that were as untainted with prejudice as possible, so that I could try and get to the ‘truth’, if ever that is possible in such an undertaking. I tried to use primary sources, though that is often not easy for a subject like this. For women’s stories, you have to use unconventional sources such as folk tales, ballads, paintings; for example, the miniatures of the Mughals, songs etc. in addition to the usual ones. I also discovered some wonderful resources, like the National Archives, which is a real treasure trove and contains a million potential stories! It took me 18 months to finish this book.”

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2020 3:56:21 AM |

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