Ancient mythology in modern avatars

The spectacular success of Baahubali and its ilk shows a resurgence of Hindu mythology in popular culture but with one difference. It is being created and consumed in ways unique to these times.

August 14, 2015 05:48 pm | Updated March 29, 2016 03:30 pm IST

There are scattered indicators — popular guest appearances by Chhota Bheem at birthday parties for giddy 10-year-olds, headlines that announce Baahubali ’s roaring, thumping box office success; over four million YouTube views and counting for Sujoy Ghosh’s short film, Ahalya ; the indisputable place of honour that Amish Tripathi’s Shiva Trilogy has in almost every bookstore in the country, and finally, the eagerness with which each of these is discussed, analysed, criticised and praised, but never ignored. Scattered, yes, but these indicators are also connected in a way that seems to indicate that once again there is a wave of creators and consumers dipping into the rich well of Hindu mythology that never seems to runs dry.

It is necessary to say “once again” because there have been definite precedents. Hindu mythology has, over time, continued to remain a favoured trope across mediums and genres in Indian popular culture. Impossible to forget Raja Harishchandra , the first full-length feature film that gave birth to Indian cinema; equally impossible to forget the mass obsession that was Doordarshan’s Mahabharata , or the literary masterpiece that was Ramdhari Singh Dinkar’s Rashmirathi . “I think that the mythology genre has always been the most popular genre in India. This is especially true of books published in Indian languages like Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, Malayalam, Gujarati, Bengali, besides others,” says author Amish Tripathi. Professor Susan Visvanathan echoes him. “Mythology never dies, it resurfaces with new interests. The seed of myth is the archetype, the myths condense the very meaning of existence,” says Visvanathan, Chairperson and Professor at the Sociology, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

What then is different today? Every age comes with its own interpretations and approach, as does ours. The narrative that defines us, or at least an aspect of us, lies within this approach. Today, as we see publishers with long, seemingly unending list of mythological fiction and popular TV shows and movies revolving around characters from our epics, we find that while our original source might be the same as the one used by those in the past, both our approach to it and the way we consume this genre has changed, with characteristics unique to our times.

To begin with, in literature the shift has been a very prominent and obvious one. Tripathi expands on his statement about the mythology genre in regional languages and says that till recently, not too many books of this genre were published in English in India. “Was that because the Indian English-language publishing industry did not want to publish such books or the Indian English-language readers did not want to read such books? I don’t know. But what is good now is that today the genre has become popular in English as well.” Westland’s CEO Gautam Padmanabhan further explains how this change has come about. “Initially all Indian publishers were targeting only the English educated elite that grew up on a staple of imported literature. Our first wave of writers in English mostly came from this demographic. The last 10-15 years have seen the emergence of a larger group of people who did not grow up with English as a first language and are therefore more comfortable with writers who write English using a more Indian idiom. The themes that these writers tackle also appeal to the aspirations and interests of this emerging demographic. These authors sell far in excess to the earlier wave of Indian writers. Interestingly their works work well when translated into various Indian languages.”

The next, and perhaps the most telling, characteristic is our need for a hero, along with the story. Mythologist and best-selling author Devdutt Pattanaik says that he finds this particular phenomenon fascinating. “I find many Indian mythologies being approached using Western heroic structures. (It) indicates how we have become so westernised that we don’t realise what we consider universal is actually rooted in Greek and Abrahamic myths, which is why we seek heroes and villains and martyrs even in Hindu stories that follow a very different non-linear cyclical structure.” Pattanaik’s observation holds true when we look at most mythological fiction, movies and television shows. In Sankatmochan Mahabali Hanumaan , an Indian television show that airs on Sony Entertainment Television, we see a larger than life titular character. In Arjun: The Warrior Prince,  a 2012 Indian animated film, one Pandava brother becomes the hero of a story that was, originally, a multicast affair. Whether it is the Shiva of Tripathi’s trilogy or Baahubali ’s Shivudu, we seem intent on finding ourselves our own mythological hero.

As some look for saviours, others seem to be delving into the grey areas in our myths, and it seems that the stories we grew up with can be dissected and analysed, and are not, indeed, sacrosanct. Today, more than ever, there seems to be a surge in books, movies and art that analyse episodes and epics in Hindu mythology, reading it from a contemporary perspective, and deriving from it meaning that was previously unexplored. Artist Moyna Chitrakar and author Samhita Arni explore Ramayana from Rama’s abandoned queen’s perspective in their graphic novel, Sita’s Ramayana , while Sujoy Ghosh’s Ahalya turns the story of Sage Gautama’s wife on its head, weaving in strains of sexuality and feminism. These, and several other instances of creative reinterpretation of Hindu myths, are supplemented by an increase in dialogue and critical analyses by readers, thinkers and academics themselves.

This aspect perhaps ties up with Campfire’s director Girija Jhunjhunwala’s perspective. Campfire publishes graphic novels and its mythology genre list is a long one. “The probable reason for this resurgence, so to speak, is the universal appeal of the character’s journey that is being retold in these newer versions. Changing the mode of narration-from the universal to an individual’s point of view-and bringing out the human side of these god-like characters has changed the readers’/viewers’ way of looking at them. These characters possess all human emotions including the baser ones. They fight, they bleed and their actions are not always driven by a higher purpose. These are some things that every person can relate to.” Relate to, and indeed, scrutinise. The epics themselves have been reinterpreted in a way that makes them more human and less godly. We find ourselves questioning storylines, picking holes and critiquing characters, connecting them with contemporary ideas and issues. Of the epic, Visvanathan says, “It is therefore the most novelistic form, and it combines post-modern interpretations quite comfortably without ever completing the story.”

Jhunjhunwala’s observation also relates to another important point — that of fictionalising mythology. Pattanaik, who has been writing now for 20 years, explains the difference between the study of mythology, and mythological fiction. “Mythology is subjective truth of a people transmitted in sacred stories, while mythic fiction is about reframing or rearguing or reimagining old stories to suit contemporary needs.” He adds that he’s seen a rise in mythological fiction of late. “It is essentially great fiction but with a foot in India’s mythic tradition.” Jhunjhunwala, speaking from the perspective of a publishing house that specialises in graphic novels, says that mythological content offers great raw material to an artist. “As most of these stories are based on quasi-truths or complete myths, the artist’s mind is free to imagine any world that he likes! At the end of the day, it is his vision that reader sees. The artist’s vision enables the reader to view a whole other world. This enhanced visual reading is also a big reason behind why the genre of mythology is doing well, especially in the case of graphic novels.” The already rich, multi-dimensional content of Hindu mythology has become the blueprint for many new stories.

What of our own story, though? Does this resurgent interest in Hindu mythology, whether in fictionalising it or in interpreting it, account for our own increasing pride in our heritage? Well, considering that almost all of popular culture’s mythological source is Hindu, this particular issue treads a thin line between our religious identity and a national one. “Hindutva did bring along a lot of changes in the moral consciousness of people by its carnivals, its calendars and its all night celebrations with images and Gods. The velocity of its image production is unmatched. Traditional art forms have always been prevalent, and the image making communities found a new market with the revivalist ethos. Secular state endorsed the production of images whether for the sake of art, preservation of ancient sites, or for political use” says Visvanathan.

Padmanabhan credits the recent rise of interest in this genre to an overall pride in being Indian. “The opening up of the Indian economy in the 1990s and the resulting economic success has led to a sense of pride in being Indian and celebrating all things Indian. The perception of India has also dramatically changed the world over. It is now routine to read glowing reviews of films like Baahubali in The Guardian and The New York Times !”

Can we then assume that this resurgence of Hindu myths is removed from a specific religious identity? Have the Hindu epics and myths been around for so long that they have come, in a manner of speaking, into public domain? Or does what Visvanathan says still hold true? With the continued reinforcement of Hindu iconography across mediums, is there also a subconscious reinterpretation and revival of Hindu nationalism and identity?

Perhaps the answer is yet to be entirely formed. Right now, this revival of interest is still fairly new and not entirely unproblematic in its approach. We see-saw between uber masculine, patriarchal symbols and critical and creatively progressive reinterpretations. In a lot of ways, our approach to mythology in popular culture mirrors our own see-sawing reality; one that has not quite understood or defined its own identity, and is still mulling over one or the other.

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