Saturday, 3 April 2010

Ramayana retold for big kids

Pretty much my entire knowledge of Hindu mythology has come from comic books. As a child, we would pick up these condensed graphic versions of the Mahabharata at the station to keep us quiet on the overnight train to Bangalore. The pages of the cartoons would be interspersed with ads for Parle biscuits and competition winner announcements: "Master Abhishekh Sengupta of Calcutta has won a packet of coloured pencils!" alongside a spacey-eyed headshot of the said master.

Now, as an adult, my knowledge of another important Hindu epic is again coming via the animated form.

The Ramayana recounts of the life of the god king Rama, his marriage to the goddess Sita, their jungle exile, her kidnapping by the evil demon Ravana. Then Rama meets his loyal servant Hanuman, the monkey god, who later goes to Sri Lanka to retrieve Sita. Then Rama and Ravana's armies go to war. Later, Rama suspects Sita may have cheated on him so to prove herself she jumps into a fire and emerges unharmed, proving her purity. Nevertheless she gets banished to the forest as Rama is concerned his subjects won't take him seriously if he hangs on to her.

There's more to it, more characters and more drama. That was the abridged condensed version. Think the Lord of the Rings trilogy is dense? Try the Ramayana.  

Last month I watched a fantastic feature-length cartoon telling the tale from Sita's perspective, Sita Sings the Blues, by Nina Paley. Click through to download the film for free (after reading why it's free). But please, do donate if you have the means. Artists like to be paid. 

Then a few weeks ago I did a skype interview with the author and cartoonist behind another modern-day retelling of the story, Sanjay Patel. Sanjay spent up to five years working on the at least 100 illustrations in Ramayana: Divine Loophole

From what I've seen of it, I already love this book. The illustrations remind me of both classic Mughal art, with its flat 2D style, and Eames, in their angularity and colours. Patel did say that midcentury design is a major influence over his work, and he indeed studied that era while at CalArts (his day job is at Pixar, where he's worked on everything from Monsters Inc. to Cars to Up).

One of his driving motivators was not just to bring style and substance to the epic, but to make it accessible to a younger generation. I don't know that I'd be showing those pictures, with their bows and arrows and demonic faces, to my three year old nephew just yet, but I think he hits his mark.

You can read my story on Patel and his book here.

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