Three-graphic-novels old Amruta Patil loves to weave words with images. Her previous books 'Kari' and 'Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean' (Part 1 of the Mahabharat-based duology) received rave reviews. Her storytelling is quite distinct as she takes her readers on a journey with her images consisting of acrylic painting, collage and charcoal. She has given a new dimension to the graphic novel in India. Now her third book 'Sauptik: Blood and Flowers' (Part 2 of the Mahabharat-based duology) is also getting a lot of attention and praise.
She says she had originally intended the project to be a trilogy. "I've spent eight years on this project. While drafting the war pages of 'Sauptik', I began to find the atmosphere oppressive. So much abjectness and grief! Rather than sending out into the world a book full of bloodshed, I decided to intercut the violence with the rasa-replete beauty of Shri Bhagavatam. Book 2, thus, folded Book 3 into itself." says Amruta during her candid conversation at Kala Academy.
Like her previous book, 'Sauptik' also has a sutradhaar ('thread bearer of the story'). In 'Adi Parva' the sutradhaar was the River Ganga and in this book it is the wounded immortal, Ashwatthama, son of Dronacharya - often considered as a negative character. Explaining her choice of narrator characters, Amruta says, "Neither Ganga nor Ashwatthama are very vocal in traditional retellings of the Mahabharat. Ganga is regal, cool-headed, magnetic. Ashwatthama is anything but these things - he is her opposite. Ganga recounted the stories with fond detachment. She had no vested interests or agendas. Ashwatthama's relationship with the stories he tells is a personal, deeply-conflicted one. I am interested in understanding polarities, in straddling them. If 'Adi Parva' was water, 'Sauptik' is fire. The first book was about femininity and birth; the second is about heroic masculinity and death. They lock into one another like yin and yang."
Writing or rather painting a graphic novel is quite a challenge. But for Amruta this journey was blissful especially with her new book. "With 'Adi Parva', I was still trying to figure out my medium, learn how to paint. I was struggling. A lot of the uphill work was done by the time 'Sauptik' happened, and I started playing. Working on 'Sauptik' was pure bliss. Good even on hard days."
Another interesting aspect of this book is the sepia text pages that intersperse the visual narrative. It not only makes a good reading but also gives a different perspective and as Amruta describes a breathing space for readers from visuals. "A reader pointed out to me that he felt 'Adi Parva' didn't have enough 'breathing space', it was too visually busy. The text pages in 'Sauptik' allow you respite. They have an intimate, journal-like feeling. They have scribbles and diagrams, and musings that spontaneously emerge in Ashwatthama's head," says Amruta.
The one character of Mahabharat which always finds prominence is that of Draupadi, a woman with five husbands who was humiliated in front of these husbands, which in many ways triggered the war between the Kauravs and Pandavs. Many feminists believe that the epic does not speak about her agony in depth and also her projection is quite patriarchal. Amruta opines: "Stories need to be re-told again and again. Sometimes they need to be 're-stories' just like sofas need re-upholstering. A good sutradhaar's retelling mirrors the beliefs and realities, the fears and preoccupations of her time. Speaking about Draupadi, the epic is quite clear that she was not treated right but that does not mean that she was not treated right in her entire life. The fact that she was treated badly the people had to pay for it. Also I like to look at human level rather than gender level."
The one point that mostly comes in feminists reading is sharing of Draupadi by five men. However, Amruta points out that the tale itself - which faithfully records Draupadi's complaints and rants - makes no mention of this. "Draupadi's grief, late in the story, is that of feeling let down, of feeling alone despite having so many self-professed 'protectors'. The matter of loving more men than one is never the issue," says Amruta.
He is not a very popular character of Mahabharat and it's interesting that Amruta has taken him as a sutradhar. While speaking about him Amruta says: "He is seen as this unidimensional villain, this guy who killed sleeping children. But such readings negate context. By the time Ashwatthama did what he did on Kurukshetra, which character around him did not have blood on their hands? I was interested in seeing the trajectory that led to making a demon of an ordinary being."
Nakul and Sahadev
Among the five Pandavs Nakul and Sahadev are the least spoken of characters. Not much is known about them other than describing Nakul as a person with handsome personality. For Amruta the twins were exemplary in the way they served their starry older brothers, and brought sweetness to tense settings. They didn't have to flex their masculinity in order to prove a point.
"It is often aggressive masculinity that is hailed as "heroic", and it is those who cry for bloody revolution who gather more fan following than those who try to understand various sides of a story. No one denies the role of front-line warriors, but it is in troubled times that you need the voices of quiet sanity most," says Amruta.
The one continuing theme in all her three books is the presence of rivers. In 'Kari' it was Mumbai's noxious Mithi and in 'Adi Parva' and 'Sauptik' it is the presence of Ganga and Yamuna, respectively. Here also she has tapped on the topic of pollution of rivers. The ecological aspect is very close to Amruta's heart, and another undercurrent in 'Sauptik' is about the clash between civilization and the forest.
"The Mahabharat has many entertaining and engaging stories that deal with human fears and ambitions. But the avatar story at its core is all about the avatar's unshakeable connection with the earth (Bhoo Devi and Shree Devi, and various manifestations of Shakti, including Draupadi). But the ecological aspect is seldom dwelled upon, despite how urgent it is to our time. In 'Sauptik', the burning of the Khandava forest or the mistreatment of Eklavya were themes that were meant to provoke discomfort, and drive home the point that no action - not even the 'good fight' - is without repercussion. To me, this idea is very close to home, and the presence of the ecological is going to get stronger in my future work."
Amruta's book 'Adi Parva' became quite popular when it was released over three years ago. Many readers were eager for the sequel, to know and analyse it. However for Amruta these expectations do not pressurise her. She lives in her own world of graphics and images and likes to compete with herself.
While speaking about her creative process she maintains that she works hard not to narrow it down too much. "I go to my studio every single day, but my productivity - at least in terms of what you can see - is highly variable. When it comes to research, my reading list is very diverse. This means that during my last two books, I was reading not just versions of the Mahabharat, but writings of Vajrayana Buddhist teachers, Sufi poetry, popular science, nature writing and art books. "
Amruta while working on 'Sauptik' initiated an exercise online where she started open-ended philosophical conversations on themes she was exploring for the book. "My news feed was flooded with a mix of breaking news and inanity. I missed the space to talk ideas, and so this was the virtual equivalent of a banyan tree under which idlers and seekers, quasi-philosophers, sceptics could come together and jam about various ideas. Some of these conversational push-pulls inform the texture of 'Sauptik'," says Amruta who had no inhibitions of sharing her process before the work was published. She also confirms that it was an interesting attempt at crowd sourcing some ideas.
Amruta further states lot of her personal passions in life - be it practicing yoga, or trying her hand in gardening - find place in her work. For her there is very little distinction between the two.
Another interesting continuing theme in her books is the human body as a metaphor, and the visual representations of human anatomy. Even though they are graphic they are presented as a piece of art. Amruta while speaking about it confesses that if she had she not trained to be an artist then she would have wanted to be a cardiac surgeon. She explains her work contains a component of her "fantasy scientific life".
The graphic novel is quite a new genre of storytelling and one should not confuse them with comics. However, it is emerging as a popular medium and getting a space in mainstream literature, which Amruta opines is quite different in Europe. "In India there is far more acceptance for it in mainstream literature as I live in France and India, I notice that graphic novelist will go to comic conventions or seminars. Here I am part of literary festivals and discussions which is very heartening. Also Indian audiences I find are skilful in understanding complexities. 'Adi Parva' and 'Sauptik' are not easy and don't fall into any standard, facile template of comics, and people in India naturally get that. Indians handle complexity better - maybe because our lives and stories have always demanded that out of us."
The one issue with mythological stories in current times is that they are highly politicised. Writing critically about one character can hurt a community or can land a writer in a controversy. But Amruta is firm that if a storyteller is clear about the desire to embrace complex narratives rather than just pick fights, there can be a way forward. "As a woman, and a person working with visuals - which can be far more accessible to the non-reader (most trouble-makers fall in that category) - I am aware of the risks. But one's own approach matters too. I question almost everything, but my aim is to understand the world not sit in judgement with it. I am occasionally irreverent, but never disrespectful and I am opposed to subverting things for gratuitous shock value. I do try to listen to what people have to say when their point of view is very different than mine. The greatest enemy of open-mindedness is oversimplification."
"My approach to storytelling is to shake the existing hegemony a bit, which is why it is not some preachy guru-type who recounts 'Sauptik', but an almost-feral Ashwatthama. Our stories do not come in a single version, and they have never belonged to one group of people." Speaking on political situations she observes that difficult political situation have, historically, resulted in very interesting work. There is a need for it, and peoples' awareness levels are high - even if mainstream avenues start getting more conservative and censorial.
The one controversy attached to mythology is determining whether it is history or just mythical stories. Many historians and mythology writers argue on this topic. But Amruta is beyond all this. For her these stories are more about human psychology. "Mythology is one of the oldest codified efforts to deal with human psychology. And it is this aspect that I play with in my work. For me the essence of the story matters, not historicity. Our country's tradition of retelling epic lore over and over, modified to suit the need of the hour? Now that is a historical fact."