Amruta Patil’s Mahabharat
The graphic novelist on retelling the Mahabharat over eight years and two books
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After four years of intense work, writer and painter Amruta Patil is releasing Sauptik: Blood And Flowers, the second part of her Parva duology, on 12 October. The first, Adi Parva: Churning The Ocean (2012), used the character of Ganga as the sutradhar (storyteller) who related the great origin stories, both cosmic and earthly, that led up to the devastating events of the Mahabharat. In Sauptik, it is Ashwatthama, the wounded immortal, who is left to finish the tale. Edited excerpts from an interview with the author:
With the completion of ‘Sauptik’, you’ve now dedicated eight years of work to retelling the Mahabharat. Could you tell us more about your attraction to the subject?
I had that not uncommon youthful insouciance towards Indian culture until I went to the US, age 22. While sitting amidst a pile of seemingly incongruous pieces, trying to make sense of who I was and what I had left behind, I fell into the epic. It may have been because the embrace of the Mahabharat is so cosy. I’ve been told you need to grow up a bit to understand the nuance of the Ramayan—I’m still waiting.
When I had to put together a solo show for my MFA (master’s in fine arts) thesis in 2004, Draupadi was my foremost fixation. Predictable, yes? After having cohabited with the characters so long and seen their place in the larger scheme, it is impossible to pick favourites today.
I did 200 images from the Sabha Parva of the Mahabharat for that show before abandoning the project. After a decade of living, I returned to addressing the same themes in Sauptik—quite differently than before!
As the ‘sutradhar’ of ‘Adi Parva’, which stories does Ganga pick to tell, in what order? She also points out patterns, interprets the tales, and responds to questions from her audience. To what extent is Ganga’s voice your own?
Isn’t that what makes storytellers so fascinating and perverse? Well beyond the maudlin scope of autobiography, the entire cast of heroes and rogues has gestated in the womb, gut, heart of a writer. Of course, Ganga is me—in that she is me as I hope to be; me as the end result of 11 years of patchy penance; she is what I am on my best days, and God knows that is not most days. But no character is more “me” than when s/he falls short. The successes are open-source; the wreckages are all mine.
You’ve said the ‘sutradhar’ must tell the story in the context of the times she is telling them in. This struck me, particularly, in the irreverence of the people who are listening to the tales (the playwright, the person who criticizes the “lazy plot device” of blessings and curses, the women who call out the mistreatment of women in the epic).
Ganga has her version of the story to tell, but there is no muzzle on her audience, no sword hanging on their necks. She may tease or scold, but never maliciously, and never without a lesson or clue hand-in-hand with the ribbing.
Wherever possible, Ganga pulls out a trope that resonates. Good teachers search high and low for metaphors and analogies that resonate. Shankaracharya or Shams, Groucho Marx or Grumpy Cat. Whatever it takes for the point to hit home.
Being ideologically oversure is not compatible with being reflective and self-aware. We are guilty of aggressive certainty all the time. When you set out with so much derision for the opponent, what chance of them giving you (or you giving them) a fair hearing? No chance at all!
Ganga talks about the toxins that choke her. I know that you’re deeply concerned about environmental degradation—how do you carry this forward in ‘Sauptik’?
The earth track is even more amplified in Sauptik—rivers turning dark, forest versus civilization. This isn’t even a contrived device because the very core of the avatar plot is: Vishnu will (always and always) step in to keep Bhoo Devi (the earth herself) and Shree Devi (bounties of the earth manifest) from being ravaged by the greedy and clueless. Whether it is Varaha plunging to pull Bhoo from the bottom of the ocean; or Krishna stepping in as Draupadi’s sakha (truest friend). Draupadi, in my reading, is a manifestation of Shree and Bhoo (among others).
You have short podcasts on SoundCloud about some of the artistic and literary influences that go into making your work—among them Diego Rivera, Paul Gauguin, William Blake and Pierre Bonnard. The paintings are richly layered and it’s great to hear more about the specific things that you did. You have symbols from all over adorning the Bhoo Devi and Sauptik massacre paintings, for example. How did you choose these symbols and styles?
I recorded those podcasts because it was important to acknowledge the peripheral loves—details that aren’t essential to the reading, but which are there, waiting to be found by fellow journeymen. I care more deeply for the wordsmithy, but my visual process is the more fluid and instinctive of the two. I play more here, I fumble and fail more. I freewheel with details, and there is a powerful element of chance.
Technically I have a long way to go, but I have learnt some things en route—why certain universes demand a certain colour palette, and cannot be randomized. I have also started thinking some things through more rigorously than I did in the first book—skin colour, for example; the effort to drop fussiness. I’m trying to work with honest, light-filled colour rather than hiding behind baroque decoration. This is true about my physical person as well. The process always spills over on to the person.
The Mahabharat holds such a large array of characters—any retelling that isn’t a straightforward chronological repetition is bound to be mediated by the storyteller’s preferences. Why is Ashwatthama the ‘sutradhar’ of ‘Sauptik’? Would it be correct to say that the characters you pick as ‘sutradhars’ are the most compelling to you, or even central?
Adi Parva is one of the paciest, most sprawling episodes of the Mahabharat. The emblematic element of Adi Parva is water. The book’s narrator is a river. Ganga is other-worldly, sublime—and the tone of Adi Parva is often detached, coolly intellectual.
Sauptik Parva, in contrast, is one of the most slender, dark episodes of the Mahabharat. At its core is Dronacharya’s son Ashwatthama. In this character, racked by lifelong insecurity, jealousy and a hopeless quest for validation, I saw the most human of struggles. Ashwatthama was a challenge for me. He is a man, a decimated man pitted against charismatic rivals he can’t outdo. There is nothing sublime about him, he is the anti-Ganga. Ashwatthama takes centre stage only once, for the most abominable of reasons: to slaughter the unarmed, sleeping sons of his childhood friends. He is cursed to wander as a wounded outcast for 3,000 years.
That old love of trying to straddle polarities, I wanted Sauptik to be everything Adi Parva is not: passionate, almost embarrassingly personal even as it periodically nudges the sprawling and multiversal. The book’s emblem element is fire. The fire of Draupadi; the fire of divine armaments; of human turmoil; and the dissolution of the-world-as-we-know-it.
I’ve heard you say before that you feel a kind of kinship with poets. Does this still hold true? In many ways your own writing must be poetry—spare and chiselled—in order to fit the medium.
Scripting a graphic novel like this is sculptural via negativa: uncovering the essence of things by whittling away all surplus. In my case, 400 pages of all-over-the-place notes were culled to 67 essential pages. A lot was necessarily “lost”, hopefully not at the cost of beauty and coherence. I have reason to believe poets work under similar odds. In skilled hands, poetry is pure, high-calibre pigment that shines with some inner light. The sort that can overwhelm with the intensity of colour even a smidgen yields.
Shreya Ila Anasuya tweets at @shreyilaanasuya.
A conversation on the craft of writing