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Patil balances the spiritual and the scientific in her revisiting of the Mahabharat. Photo: Courtesy HarperCollins.
Patil balances the spiritual and the scientific in her revisiting of the Mahabharat. Photo: Courtesy HarperCollins.

Book Review | Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean

Words and images come together majestically in this visual retelling of the epic

Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean | Amruta Patil

Worth its weight in gold

To know if a tale is worth its weight in gold, check if it reveals itself threefold. In your bloodstream. In the town square. In the turning of galaxies. If it does: Gold. If it makes you giddy just to think of the scope of the tale: Gold." With these words in the preface, Amruta Patil sets a ruthlessly high bar for her retelling of the Mahabharat in sequential art.

The epic itself, of course, has proven 24-carat true over its centuries of re-forging and burnishing, but a reteller retains enough power to warp the wondrous into the banal. Thankfully, Patil’s labour of love, which fans of her previous graphic novel Kari have been waiting for since 2008, meets her own standards.

Proof threefold: When her Ganga stepped off the page in vivacious charcoal strokes to point out that “this matter of stealing cattle always ends badly", my bloodstream pulsed with the mimetic reality that believers in the Mahabharat live with; this was neither hagiographic nor exoticized. Proof of the publicly shared appeal in the town square mandi of attractive retellings came when the bellboy at my hotel asked to see the book, and flipping through appreciatively, stopped, rather to my discomfort, at a tasteful pastel of Pandu and Madri making love.

Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean: HarperCollins, 276 pages, Rs799.
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Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean: HarperCollins, 276 pages, Rs799.

It is a pleasure to sink into a retelling that is not unduly defensive about balancing spiritual passion with scientific rationality. Because Patil writes the way most of us live with the story—as though it is an elderly ajji or nani whose gnarled hands have given us oil massages and mouthfuls of dal-chawal, with a body familiar from snuggles and shoulder-rides, the flab and the bones alike smelling familiarly of talcum powder and sweat, whose politics and morality you may rage at with your feminism and Marxism but whose loyalty and devotion to the family is demonstrated through copious food-feeding and whose ancient mango-stealing past commands the reverence of feet-touching.

Her Mahabharat wanders through memoryscapes—now Vinata and Kadru are debating the blackness of a white horse’s tail, over there Janmejaya stews over his earth-scorching yagna, here people wander in and out of Ganga’s story demanding digressions about dogs or devas and meanwhile Ashwatthama broods wordless under the tree.

The best kathakars know that only a very shallow world can be fully explained, but rather, that contradictions and mysteries must populate the tale to provide opportunities for confusion and empathy. Patil embraces the multiple conflicting realities that make up the Mahabharat—she sometimes argues with it, sometimes provides sly interjections, but never for a moment did I sense that she has stopped believing in the urgent reality of it. Like a classical dancer who uses a 13th century padam with 19th century reconstructed hastas and 21st century lights to talk about a love for Krishna that is at once referencing a mythic past and a continuous present, Patil’s art swirls around charcoals and pastels, to collages on newsprint, to visual allusions across boundaries: Aphrodite arising out of the water, Tibetan lotuses, double-helix DNA, Orion in the night sky, snakes and ladders. Gandhari wears a kaftan while Kashmiri and Central Asian embroideries dance across the page border, Kunti wears a Bengali white sari with red border, while Madri is in a salwar-kameez.

There is meticulous craft behind Patil’s paean to this tale, and this is a graphic novel in the truest sense of the term because her art and her words come together like diamonds to show different facets of the same rainbow-lit characters (one of the small moving moments is a teeny Garuda bowing down while a Vishnu mask hovers in the background, and Patil writes about master sword makers who are relentless with their priceless work. It’s the sort of matter-of-fact acceptance of the magnitude of bhakti that straddles calendar art and qawwalis).

My one complaint, given how thoughtful the work is, is that Patil hasn’t deviated enough from the bigoted artistic tradition of colourism that codes darker skin tones for the poor, the asuras and the lower-caste, while Vishnu and Shiva are elevated to blue. Her palette is more complicated than the stark offensiveness of Amar Chitra Kathas, and she has jungle-roaming rishis satisfyingly tanned dark, but in the face of centuries of skin politics and anti-Dalit and anti-Dravidian rhetoric, it would have been nice if her art could have challenged the misinterpretation of “krishna" as blue instead of black.

Adi Parva is eponymously the beginning, and this volume ends with a recently widowed Kunti contemplating her return to Hastinapur with five young sons. We have yet to see what Patil will make of Arjun and Subhadra, Karna and Draupadi, Yayatsu and Krishna. The actual Mahabharat has not even begun, but already the river of Patil’s imagination is so vast and deep that it does not matter that we cannot see the shore banks. Like the majhi whom we must entrust ourselves to, she seems on a steady course towards the beloved.

Write to lounge@livemint.com

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