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Amruta Patil:

Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean

On Friday September 28th, 6.30-7.30pm at Foyles Bookshop, Charing Cross Road, London, Comica at Foyles presents ‘Visions of India’, the first and only UK speaking engagement by the acclaimed Indian graphic novelist Amruta Patil, in a Comica Conversation with novelist Neel Mukherjee. Tickets are available for £6 each online. Here is a brand new interview with Amruta in which she discusses her mind-expanding new work, Adi Parva, out in October from Harper Collins India and launching in London at this Foyles evening, her first and only UK speaking engagement. Don’t miss this extraordinary opportunity in association with the South Asian Literature Festival!

Paul Gravett: Reading Adi Parva and not sharing your depth of knowledge and culture about such a ‘cosmic tale’ as you are telling here, I feel like I am among the audience of the sutradhaar or threadbearer. So I have questions to ask you, even if they are not ‘diamonds of insight’, to quote your Author’s Note in the book.

Amruta Patil: That is a delightful way to describe it. As it turns out, I think most young people in urban India have little more information about the tale than what cultural osmosis may have brought them, so I would hope that they feel like part of Ganga’s audience too.

Can you describe your personal connections to the Mahabharat and what drew you to create your own re-telling?

See, I grew up in a nuclear family that is cosmopolitan and decidedly atheist in its alignment. So while I did end up being grazed by cultural behemoths such as BR Chopra’s Mahabharata TV series or Amar Chitra Katha comics, my upbringing was far from being one steeped in traditional lore. No storytelling granny whispering Krishna stories in my ear at bedtime!

So my journey into the arms of the epic was a fairly solitary one. I started reading various versions of the Mahabharata at the age of twenty one, and kind of didn’t stop. And somehow - and its so hard to say this without venturing into hokey-territory - there was always a sense of recognition in meeting the tales. Like I was taking off layers of wallpaper and seeing what the walls were really like. Let me just say it: I was meant to do this. It was inevitable that I work on Parva.

What role does the Mahabharata still have to play in our scientific 21st century? Is it less about the ‘musty past’, more about how ‘to engineer the future’?

The mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik noted that people seem to think that mythology is for the babies and the intellectually lightweight. If one were to make that judgement based on the shabby renditions of mythology that exist in various media, it may not be misplaced; but it is certainly not a point of view that comes from really knowing what one is talking about. When Dawkins writes a book like The God Delusion, atheists-who-swear-by-science in the Indian subcontinent - not wanting to be left out of anything global and trendy - run to embrace it, without taking cognisance of the fact that nothing about Indian mythological lore is inimical to scientific thought. Or to doubt. Or dissent. Or enquiry.

Mythology is the distillate of the wisdom of innumerable men and women who have lived through history. How could any single-auteur project even come close? The simplicity of good mythology is a mark of its sophistication, not of its simple-mindedness. That would be like alleging a machine with many buttons and toggles is better than one with a flat-screen interface.

History-centric tales risk datedness and partisan reportage. The turf that mythology unfolds on is the human psyche,  which is not any different in 2000 AD than it was in the 3000 BC. Our ancestors were not Version 1.0 of some Version 4.5 human being we are today. They were as smart, as innovative, they did much more with far less; and they certainly employed greater resourcefulness and observation than most of us do in our lives today. To throw away their legacy, to throw the baby away with the bathwater - this is not just irresponsible, it is highly arrogant and presumptuous.

How did you choose which ‘threads’ to weave together from the Mahabharata for your book?  How have you organised these threads into a ‘skein’ to form a trilogy?

How were the threads chosen? Through relentless, relentless sifting. I am one hundred percent sure that I will be gnawing my knuckles in embarrassment and regret some months from now at having neglected this and overlooked that, but that’s part of the game. A book is always a few steps behind one’s own growth curve, and it helps to make peace with one’s own limitations, and resolve that the next work will reveal fewer of them. The aim was to always ensure that the circles were intact in the choosing of narrative pattern. To lose the cyclic quality, to turn linear - this would be the most unpardonable storytelling folly.

The collective makers of the tale (‘navigators of the multiverse’ if I were to use my theatrical Adi Parva voice!) have really been quite brilliant in its structuring, which is fractal. Which means that every fragment of the tale you break off ought to, technically, be a zoomed-in but immaculate replica of the essence of the entire. With the passage of time, and a slide in the calibre of both, teachers and students in the tradition of storytelling, rot sets in. But I am inclined to think that most incoherence is a recent malaise, the inevitable side effect of trying to contain an ocean of aural/oral data into the rickety confines of written text. And when innumerable storytellers were carrying the tales like tributaries pouring in the Ganga, who is to say that what was recorded was the version told by the most capable or talented of these storytellers? These stories were never meant to be read, see? They were meant to be heard, to be held in memory, to be seen in performance by the masses. They are very very far from ‘The Word’ as the Judeo-Christian tradition knows its lore to be.

In Adi Parva, a celestial-terrestrial river is the narrator, and fittingly, she brings the wonderful, surreal, sexy stories from the skies to earth. In Sauptik Parva, a Chiron-like wounded healer is the narrator, and he takes us through the stories of mortals and semi-divine beings all headed to inevitable decimation. The third part of Parva completes the circle, takes us back from the blood and viscera and vengeance, to beautiful pure-palette worlds.

How do you deal with contradictory or overlapping versions, for example of creation myths? You write: ‘The conclave of creators is a crowded space’. You seem to want to avoid didacticism and dogmatism, yet you have found wisdom in these stories and subtly point it out, for example in phrases like ‘periodic hopelessness is a great eye-opener’.

The liberating thing about the tradition I come from is that we have no discomfort around contradictions. If one has gone around the block only to emerge as an evangelist with a single bottle of tonic to peddle to address every malady and human situation under the sun, then one has missed the point by a hundred miles.

What lies behind your approach to your narration, where it comments on the story itself and its telling and reading? You also mix in modern terms like ‘blip’ , ‘dishy’, ‘genetic data’, ‘multiverse’ or ‘positive particles’, and occasionally include the first person - ‘let me say…’? 

There is a much-quoted verse called the Nasadiya Sukta from the Rig Veda:

‘Whence this creation has arisen
perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not -
the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven,
only he knows – or perhaps he does not know.’

Now tell me if it would have sounded amiss in the narrative of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos! I rest my case.

I found this comment by the woman narrator thought-provoking: “In any case, you are not held captive by old narratives. Tales must be tilled like the land so they keep breathing. The only thing you owe allegiance to is the essence.” (page 116). How did you deal with the gender roles and imbalances of these tales?

We are spiralling down from being a body-confident people whose alpha god, Shiv, self-confidently proclaimed his being the half-female male (he is often depicted with one half of his body as male and the other half female) to being a people who will exile an artist because he ‘dared’ depict a goddess unclad. This narrowing field of vision is apparent everywhere. It is troubling to watch an intellectually sophisticated and non-bigoted worldview being mangled into ugly forms by people whose homework is woefully inadequate.

As a citizen of the planet who isn’t comatose, one needs to do what one can do. If I were a lawmaker, I would’ve worked at amending rusty bits of the constitution. If I had been a journalist, I would’ve tried to pack some resounding punches and make incisive exposes. I am neither of these things. Nor am I some top-grade genius mind. All I know is how to write and how to draw, and train my attention with some consistency. But with these things, I will do what I can. My friend Stefano Noia nailed it when he said, “I’m seeing if I have it in me to be the best f***ing version of myself to walk this planet.” God, you gotta love the dreamy ones who find it in them to step out and give things their best shot.

The gender imbalance that may be perceived in tales is, again, a byproduct of Chinese-Whispers storytelling. At the core of the philosophy lies the need to strike balance. Equilibrium between personal endeavour and divine inspiration; between engagement and detachment; evolution and basic instinct; and between the masculine and feminine energies that are active/latent within each of us. As the narrator gently reminds someone in the audience, “Is it really the story that is engendered, or is it your vision of it?”

Why did you decide to contrast the grey (charcoal? pencil?) ‘real’ setting of the storyteller and audience with the vibrant painted colours of the tales themselves (what medium is this in?)? Did you feel a need for a space for down-to-earth discussion, footnotes and debate, like a chorus in Greek drama?

Yes! The omniscient/prescient voice needed to be countered by the tentative voices, the belligerent voices, the childlike voices, the voices that make the bad jokes and sexist remarks. That’s what the soundtrack of our world is, isn’t it? And why ought a sincere question be stifled simply because the asker isn’t floating in some godly realm? This is also the reason why I chose the visual treatment that I have for the book. It is a book of colour and black-and-white sketches, no more - the limitations are there for everyone to see. Things do not need to be assembly-line perfect. As you evolve, your questions get more streamlined; and indeed your painted pages start looking better! 

How did you plan this book - was there a script first, or a ‘storyboard’, or did words and images arise together? How much did you change of your words once you’d made your pictures? and vice versa? Did you paint each single panel separately? Or work in whole complete pages?

Normally, I script before I draw; but with this one, the process was simultaneous. Since it chronicled a personal journey as much as Ganga’s narrative, I made the conscious decision to not throw away a single page. If something was awful, I painted over as much as I could and then stopped. You can see the patchiness. But since I did not paint sequentially, the awful pages are interspaced with the more resolved ones. Most newer pages are on a single sheet of paper, the older ones are more fragmented. As always, I am far more at peace (relatively speaking) with the text than with the images. The text was a river, and I can vouch for the fact that it flowed into me from some intangible fount that isn’t me.

What was your experience like working on this project as part of a residency at La Maison des Auteurs in Angoulême, France? What sort of practical and emotional help did they give you?

My need from France was that of hermitage. No more and no less. I needed what Virgina Woolf called ‘a room of her own’. I wasn’t looking for a feast of friends. I needed safety, solitude, stability, sanctuary. La Maison des Auteurs - and a grant from the French embassy of New Delhi - ensured that I had all of that for one charmed year. I got a lot done. I’m grateful.

You write: ‘Most beings will only acknowledge a real visionary posthumously.’ This could be seen as a comment on the struggle of artists, including those like yourself working with comics, to be recognised? I saw that you took part in July in a workshop in India about graphic novels and one piece of feedback criticised the term and said the words were so much more beautiful and powerful than pictures - how would respond to this persistent resistance to the comics medium?

It’s too bad that we live in a world where patrons have completely abandoned artists. I am talking about patronage that is no-strings-attached. As for the words-pictures debate, I find it hopelessly banal. Is the story searing and meaningful? Does it permeate your membrane and keep coming back to your thoughts? That is all that counts. All else is just means to an end.

Are graphic novels finding the acclaim and audience they need in India? What is your view of where they have got to and what they still need to do to achieve this?

Given how niche the readership is (English-speaking, urban, age group 18-35), they are infact doing quite fine. It will never be a numbers game unless we start addressing drastically different concerns, and publishing in regional languages. Right now, I think the genre is in an interesting phase in India. Many of the people working within it are both author and illustrator to their project. Most of them are intelligent, conscientious people who actually have something to say; and are not just self-indulgently documenting non-lives and violent fantasies and menstrual cycles and efforts to get laid. This is reason for modest (if premature) celebration. The fact that it is a new genre and people haven’t grown up on a staple diet of global, homogenous matter means that people are still playing, experimenting, making their own rules. This may not last long, though I do hope we recognise the worth of originality - gauche as it may be. We need to just keep the bar high and not turn into wannabes.

Posted: September 6, 2012

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Adi Parva:
Churning of the Ocean
by Amruta Patil
(Harper Collins India)