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Amalgamating traditions

Saucing up the story

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How leather puppets, patachitra and Manga are used to localise the 'Mahabharata' and other great epics.

The 'Mahabharata' has always held a special appeal for comic-book writer and artist, Vidyun Sabhaney. It formed the crux of 'Chilka', her first foray into the illustrative side of comic books, with Japanese artist Shohei Emura. The story centred on a forgetful old warrior at the battle of Kurukshetra, who believes he is destined to protect Arjun from Karna.

This scope for experimenting with different characters and plot-lines in the epic intrigued Sabhaney, as did the idea of oral storytelling traditions which had ensured the tale was passed down through generations. The retellings were often accompanied with indigenous visual art, like the Bengali patachitra, Rajasthani kaavad and Togalu Gombeyaata from Karnataka.

A grant from the India Foundation for the Arts in 2011 had the Delhi-based artist dip further into picture-based storytelling traditions over the course of the last year, along with Emura. Sabhaney will discuss the project at a talk organised by the Godrej India Culture Lab this week, titled 'Image + Word: Recent Developments in Indian Storytelling Traditions'. She speaks to TOI-Crest about her travels, how the local art-forms have adapted to changing times and the country's growing graphic art scene.

Tell us about your research and travels over the last year.

I've been involved in researching three traditional storytelling forms - Togalu Gombeyaata, which is leather puppetry from Karnataka, Bengali patachitra and the Rajasthani kaavad, for the past year. I had collaborated with a Japanese Manga artist, Shohei Emura, in the past and we had become more interested in storytelling forms that combine oral traditions and the visual arts. We wanted to identify what the relationship between the oral and the visual aspects is. Each of the storytelling forms we chose has a picture component. In Togalu Gombeyaata, there is a puppet show, and so a lot of dialogue, movements of the puppets themselves and humour. The patachitra performers sing songs about a particular episode, and at relevant points in the narrative, point to the painted image on the scroll. With kaavad, the method is slightly different. There is usually one image for an entire story, and the performing style is closer to chanting, rather than singing.

As we got further into our research, we realised that there have been several adaptations and developments in recent years, in an attempt to keep these forms relevant. For example, in the case of kaavad, the traditional [version] is about one-and-a-half foot tall. Now the tourism industry in Rajasthan is quite strong, and what has begun happening is that smaller versions of the kaavad are being developed. From about three inches to larger ones that can be viewed in museums. So in the context of a tradition that is 400 years old, this development is very interesting. It indicates a move away from performance, and towards becoming more of a decorative piece, rather than storytelling. Also, entertainment has come to be dominated by film and television. So these art forms have adapted themselves to stay relevant.

Was there a particular episode from an epic that stood out for you?


From the Mahabharata, I guess it would the story of Virata (in whose court the Pandavas were forced to hide incognito for one year - Yudhishthira, disguised as a Brahmin, became the king's trusted advisor;Bheema became a cook, Arjuna a eunuch;Nakula the royal groom and Sahadeva, the royal cowherd. Draupadi became the queen's maid). We saw it thrice across the three different traditions. There is a lot of humour in that particular episode because all the characters dress differently and take on different identities. The performers really enjoy that too because of the humour. With the Ramayana, there is an episode before the story really begins, where Dashrath accidently kills Shravan Kumar. The patachitra performer, Arun, had a very old and beautiful scroll, and that scene stood out for us.

It was quite exciting. We spent a year travelling and meeting artists from each of the three traditions. It was interesting how as you go further away from the bigger cities like Bangalore or Calcutta, you meet artists who practice the form as it might have been practiced 80 or 100 years ago. They make the effort to take that extra step.

Was it difficult getting them to open up to you and talk about their art?


That was a challenge initially. But what I found was that a lot of artists are very forthcoming because they do want the tradition documented in a detailed fashion. Many feel that it is changing rapidly. The way they remember it and how their fathers remember it are completely different. So it was slightly easier because they do have a sense that something has been lost, and it must be - if not preserved - then at least remembered. Most of the artists were extremely hospitable. They really want people to visit, stay with them and their families, and learn [about their traditions].

Also, the interviews were quite personal because Shohei is a fabulous illustrator and he kind of drew everybody we met. A lot of people really enjoyed that because it made the project instantly quite personal for them as well.

In 'Chilka', you used the Manga style of art to bring alive stories from the 'Mahabharata'. How does this process of combining content and art from two different countries work?


It's difficult to borrow a storytelling technique unless there is a point to it. We haven't attempted to borrow anything, even from the forms we studied because there is something very unethical about borrowing [another technique] completely. It makes far more sense to collaborate with another artist who is from that tradition. And then build the work. With Shohei's and my work from Chilka, the comics use elements from Manga. The speed and action lines, focusing techniques are all very Manga-esque. Because I was collaborating with Shohei, who has grown up reading and drawing Manga, it is a very natural collaboration. The only way this can be successful is if both parties are sensitive about what the engagement means and understand that there is a lot of history involved on either side. Shohei had read a lot on the Mahabharata and had shown me many different Manga comics so I could understand how it works. Research is a very important part of making a comic because one needs to have a strong understanding of the time period, what people would say or wear then. If you make a mistake in terms of what you're showing, it will seem very incongruent with the story you are telling.

How evolved do you think the comic and graphic art scene is in India, as compared to the US or Japan?


I think it's growing. You definitely can't compare it to a country like Japan, where the comics industry goes into millions and millions of yen. What I find very interesting about the Indian scene is that there are so many independent creators, who are as well-known as some mainstream publishers. So they are given a lot of relevance, and while that is characteristic of the other countries as well, the fact that it's present in such a young scene is quite something.

The talk will be held at the Godrej India Culture Lab, Mumbai, on June 28 at 5 pm. To register, email indiaculturelab@godrejinds. com

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