It is often said that every story in the world can be found in the Mahabharata, the story of the great war between feuding cousins that forms one of the key elements of Hindu mythology. Like Hinduism itself, the Mahabharata and its sister epic, the Ramayana, are sweeping in scope and constantly evolving, and these collections of fables and parables serve less as historical records than ways to set down rules and maxims to guide our daily lives.
Many versions of the epics exist, especially the Ramayana, which has been adapted and modified by writers and poets over the ages to cater to regional needs and tastes. While Valmiki’s version is considered to be the pristine one, there are other versions—notably the devotional Ramcharitmanas by Tulsidas and the Kambaramayanam by Tamil poet Kambar. It is a testament to the tolerance and inclusiveness of Hinduism that such adaptations are both possible and acceptable.
Now a new breed of artists and writers is grappling with these timeless stories, modifying and taking artistic liberties with the epics to make them relevant to their generation. We showcase the breezy and bold attitude these artists share over the reinvention of these ancient works.
The Bolder, the Better
Like the classic desi immigrant, Anil Menon came to the United States for graduate school in computer science. For ten years, he worked in the software industry, eventually gravitating towards the dotcom boom.
Eventually, the buzz wore off and the work “stopped being fun.”
Menon decided to take one year off to pursue writing. The year was 2004 and he attended the Clarion West Workshop in Seattle, a six-week writing workshop, during which Menon had the opportunity to meet some esteemed writers he’s been reading for years. Inspired and invigorated by the writing process and writers’ community, a career in computers became history.
“All I can say is it’s been a long year,” chuckles Menon, a techie-turned speculative fiction writer whose debut young adult novel, The Beast With Nine Billion Feet, a science fiction fantasy, was published in November 2009.
“Speculative fiction is the genre for which the context is not fixed. For example, the dead can speak. Essentially you can break the rules.”
“People have said the Ramayana is speculative fiction because the characters are not real,” he adds.
Like many Indians, Menon first encountered the Ramayana through the pages of the Amar Chitra Katha comic books.
“I didn’t like monkeys and there were far too many of them in the story. I didn’t consider the bow and arrow—Lord Rama’s weapon of choice—to be a hero’s weapon,” Menon writes on his blog. “I concluded that the Ramayana was one of those tales written solely to punish kids for having time and bloom on their side.”
Reading the Ramayana is no longer a dreaded chore for Menon. In fact, he is co-editor of the Speculative Ramayana Anthology, an in-progress anthology for writers to submit stories that interpret the Ramayana in an “essential and innovative way.”
“Essential in that if the Ramayana was never written, a [derivative] story wouldn’t make sense. You can write a story where Sita does not make the same choices as a traditionalist interpretation, but Sita is essential,” he explains. “Innovative in that we’re opening it up to all kinds of interpretations. People usually stick to the traditional interpretation of what Rama and Sita represent and they don’t pay attention to new ways of interpreting the Ramayana.”
The idea for the anthology spurred from a speculative fiction workshop Menon co-facilitated last year with two other instructors. There were sixteen participants from all over India in the workshop.
Pervin Saket, a participant, wrote a story that interpreted Sita as an alien sent to Earth to investigate why humans have a fascination with categories: male, female, caste—the inclination to divide people to identify them. In the story, Sita herself ends up getting categorized on Earth. “The story was very different from others I’d seen on the Ramayana,” Menon shares. “Saket was bloody good before she came to the workshop, but I still pretend we discovered her,” he jokes.
Menon and one of his co-facilitator, Vandana Singh, were so inspired by the innovation of Saket’s story that they figured “if people really played with the events of the Ramayana, maybe we’d have a very interesting anthology,” Menon says.
Here’s a speculative Ramayana story idea: “Rama is a fascinating psychological study in torment. He follows duty at all costs—no matter what the costs are. So a writer could consider the Ramayana as the world’s first robot love story: robot-people completely driven by duty,” explains Menon.
So far, Menon and Singh have received over 50 stories from writers based in Thailand, Holland, Israel, United States, and a vast majority from India. The anthology is slated to be published next year by Zubaan Books, a feminist publisher based in India.
“The workshop and the anthology are part of creating a movement in desi speculative fiction,” Menon says.
He is quick to acknowledge that just because there is a growing interest in speculative fiction doesn’t mean everyone approves of the growing genre.
“The anthology will be controversial. In a Robot-Rama story, purists would be really annoyed because the writer is saying things that the Ramayana didn’t necessarily say. Lakshman could be imaged as gay. These are stories that ask questions that traditionally have never been asked,” says Menon.
He shares that Singh, his co-editor, is more cautious about which kinds of “innovative” stories work, and what simply doesn’t.
A handful of stories by American-born South Asian writers were submitted, but the turnout wasn’t as large as Menon and Singh had hoped.
Menon notes, “I’ve met a lot of second-generation Indians and they’ve all been very cautious about Hinduism.”
Writing stories about the Ramayana might not strike a cord with American-born South Asian writers the way it does with many Indian writers, theorizes Menon. “The second generation is seeing Hinduism from the outside. They grew up here, they might not know their native tongue. They are seeing Hinduism as their parents practiced it here in the United States, so they are not going to react to the Ramayana at the gut level. They don’t break down in tears when they read the Ramayana because they’ve had a different experience in getting to know the stories.”
Nevertheless, Menon believes the new generation will go on to create an American version of Hinduism that will be very different from the traditional interpretation.
“Their interpretations will be very fresh and interesting. They will take rituals and do them differently; they won’t practice the religion like their parents did,” he speculates.
A Futuristic Look at the Epics
It was when Gotham Chopra was reporting abroad several years ago, covering conflicts between India and Afghanistan, that he became interested in modernizing the genre of classic Indian comics that illustrate the epic tales of Hindu mythology.
“The Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses represents thousands of years of superhero stories. There is this amazing, deep reservoir of cultural history in India,” Chopra notes.
Chopra, a writer and superhero fanatic, wanted to create comics rooted in Hindu mythology that could complete with the superheroes of the West.
“I’m a huge fan of the classic Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) comics because I grew up reading them. But in a world of Pokemon and Batman, if I show my three-year-old son these old comics, he would be like, are you kidding me?” says Chopra, who now resides in Los Angeles.
Virgin Comics was born in 2006, a comic book company Chopra co-founded that garnered international attention for an array of Hindu Mythology-based creative products: comic books, graphic novels, video games, illustrations, and films. With a growing presence in both Asian and the United States, Virgin Comics quickly became a pioneering force in the rapidly modernizing South Asian creative scene.
“We built and scaled the company fast,” says Chopra. “In doing so, we may have gotten a little away from the core mission of the company. So we had the opportunity to refocus.”
That crossroad for restructure came in 2008, when Virgin Comics was renamed Liquid Comics in a management buyout and relocated to Los Angeles from New York. Liquid Comics aims to nurture interesting stories out of India that are culturally and visually fused with rich tradition, but also distinct and authentic.
The company recently partnered with comic superstar Grant Morrison to produce 18 Days, a graphic novel that re-images the Mahabharata. This futurist sci-fi version is illustrated by Mukesh Singh, an Indian artist who previously worked on Liquid Comics’s Gamekeeper, Devi, and Jenna Jameson’s Shadow Hunter.
When asked how he got his start, Singh says that it was the direct result of an art contest titled “Draw Superman Contest.”
“When you see the level of artistry Mukesh has brought [to Liquid Comics], its real research and study of the stories,” says Chopra. “He’s a kid who has grown up on all these stories. And that’s very much what we’re trying to do. How do we look at all these incredible art forms in this field and create something that is totally unique and authentic to India and the cultural heritage?”
Chopra isn’t afraid to take risks with how his team retells epic Hindu tales, both from a visual and story development standpoint.
“We pissed off traditionalists when we made Lakshman question his brother, or when we had Sita question why she had no say in her situation,” says Chopra. “Some people feel you shouldn’t push the boundaries because these are iconic stories, but we think you can, and you have to, and that’s what makes these stories perennial.”
“Every generation has this conflict, and we’re happy to be in it,” he notes.
Chopra may spend much of his time illustrating and modernizing Hindu mythology, but that doesn’t mean he is particularly religious.
“Certainly Hinduism was a strong part of my upbringing, but we were never very Hindu,” says Chopra, whose father is world-renowned spiritual leader Deepak Chopra. He said he can’t remember the last time he went to a temple or gurudwara because “it’s not part of his routine.”
“I still think the best form of cultural grooming is about family,” Chopra says. “I’m really close with all my cousins and we put in the time to make sure we all get together.”
The Joke is on You
Those who have followed the growing presence of contemporary South Asian representations are probably familiar with California native Sandeep Sood. Since 2002, Sood and his collaborators at Badmash.tv have been churning out deliciously fresh South Asian comics that reach thousands of readers weekly.
“ACK!” Badmash.tv’s latest comic strip, was started earlier this year. With the weekly strip making mention of the iPhone to Le Bron James’ controversial career choices, “ACK!” melds the tradition of mythological Hindu characters with relevant pop culture references.
“The way I came to understand Hinduism was through comic books [like theAmar Chitra Kathas], so ‘ACK!’ pokes fun at the fantastical mythological stories we read while growing up,” explains Sood, who serves co-founder and lead writer for Badmash.tv, an animation studio based in Berkeley and Pune. “In Indian culture, you see very little satire, period,” he adds.
The success of reality TV show Jersey Shore was an unusual inspiration for ACK! “We’ve noticed that television just seems to work better in Jersey,” writes Sood in the blog for ACK! “We wondered … could it work with the classics? … What if you took an old Indian epic and moved it to the Garden State? Would it be even MORE EPIC?
Only one way to find out. Take two dudes from the Mahabharata and put ‘em in Jersey.”
Satire might be commonplace in mainstream American culture, but are Indians ready to allow themselves, and their ancient scriptures, to be the butt of sophisticated jokes?
“I think it’s the perfect time [for this type of creative work],” says Sood. “People are really appreciating the strip and we were surprised to find a bigger response in India than the U.S.” Sood said “ACK!” has received a lot of buzz on Twitter, particularly from readers in India, and about 80 percent of the response to positive and 20 percent is of the “you’re destroying our religion” sort.
Reader outrage over Badmash.tv poking fun at Hindu mythology doesn’t intimidate Sood.
“To receive an extreme reaction is a sign that you’re making something worth talking about. I understand the sensitivity around the subject, but it’s my job as satirist [to push the envelope].”
“I think ACK! is less about religion per se than about the way that religion works as a component of cultural identity,” says Aron Bothman, the illustrator behind the comic strip. “It has less to do with Hinduism than with the particular take on Hinduism that you see in the Amar Chitra Katha comics and how that’s affected the people who grew up reading them.”
Though light-hearted in how he writes about Hindu mythology, Sood is not indifferent towards the weight of ancient scriptures.
“I’ve read the translation of the Mahabharata twice and I’d definitely researched this work carefully,” he says. “Obviously I don’t go with the exact historical interpretation. It’s important to look at the texts and interpret them my own way instead of writing about them blindly.”
Sood looks towards “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone for creative inspiration. “I would love to create the first deeply satirical show or movie in India, the South Park of India,” he shares
Rupa Dev is an associate editor at YO! Youth Outlook/New America Media and resides in San Francisco.
The Greatest Break-up Story
When asked if she would have made a film about anything other than the Ramayana, Nina Paley says absolutely not.
“I didn’t set out to make a film. I was living in Trivandrum and reading all these different versions of the Ramayana. Then my husband dumped me by email and I just became obsessed with the Ramayana,” she explains.
To cope and process with the unexpected shattering of her marriage, Paley started drawing cartoon characters from the Ramayana. What started off as doodling transformed into short animations and, five years later, Sita Sings The Blues was released in 2008. Paley wrote, directed, animated, and edited the film herself.
The Ramayana provided solace because Paley felt that her broken love story paralleled that of Rama and Sita.
“The way [my marriage failed] is uncannily similar to the way Rama and Sita’s [relationship fails]…And the question that I asked and the question people still ask is, “Why? Why did Rama reject Sita? Why did my husband reject me? We don’t know why, and we didn’t know 3,000 years ago,” she explains.
Paley, a long-time cartoonist and self-taught animator, said that as a white woman, she faced ample skepticism when she set out to make the film. Among the most vocal critics were Indian women, actually.
“Living in New York City, the women I met were mostly feminists who said they hated the Ramayana because the typical interpretation is so sexist. One woman said, ‘how can you make a film about Sita?
What a terrible story.’”
Ironically, it is feminists, Indian or not, who are often the most ardent supporters of the film. “At screenings, a couple will come up and start arguing as they talk to me. The Indian men will tell me I got the Ramayana all wrong but the women will say they liked my interpretation.”
An animated retelling of Ramayana is the overarching story that frames Sita Sings The Blues. What’s particularly vulnerable about the film is that Paley’s own love story, or lack thereof, is woven into the script narrative. In the beginning, we are introduced to Paley and her husband Dave happily snuggling together in New York City, and then to Rama and Sita, who we learn have committed to spending 14 years in the forest together when Rama is banished from Ayodhya by his father. Throughout the film, the viewer travels along the journey of Paley’s heartbreak over Dave’s abandonment and Sita’s heartbreak over Rama’s abandonment. We eventually arrive to an ending that interprets Sita’s death as substantial more hopeful and empowering than a Hindu traditionalist might believe.
“Some people say because Sita kills herself she is a terrible role model for girls. She kills herself, yes, but whether the end of Sita is a simple suicide or something much more profound–I believe [the latter],” says Paley. “She’s a lot more than a doormat.”
Sita Sings The Blues, from the hyperbolized animations to the lyrically crooning of blues singer Annette Hanshaw’s songs, is a visually impressive interpretation of the Ramayana. Equally delightful is the voiceover of three Indian actors (Manish Acharya, Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagaulapally) who organically narrate the story of the Ramayana. Each of the actors hail from a different region from India, speaking different mother tongues, so in conversation they recall and discuss variations of the Ramayana in the voiceover.
When Nagaulapally remarks that Ravana was a devoted Shiva bhakta who played the veena, Acharya and Chhabra are surprised and impressed, and they remark, with chuckles, “Well it’s hard to fight someone like that in a battle! What is pain to a man who pays veena with his intestine?”
With regards to why the Ramayana is still so unfamiliar in the West, Paley said she is bewildered over why she never learned of the epic story in any literature classes while growing up in Illinois. “It’s not just Indian; most of the world is intimately familiar with the text, except Americans and Europeans. TheRamayana is world literature.”