By Ritika Popli
A year ago, I was working on a project in Bengaluru and my sole relief in the city was Blossom Book House, located on Church Street. Aptly described as ‘any book lovers heaven’, it is the second largest second hand bookstore in the country and it houses an eclectic, obscure collection of books stacked in narrow alleys right from the ceiling till the floor. Every time you look in a new direction, you will find a new treasure. In the midst of this overwhelming happiness, I happened to stumble upon a graphic novel Ramayan 3392 A.D, published in September 2006, by Shekhar Kapur and Deepak Chopra. Now, I am not an aficionado of this genre, but something that immediately caught my eye was the cover of the novel, with a retro-futuristic avatar of Rama from the epic Ramayana, painted on a dystopic background of armoury and ammunition. I picked up the copy and devoured it in a short time, and it has managed to stay with me since. With the festivities of Diwali gone by recently, I could not think of a more fitting time to juxtapose the very strong imagery of Ramayana in the form of ‘Ramlila’ versus the narrative offered by such graphic novels.
As children, if we are exposed to any preset strong imagery of the Ramayana, it is usually done orally/aurally by an elder of the house or through the ‘Ramlila’ performances, whose scale ranges from a homely production against the huge constructions at the city maidan. Any (re)telling of the Ramayana then supplements/subverts/enhances the earlier renditions of the epic, in terms of semantics and the demographical appeal of the graphic novel readership and how it is different from the spectators of the traditional Ramlila. Before delving into any aesthetic understanding it is imperative to establish that such religious narratives have always had multiple versions and each version is a cultural item and should be viewed as such. If an epic like the Ramayana has managed to stand the trial of time for centuries and reinvented itself in contemporary times, it is because the katha of Rama has been used to negotiate power and status, and to claim access to knowledge. There is a need to recognize that a range of socio-cultural groups adapted the story to express their world views. There is also a need to understand that categorising cultural artifacts or traditional forms as being authentic is to level them down, make them forcibly coherent and homogenous.
The tellings often lay out the differing views of certain sections of the Indian society. The views become even more resound when they are juxtaposed with the set authoritative versions. Questioning an epic narrative like Ramayana is in itself a very politically charged action of questioning the norm. The various (re)tellings that question the ‘norm’ have been socially, culturally and politically appropriated by a vast number of people in various forms and it is critical to investigate them as it leads to an investigation in authorship, audience, location and purpose of that (re)telling. As A.K. Ramanujam’s essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translations” points out that the preference of the term tellings to the terms variants or versions is primarily to imply that there is an invariant or an original, in this case it would be Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana, but it is not always this narrative that is seen to be carried from one language to another. Like Kamban’s Tamil Ramayana or the Jain telling are described as oppositional even if these tellings might be a fictional account which relate to a moment in time with a socio-political marker that provides a legitimate historical context.
Paula Richman, a renowned scholar of the Ramayana in her book, “Questioning Ramayanas: A South Indian Tradition” makes an interesting observation that the range of tellings of Ramakatha have kept the Ramayana tradition vital, fluid, and multi – faceted. Then canonic performances like the Ramlila of Ramnagar in Varanasi, where over a million pilgrims come annually for the elaborate performances organised by the Maharaja of Banaras, becomes critical not only because it is based on the Ramcharitmanas which is a central Hindu text providing among other things a sort of sentimental education to a vast number of people in Northern India; nor indeed because the performance is spectacular; but because the lila in performance says something to us about ourselves.
It is a striking sight, where thousands of people rush down a dark path with unflinching determination to be a part of the spatial changes of the lila – that it is as important to be here as it is to see the episode.
Slowly, towards the end of the twentieth century, the epic ceased to exist as a closed entity that is consumed in the confined space of a room or library and instead, it started to occupy the multimedia space by the outlets of adapting, reworking, absorbing, while simultaneously being driven by creativity, concern and commercialism. The premise of the graphic novel is based in a world 1300 years in the future, where the last human survivors of the apocalypse have settled in the city of Armagarh – the last city that receives natural light from the Sun. It is rotting under corruption that has to be undone by brothers Rama and Lakshamana led by Vishvamitra – the wander and a final conflict will be against a weapon-turned-being even they cannot fully comprehend (Ravana). The broad narrative remains the same, but the attention-grabbing differences are in the depiction of the characters in ‘Urban anime’ style, and also in the use of contemporary language peppered with profanities. The depiction of Sita as a warrior is refreshing as her character just doesn’t centre around her beauty but rather, she is chased because of the knowledge she possess (Maya Vidya). The novel uses Tolkienisque sort of light saber as their weaponry, which presumes powers that lowly humans cannot even fathom, relying heavily on the motif and theme of violence.
While Tulsidas’s Ramlila is all about ‘dharma’, behaviour that is considered to be in accord with the natural order of things, the graphic novel bases its narrative on the concept of ‘karma’, the cause and effect is based on one’s own actions/deeds.
Every author dips into the common pool and brings out a unique crystallization, a new text with a unique texture and a fresh context. Interesting anecdotes always float around like epics and in this sense, no text can be claimed to be original, yet no telling is a mere retelling – and the story has no closure, although it may be enclosed in a text. In India and in Southeast Asia, no one ever reads the Ramayana, or the Mahabharata for the first time. The stories are always there. So, the question that remains is whether the medium of such graphic comics achieved a level of acceptance and legitimacy great enough to shake the strong, centralized imagery of the epic. Because, even today, the power of the Ramlila is to move thousands and millions of spectators year after year to its location. Nonetheless, graphic novels like Ramayana 3392 A.D. have definitely become a meta-narrative in their own right – showing a ‘retro futuristic’ Ramayana, though happening within the set realms of typecasts set by the Ramlila narrative – does it have a life of its own or is it already alive?
Ritika Popli has completed her Masters in Arts and Aesthetics from Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has worked as a journalist for the BerlinMUN News Agency Project, and has authored numerous research papers in disciplines like Art History, Film Studies and Theatre & Performance Studies. She has also interned with India’s largest national newspaper ‘Times of India’ and has worked as a Creative Writer for India’s first Theatre Magazine – ACT.