My review of the first volume of Amruta Patil’s version of the Mahabharata was published in this weekend’s Sunday Guardian. Here it is, with more pictures–though said pictures were taken with my awful cellphone camera, since I was too lazy to make the trip downstairs to the scanner.
“We are an unbroken lineage of storytellers nested within storytellers. When I open my mouth you can hear the echo of storytellers past.”
Copyright law is entirely unequipped to handle an epic storytelling tradition. Harper Collins’ sumptuous edition of Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva wisely proclaims itself to be “via” rather than “by” Patil, but the copyright page has all the usual wording asserting the writer and artist’s “moral right to be identified as the author of this work”. It’s fitting in a way that this conflict between a single author/single version of the story and the vastness of the whole should play out in this book’s paratexts, when the question of what aspects of the Mahabharata are told, and how they are interpreted, is such a major part of Patil’s book.
Because the sheer scale of the Mahabharata is something of which Adi Parva is constantly aware. To get to the beginning of this story, Patil has to begin with the origins of the universe. At one moment the whole is played out with the whole of the cosmos as its canvas, at the next, at a microscopic, cellular level. In a stunning spread the conflict between the cosmic dog Sarama and king Janmajeya is depicted with its main characters portrayed as constellations. But we also hear of rishis whose role is to “intervene with the necessary genetic data” (read: sire important children), and the universal conflict between good and evil is illustrated through the positive and negative charges in an atom. Ganga likens the story to the Indrajaal, the net of rubies that extends infinitely in all dimensions, and each of whose gems reflects all of the others.
Ganga is the sutradhaar for this part of the story,though we are informed that Ashwattama will be telling the next part. Emerging in the dusk in a small town square near the place where Janmajeya is holding his snake sacrifice, Ganga’s story has attracted a small crowd of listeners. But this is no spellbound audience, staring with eyes open and mouths shut. Her listeners have their own opinions – on her appearance or the propriety of a woman wandering about alone at this time of the day, but more importantly, on the story itself. “Is there a curse coming up? I sense a curse coming up”, complains one woman. The abundance of blessings and curses are “to distract from a plot full of holes”, complains one moustachioed gentleman, adding “I write plays for a living” to give his remarks more weight. (“How can anyone make a living writing plays?” asks an old man, with some justification.) Audience members complain that the asuras get given a raw deal in some situations, that women aren’t given their due in retellings. They also bring the story back down to earth when they request, for example, that more stories about dogs be included.
Patil has claimed elsewhere that she had to learn to paint for this book. Adi Parva is gorgeous, shifting constantly from watercolour to charcoal to pencil to collage with a range of styles on display. There’s a knowing use of familiar iconography as well. A page depicting the serpents about to be victims of Janmajeya’s sacrifice has them against a whimsical board game background of ladders. An apsara rising from the water to disturb the peace of yet another meditating rishi (as the text notes, this is something of a recurring motif in the epic) is a clear reference to Botticelli’s Venus. Blue gods and grey-brown asuras are a part of a visual tradition perhaps best known to modern readers in the form of Amar Chitra Katha. Though there’s very little sense, at least so far (Patil has indicated that there will be at least one more volume) that this iconography is being interrogated.
Then too, as much as the structure of Patil’s rendition seems to leave space for a multiplicity of interpretations, there can be only one sutradhaar. Her Ganga often shuts down avenues of debate, apoliticising the story to some extent and dismissing an audience member’s attempts to do the opposite as “partisan politics. Which is all very well, and one might argue that the last few years have seen a number of retellings of myth that examine these areas of the epics. But to bring them up and refuse to address them does this book no favours.
“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.”
There’s much to be said here about which versions of a tale are retold and disseminated, and how “write your own” is sometimes too glib a response. But Patil’s faith in the myth shines through; if any story can stand up to infinite retellings, it is this one.