Saturday, June 7, 2014

Ramayana retold, in black & white

Rakesh Khanna | June 08, 2014
 Flamboyant colour palettes, the art in Simian is stark, almost exclusively black and white. (Photo: DC)
Flamboyant colour palettes, the art in Simian is stark, almost exclusively black and white. (Photo: DC)
It seems to happen every few months now, with much fanfare and fancy blurbage, the release of yet another graphic novel adaptation of the Ramayana is announced. My standard reaction is to yawn.
Sure, I understand the appeal. Comics are cool. English-speaking Indians grow up inundated with Archie and Tintin and Batman and X-Men and the Avengers, and while just about everybody loves those characters, their foreignness can get to you after a while. If you’re a proud and patriotic Indian and you like comics, it’s natural to want a stylish graphic novel that celebrates (ta-daa! splash page with giant extruded font!), Indian Culture.
But why does it seem like Indian Culture has become defined so narrowly that this one epic is our only source? I realise that the variations and retellings are part of what makes the Ramayana so beloved, but come now. In the last 10 years we’ve had Sanjay Patel’s Divine Loophole, Deepak Chopra & Shekhar Kapur’s Ramayan 3392 A.D., Saraswati Nagpal’s Sita, Daughter of Earth, the graphic adaptation of Ashok Banker’s Prince of Ayodhya, Moyna Chitrakar’s Sita’s Ramayana (the story from Sita’s perspective), Holy Cow Entertainment’s Ravanayan (the story from Ravan’s perspective), and Devdutt Pattanaik’s Hanuman’s Ramayan (the story from Hanuman’s perspective).
In addition to these graphic novels we’ve had Zubaan’s short story anthology Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana, Samhita Arni’s novelisation The Missing Queen, Anand Neelakantan’s Asura: Tale of Vanquished, the animated children’s feature Hanuman, the computer-animated film Ramayana: The Epic, Mani Ratnam’s Raavan, Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues, and not one but two distinct television serial remakes of the 1980’s Doordarshan series.
Is it blasphemous to suggest that we may already be far past a Ramayana saturation point? I’ve got nothing against repackaging classical literature in shiny new formats, but if Amar Chitra Katha could make such a huge range of mythology available as comics in the 1970s, why does our generation seem stuck on one story? Where are the modern graphic adaptations of the Tamil epics Silapathikaram and Manimegalai, Manipuri epics like Khamba Thoibi Sheireng, the 7th century Sanskrit novel Kadambari, Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhavam, the Hamzanama, the Devi Mahatmyam?
But I suppose the market demands what the market demands. And so here we have Vikram Balagopal’s Simian, another version of the Ramayana told from the point of view of Hanuman. (The publication currently under review is Volume 1, containing the first two books of what promises to be a trilogy.)
Balagopal has a background in cinema and in cartooning, but this book is his debut effort as a graphic novelist. This made me even more sceptical than I already was: I don’t think it’s advisable for a first-timer to take on a project this weighty.
Riffing on a sacred text seems like something one ought to do late in one’s career. Robert Crumb waited until he had 40 years of experience and hundreds of published comics before he brought out his version of Genesis. Even then, he used a classic Bible translation rather than try to write his own text.
Simian gets off to a wobbly start. It’s hard to follow the action in the opening section as the writing is sometimes clunky and stilted, and the lettering is amateurish and perfunctory. But, to my surprise, after a few pages, I got drawn in.
While most graphic Ramayana retellings have used loud, flamboyant colour palettes, the art in Simian is stark, almost exclusively black and white , reminiscent of Frank Miller’s Sin City, without seeming derivative. This is a refreshing departure, and it works well most of the time. Balagopal is good at serving up unsettling moods and eerie atmosphere.
His rare splashes of colour, the thousand golden eyes of Indra, the purple flower in the hair of the guardian of Lanka are used tastefully. While his human characters can seem a bit uninspired, the monkeys and various other creatures are vibrant and richly drawn. The best sections are the ones where humans are absent: the Vanars’ journey to Lanka, the meeting with Sampati, Hanuman’s jump across the sea, and the encounter with Sinhika the Shadow-Catcher who is visualised here as a wonderfully creepy-looking giant cephalopod.
Women tend to get treated badly in the Ramayana, and one of the first things I look for in a modern adaptation is an awareness of gender politics, a stance against the glamourisation of misogyny. While Simian isn’t as offensively dude broish as some other recent efforts, it’s still disappointing in this regard.
Surpanakha gets her nose gorily hacked off before she’s had a chance to utter a line of dialogue, and when Ravan later produces her disfigured face to prove to the captive Hanuman that his human allies are jerks, she still doesn’t get to talk. Meanwhile, Sita does some lolling around in distress showing us the sides of her breasts, and Ravan’s naked harem girls seem like adolescent fantasy decorations.
Still, Vikram Balagopal is an artist with talent. He’s worked hard on this book, and parts of it are really good. I’m hoping that next time around he’ll hook up with a better writer and a better letterer, and that they’ll choose a less well-trodden path or maybe even try to blaze a brand new one.

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