Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean

Amruta Patil
New York: Harper Collins, 2012. 276 pp., hardcover, $64.75.

Epics form such a precious place in our lives. We grow up with them. In the beginning, they are stories that we go to sleep with. Then we grow older, and they become pathways for our lives, a beacon in our dilemmas and a guiding star in our dark nights.

The Mahabharata is one of the two major epics of ancient India, the Ramayana being the other. The story of a conflict between good and evil and of blessings and curses, the Mahabharata comprises eighteen parvas (chapters), of which Adi Parva is the first. The first thing I noticed about this book is that it says, "via Amruta Patil" and not "by Amruta Patil." A unique depiction of the stories from the Adi Parva in the graphic medium, it is the first of a trilogy of graphic novels we will receive from her. "The conclave of creators is a crowded space," she writes, and she too has entered the conclave of retellers of this epic story. 

Many versions exist of the Mahabharata (including a famous Indian TV series that brought all activities to a stop when it was shown). For those that grew up as children in India, the one that is most memorable is the one told at bedtime by our grandmothers. The amazing thing about the origin of Patil's book is that she was not born in a traditional family. There was no storytelling granny whispering in her ear at bedtime, she says in one interview. So her journey into the Mahabharata was a solitary one, which she started at age twenty-one. Her discoveries were original ones and not tainted or colored by other views and impressions. "It was like taking off layers of wallpaper and seeing how the walls were like," she says. She felt a connection with the tales of Mahabharata, and therein perhaps lies the seed for this work.

Is the Mahabharata a story to be read? Not really. It is a story to be heard, and now Patil has introduced us to a story that is to be experienced visually, to be seen through the eyes of a new observer. The graphic novel genre in India is in the hands of a niche readership (ages eighteen to thirty-five, English-speaking). It is new and not something readers have been brought up on. It is still experimental, with rules being formed as the writers go  along. Hence we have to drop our preconceived notions of the epic and see it fresh in this book.

Patil learned how to paint for this book. She worked on it as a part of residency at La Maison des Auteurs in Angoulame, France, through a grant from the French embassy in New Delhi. It was like a "room of her own" for her. "I wasn't looking for a feat of friends. I needed safety, solitude, stability, and sanctuary . . . and had that for one charmed year," she says. She did not throw away a single page, painting over as much as she could. The text and the paintings intermingle, the images effortlessly changing from watercolor to charcoal to pencil. It is a gorgeous work.

I am not sure how traditionalists will look at Patil's work, but she is faithful to the essence of the story while being unencumbered by traditional expressions. Reading, or rather experiencing, this book, I felt that she has lived up to her responsibility. As a narrator in the book says, "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." We find here in Adi Parva via Amruta Patil a tale that is alive and vibrant. It is a visual joy. Read it slowly. Don't be in a hurry to turn the page.

Dhananjay Joshi

The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for the past forty-five years. He is a regular contributor to the Indian periodical Lokmat.


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