Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Adi Parva, by Amruta Patil

Adi Parva - Churning of the Ocean, via Amruta Patil

5 stars

A spectacular graphic retelling of the Mahabharata. This first in a trilogy will leave you spellbound.
(AmazonFlipkart, my review on Amazon)

If you want to retell the Mahabharata, and want it to stand out from the thousands of retellings over the thousands of years, you have only a few choices. After all, most of what could be said has been said about the epic. However, it is also undeniable that each generation needs a retelling, an adaptation, an interpretation, that it can call its own. You can do a complete translation from the Sanskrit original (from the Critical Edition i.e., since no one really knows what the original is), as is being done by Bibek Debroy for instance. It is is a notable effort, but takes several years to complete, and severely limits the audience, leaving only those few with the gumption to wait and wade through more than six thousand pages of text. The work of a young Samhita Arni stands out for different reasons - the author was not even ten years old when she started writing her interpretation of the epic. 

Adi Parva, by ("via") Amruta Patil is a standout addition to the retellings of the epic, for several reasons. This lavishly produced high quality edition is a marvelous work, for several reasons. This is a graphic book, with the emphasis being more on the drawings than on the text. Each page has at most a two-three lines of text, which leaves you with a full page of charcoal or color illustrations to gaze at.
"It would take several curses ... to bring Karn down on the battlefield."
This story of the Mahabharata comes to us via Amruta Patil, who calls herself the reteller, the sutradhaar. The story itself has its own sutradhaar, Ganga, the river, the goddess. Where and when the sutradhaar makes her appearance in the story, it serves two purposes. One, to provide commentary, insight, a break - if you will, from the story itself. Lurking in the shadows in these charcoal drawings is the second sutradhaar - the cursed Ashwatthama - who will step up, I presume, in the second volume of this retelling. The second purpose of these interregnums is to provide a segue of sorts into a side-story, and there are several the dot the landscape of the epic. Some seem entirely unrelated to the epic, while some serve to add their own raison d'etre to what surely must be a severe case of hyper-causality to several events in the epic.

The snake sacrifice of Janmajeya is one such example. A snake sacrifice to sacrifice all snakes, to get one snake - Takshaka. The cause of this sacrifice is a son's need to avenge his father's murder. The cause of this sacrifice is a mother's anger at, and subsequent curse, of her sons. Ultimately, the sacrifice is as much a reason to avenge Parikshit's death as it is to re-introduce history to a people who had forgotten their own past, and were on their way to repeating it.
"Neither intent nor sacrifices is enough any more, a heavy rope of ritual must yoke the mind and body together."
If you were to take the text in the book, it would probably add up to no more than perhaps thirty pages. Thirty pages out of the story's 250 pages. Which places a heavy burden on the drawings. They are not all drawn in the same style, or from the same palette. Each looks and feels similar and yet very different - and they are sometimes deliberately vague. The vagueness of the drawings evokes a certain mood, and elicits a different emotional response from the reader. Whether it is the blazing red background when Kadru curses her serpent sons, the magnificent black-and-white rendering of Dhruva the pole star, the transformation from full-color to a grayscale palette as Gandhari wears her blindfold for the first time, or Indra's Pearls (Indrajaal) - each pulls you in, to spend time gazing and wondering.
The text serves as a path, while the drawings is the scenery as you walk the path - you are rewarded if you spend some time to take in the scenery as you walk the epic.

A doubly difficult challenge in a book such as this is to find on the one hand, a new narrative even as you must stay true to the story, and on the other hand to retain a consistency, quality and coherence in the illustrations. In the drawings you must avoid the temptation to introduce faux novelty for the sake of breaking the tedium and boredom that could arise from more of the same. Balancing and succeeding requires two different skills, and therefore to succeed at both is a no small feat.

The book ends with Pandu's end, and with Kunti ready to re-enter Hastinapura.

The author acknowledges several debts in this work - including that of her brother, Devdutt Pattanaik, and whose influence can be seen in some places in the book, and of Bibek Debroy, who has thus far brought out six of the planned twelve volumes of the unabridged Mahabharata.

Is this book for children? Will children want to read this book? Should children read this book? These are three different, but related, questions. The answer to the first and third questions is a qualified "no", while the answer to the second question is an unqualified "yes". Let me put it this way - if no more than five or six pages were to be edited or reworded and redrawn, the answer to all three questions would become an unqualified "yes". As a translator of the Mahabharata, unabridged or edited, you do not have the leeway or license to excise the more adult-themed material from the epic. As a reteller, a sutradhaar, it becomes your choice. I can only hope a second edition of this spectacular book will see the author consider making some changes, and therefore opening this epic to the world of children to read it a very new light.

ISBN: 9789350294161
Cover Price: Rs. 799.00
Format: 232 x 155 mm/Hardback
Extent: 276  pages
Category: Fiction/Graphic

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.