Artist and author Amruta Patil is breaking the patriarchal mould with her graphic retelling of the Mahabharata
Visual artist Amruta Patil’s (37) first graphic novel, Kari (2008), was a touching tale of a young woman living in “Smog City” Mumbai, and coping with her sexual identity. Her next, Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean (2012), was a revisionist take on the Mahabharata.
The novel was narrated by the river Ganga (as sutradhar), and voiced concerns about the environment. Now, after a gap of four years, comes the final instalment of the epic — Sauptik: Blood and Flowers. Why the four-year gap between each of her books? “That’s the time it took me to evolve enough as a human being to deal with the themes at hand,” she says.
Narrated by a wounded Ashwatthama, and based on stories from the Mahabharata and Puranas, Sauptik retells incidents from the Pandavas’ childhood, such as their stay at a gurukul, and Draupadi’s swayamvara. The title refers to the “Sleeping Ones”, or the sleeping sons and kin of Draupadi who Ashwatthama killed after the war was over.
Patil, who grew up in Panjim, Goa, hails from an armed forces family. “My parents were secular, and I did not have a grandmother who told me stories from the Mahabharata. My exposure to the epic was through Amar Chitra Katha comics,” she recalls. When she grew up and read the epic, Patil tried to find the motives behind the characters’ actions.
Patil’s treatment of the oft-told epic is also different: Sauptik (like Adi Parva) is similar to a graphic strip. The artwork range from dreamy watercolour paintings to collages, in charcoal and acrylic art. “My context, age, relationship with gender and background naturally mean that my lens is specific, and different from that of men who have [mostly] been custodians of this lore over centuries. My personal politic is to seek understanding of — rather than cast judgement on — the world around me,” she says.
With Sauptik, Patil also explores different structures and forms. While Adi Parva had rectangular frames for different incidents (similar to comics), Sauptik has multiple sequences occurring in the same frame, and pages devoted to text with a small illustration.
While Kari was based on aspects of Patil’s life — her background in copywriting (2000-2001) is reflected in Kari’s occupation — for the later books, Patil researched in libraries and on social media. “None of the philosophical-mythological stuff holds much relevance if it doesn’t resonate in the fears and compulsions of humans. So I look at humans. Social media has been one of my most potent research laboratories,” she says.
One of the major challenges, she says, was to keep using varied forms and structures in each book: “The challenge is not getting caught in the seductive trap of continuing to write stuff that pleases one group of people that approved of one thing you did. Every writer hopes readers will see them through various stages of their literary churning. I am no different.”
Patil, who has a dual Master in Fine Arts degree from Tufts University and School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, credits the course for helping her realise that her “oddball skills” could be brought together gracefully.
The artist now divides her time between India and France (as an artist-in-residence at La Maison des Auteurs in Angoulême). She turns to India for inspiration and France for peace of mind. “There is no logistical support for artists in this country, and the Parva books would have taken twice as long — or would have never been completed — had I been [in India] juggling it with freelance assignments or a full-time job,” she says.
Sauptik: Blood and Flowers releases on October 20; the book is available for pre-order on Amazon.in. Publisher: HarperCollins Price: Rs 1,250