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Mahabharata goes manga

The little guys and the folk stories will get centre-stage in the latest experiment on India's most well-known epic.

books Updated: Oct 30, 2010 21:16 IST
Isha Manchanda

If you've ever read the Mahabharata, or watched it on the big or the small screen, you know that among the many reasons for the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas was the former's demand for five villages from the kingdom. This would seem like a measly request. However, the villages the five brothers asked for were the most strategic locations in the kingdom and effectively constituted Duryodhana's entire share.

Controversial as such alternative versions might be, they are part of the tradition of telling and retellings of the epic. It is this tradition that Shohei Emura, a Japanese graphic artist, and Vidyun Sabhaney, a Delhi-based comic book writer, aspire to create in their latest project to develop a Manga Mahabharata.

The duo met at a comic book workshop organised by Sarai CSDS and instantly connected on a shared fascination with the epic, and its many traditions.

A philosophical treatise, a sacred religious text and a moving story. The Mahabharata is many things to many people. "In truth, the epic has grown through the oral tradition of story telling for centuries, the ancient clans' war for power and exploration of dharma was sung and danced to, reinterpreted and appropriated", says Sabhaney.

For centuries, the Mahabharata was more than the written compiled epic penned by Vyas, and it was even more than the Sunday episodes on Doordarshan. "Through the project we're trying to do three things: first, focus on and develop stories and characters considered peripheral and not included in popular tellings. Second, to explore the space for original writings within the epic and finally, we want to give space to the folk versions of the epic that, again, do not find their way into the popular versions," explains Sabhaney.

The artists have chosen to keep a dying tradition of experimental story telling within the Mahabharata alive through the Japanese art of Manga. According to Emura, "the Mahabharata is a fantastic story, unparalleled in its length and cultural importance. Manga has a history of telling stories that are lengthy, and complicated with several characters and the two match in that way." He adds, "I also feel there is still a lot that can be done to visually experiment with the Mahabharata."

Sabhaney believes that "the Manga form lends itself easily to any cultural contexts, as La Nouvelle Manga in France and the various uses of the form in American culture have illustrated. Its ability to simplify things, yet keep the nuances of sound and light are probably why it's easy to tell complicated stories through this medium."

The form will enable the artist to express the dynamics of the relationships between characters and self-reflective moments equally well. The physical features of characters are fairly within the Manga format with exaggerated expressions and "whimsical images", as the word's literal Japanese translation suggests.

Presented by the Peoples' Tree Arts Trust, the first episode in the project will be published by the Pao Collective in the coming months. Title Chilka, the episode is an off shoot from the story of Karna's death using the voice of the trouble-making Narad Rishi and using a ficticious character of Baba, a slightly forgetful old school warrior who has an obsessive desire to save Arjuna from what he believes is certain death.

"Chilka was a great learning experience but to make the next comic, we need to know where the Mahabharata comes from — about its oral tradition, song and dance based traditions," says Emura. And for that, come December, the duo plan to travel to various parts of the country and explore traditions such as Yakshagana in Karnataka and the oral traditions of Rajasthan, among others.

They also plan to organise workshops next year for comic book artists to connect with each other and learn, and perhaps also learn a bit more about Manga.