In many ways, Devdutt Pattanaik is responsible not just for directing our gaze to the past but providing us with the tools to appreciate its relevance in tandem with the present. In his expansive oeuvre, myths occupy an integral role and in various books, he has attempted either a retelling of it or shifting the vantage point from where we had often read them. For instance, in Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata, he narrated the story from the perspective of Vaikuntha’s gatekeeper. He did something similar in Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of Ramayana.
Most recently, he has collaborated with Audible Suno and come up with Suno Mahabharata Devdutt Pattanaik ke Saath, a show in which he will narrate Mahabharata in under six hours, both in English and Hindi.
In an interview with indianexpress.com, he spoke about the relevance of myths, the pointers he keeps in mind while presenting them to the present generation, and if past will provide a roadmap for the uncertain future ahead.
In the world today which is plagued by uncertainties and all reference pointers have been uprooted, where do you see the significance of myths?
Legends and myths are essentially dealing with primal, emotional and existential issues such as how the world came to be, how the world will come to an end, what is the purpose of life and therefore they are timeless, and especially relevant during crisis and uncertainty. People love mythology because it is timeless and it deals with this view and detailing of large characters. They help us understand and make sense of our lives, and also connect us with our roots and the meaning of life.
What are the things you keep in mind while retelling a myth to the present generation? Do you think the story suffices or it needs to be packaged in a certain way to make them more appealing?
When telling a story to the present generation I personally feel like you have to connect at a personal and emotional level and show how every show and story deals with similar emotions and themes such as hatred, jealously, ambition, and greed. That is what connects with an audience, though some people prefer to package it with modern values. People are fully aware that these are fantasy tales or fictional tales or imaginary tales and therefore you don’t need to make it politically correct to connect with the newer generations.
In Jaya, you had attempted a retelling of Mahabharata from the point of view of Jaya, the gatekeeper of Vaikuntha. And now you have created the show Suno Mahabharata Devdutt Pattanaik ke Saath. What is it in Mahabharata that keeps drawing you?
I have also written a children’s book called The Boys Who Fought, which deals with the story of the Mahabharata in a very different way that is specifically written for children to understand. The point is to tell the same story for very different audiences in the same way. For example, Suno Mahabharata Devdutt Pattanaik ke Saath deals with the entire story of the Mahabharata in six hours and is focused on the finer details of the story. So it is focused less on the story itself but more on the underlying ideas which is very important.
This is a new format wherein you will be narrating Mahabharata under six hours. Do you think with all the changes that have upended the publishing industry, this has been a positive outcome — to read out stories akin to the way we used to listen to them? In your opinion, does this format suit epics more?
This is a unique activity, it has nothing to do with the publishing industry. There are audiobooks of course which are available. An audiobook does not have the same power as oral storytelling. An audiobook merely turns the text into sound, but what is important with audio shows is telling the way a grandfather would tell a story and it’s a different way of presenting it. And experiencing. One must see this activity as it is, and it is very different from writing or reading a book.
As an author writing during this time, what are the challenges you are facing?
During this time, the biggest challenge I face is socialising. I have realised how important socialising is to improve the quality of my writing. I keep up with friends and I miss the social contact and I hope this ends soon and we’re all safe. Apart from that, I have a busy schedule. I read, I write, I’ve been doing a lot of research for new content and topics as well.
How open are you to the new digital formats opening up as an alternative to physical books? Are you into ebooks?
My books are available in all formats. You will find my books as e-books, audiobooks, oral storytelling and I’m very open to all forms of storytelling and communication. Not everyone is a reader, not everyone likes to buy books. E-books are cheaper over time, there are other benefits to it, and you can carry many e-books on your phone wherever you are. When it comes to audiobooks, many people like to listen to stories rather than read. There is a different audience for different books and I think I approve of all sorts of mediums.
Lastly, do you think past holds the key to an uncertain future?
Yes I do believe that past holds the key to an uncertain future. This is because everything as we have seen, comes to an end eventually and we do transform as people and as communities. Some of us will go back to our old ways but some of us will be transformed, hopefully for the better.
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