Channelling the Mahabharata

Channelling the Mahabharata

A visual retelling of the ancient epic that marries myth with the novel

Book: Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean

Author: Amruta Patil

Publisher: Harper Collins

Price: Rs 799

Pages: 276

Adi Parva is the richly imagined and stunningly executed first volume in Amruta Patil’s forthcoming Parva trilogy,a pictorial retelling of the Mahabharata. As different as Adi Parva’s jewel tones and lush forest glades are from the spiky,angsty,black and white world of Patil’s first book,Kari (2008),they would both be described as graphic novels. Yet the two narrative endeavours could not be more unlike each other. Kari’s authorial voice is so intimate and personal that at least one reviewer felt it read “like a reconstituted memoir”. In contrast,Adi Parva positions itself self-consciously as a retelling of what is perhaps our most enduring story — if one can refer to the innumerable nested narratives that make up the Mahabharata as a single story.

In an essay called ‘The Storyteller’,Walter Benjamin made a characteristically fertile,provocative suggestion: that the rise of the novel marks the end of storytelling. “What differentiates the novel from all other forms of prose literature — the fairy tale,the legend,even the novella — is that it neither comes from oral tradition nor goes into it,” wrote Benjamin. In a 1977 lecture,the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss made a similar throwaway reference to the moment “when myth disappeared as a literary genre and was replaced by the novel.” Both Benjamin and Levi-Strauss gesture to a binary in which myth — and its community of oral re-tellers — form one end of the spectrum,while the novel — and its solitary,textual originator — forms the other.

Adi Parva is fascinating,first of all,because it attempts to marry these two apparent binaries: to enshrine the oldest stories in book form,to put her stamp on them not just verbally but visually. There’s no denying that this involves freezing that which was meant to be perpetually retold,to be imagined differently each time it was heard. But in a world where less and less of us will hear these stories from a grandmother or a village bard,this book is a precious gift.


And Patil understands this clearly: the place of her book,and the place she must clear before she begins. Adi Parva is not “by” her,but “via” her. And when her preamble invokes the sutradhar —“Trust the humble storyteller who knows how to unravel thread. Beware the braggart who embellishes and confuses” — one can hear the echo of Benjamin’s words — “it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it”.

Her telling does steer clear of unnecessary explication. But the storyteller’s voice is a very particular one: cool,wry,but always just this side of dramatic. The narrator is Ganga,“queen of celestial and earthly rivers”,a central character in the origin-myth of the Kuru-Pandavas. She first appears here as a mortal in a white sari,telling her tale to a rapt street side gathering,even as passing men gather to challenge this woman “sitting brazenly talking to strangers in the middle of the night”. Ganga and her listeners form a kind of Greek chorus,their comments and questions helping clarify the main narrative. Choosing a female narrator (rather than Ugrashravas) is a simple but radical move,allowing Patil to focus on the women with natural ease and empathy. We think,perhaps for the first time,of whether the mountain princess we have always only known as Gandhari had a name except that of the kingdom she represented,and of how Kunti must have felt when her husband King Pandu died making love to her rival queen Madri. (And we wonder how this will change in the next volume,when the narrator,we are told,will be Ashwatthama.)

There are occasions when Patil’s narrative feels too clever,too knowing,too full of backchat. But textual pleasures are the least of the joys afforded by this book. With artwork that ranges from black and white sketches (for Ganga and her audience) to magnificent textured collages,with Patil drawing on and reworking everything from Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to Matisse’s La Danse to ancient Egyptian motifs with delicious abandon,Adi Parva is perhaps the most beautiful book you can own this year.

Trisha Gupta is a Delhi-based writer