For many of us, Mahabharat conjures images of men wearing tinsel, foil, wigs and false moustaches; women encrusted with rhinestones and chariots made of plywood. The serialised version of the Hindu epic poem became immensely popular when it was telecast in the late 1980s and early 1990s and for better or for worse, tubby men wearing theatrical makeup and carrying laughably flimsy “weapons” is what comes to mind when most of us think of the Pandavas and Kauravas. You can’t help but remember the television serial while reading Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva because it’s fascinating to see how two works with the similar starting points can end up to be so starkly different.
Patil, like the writer of the teleserial Mahabharata, Rahi Masoom Reza, approaches the text with great respect and harbours no intention of modernising it. Just as Reza wasn’t interested in demystifying anything, Patil too steers clear of rationalising the myths. Rather, her storytelling and artwork seek to steep the characters and events in mystique and dreamy surrealism. And so, mantras create fully-formed babies, gods emerge from belly buttons, curses come true and magic raises no eyebrows.
However, unlike Reza, who sought to simplify the Mahabharata for the Sunday morning viewership, Patil has no intention of presenting the myths that make up the epic poem as a neat, linear flowchart of events. Adi Parva is a swirl of stories. In this first cycle, the storyteller is Ganga, a mysterious woman clad in white. She dismisses linearity casually and some of her stories, like that of the Samudra Manthan, are from a time way before that of the Pandavas and Kauravas. She also fast-forwards past the bulk of the Mahabharata and tells the reader about Janmejaya, Arjun’s great-grandson. It’s both unsettling and engaging, because even if you know the stories, you can’t predict how Patil will connect one tale to the next.
If the tactics of rewinding and fast-forwarding weren’t enough to draw the reader’s attention, every page of Patil’s Adi Parva is a work of art. Patil’s first book, Kari, was an exquisitely produced graphic novel, but in Adi Parva, Patil has outdone herself. Whether you look at the black and white sketches or the rich colours of the painted sections or the clever collages that mix painting and photography, Patil proves herself to be an accomplished artist. Her lines are bold, she uses colour confidently, she plays around with transparency to create intriguing combinations, and there are salutes to many artistic traditions in the illustrations. For example, in a painting of Garuda, his figure is drawn using lines that are reminiscent of ancient Egyptian art, and you can glimpse through the painted background, a mask with strong South East Asian influences.
Adi Parva is one of the most beautiful books of the year and particularly impressive when you consider the variety of styles that Patil employs. It’s rare to find a book that is likely to fascinate a grandparent and grandchild (and all the generations in between) equally. Adi Parva is one such, and this is largely because of Patil’s artwork.
For all the attention lavished upon Adi Parva’s visual elements, the stories in this cycle are still told through words. Technically, you could actually skip the illustrations and just read the bits of text, and you wouldn’t miss out on the story. Patil persists with the reader-unfriendly font that she’d used in Kari and the care that she’s taken to pick the right words and tone for her narration and dialogues is obvious. There are moments when the lyricism in Patil’s prose feels forced, but by and large, she succeeds in balancing the density of Hindu philosophical ideas with modern irreverence and wit. When emphasising the mystical nature of ancient ideas, it’s easy to adopt a holier-than-thou tone that either grates on the reader’s nerves or makes the narrator sound ridiculous. Patil deserves credit for steering clear of both these traps for most of Adi Parva.
At the end of Adi Parva, Patil lets us know that the next cycle of stories will have a new narrator — Ashwatthama, son of Dronacharya, eternally wounded and cursed with immortality. Ashwatthama is usually seen as a minor character and his perspective is rarely considered, which is what makes him an exciting narrator potentially. Let’s hope Patil doesn’t make us wait too long for the sequel to Adi Parva.