Rama for Beginners: Bridging Indian Folk and Comics Cultures
In the boom of recent comics scholarship, the comic art of India has received little attention compared to that of other nations, the United States, France, and Japan in particular. Through a basis in religious and folk narratives, Indian comics narratives, especially those published by the Amar Chitra Katha series, have worked to update folk tales, retelling them in a modern medium. By looking at the figure of Rama in the Amar Chitra Katha and other Indian comics, this paper will analyze the process and implications of this transformation. In particular, the analysis of Rama as contemporary hero will reveal how these stories help people to deal with daily life at the same time that they affirm another, older way of understanding the world. This paper will thus demonstrate how comics creators in India have adapted the comic book to effectively re-maneuver traditional tales as a modern, folkloric inheritance to future generations.
Introduction: Revitalizing Stories
In the boom of recent comic book and graphic novel scholarship, the comic art of India has received little attention compared to that of other nations, the United States, France, and Japan in particular. Even within an especially vivid and lively visual culture, though, Indian comics narratives have taken on a special role in revitalizing traditional storytelling. Through a basis in religious and folk narratives, these stories, especially those published by the Amar Chitra Katha series, have worked to update folk tales, retelling them in a modern medium. In 1967, Anant Pai founded India’s first nationally distributed comics company with locally based artists and authors. With the name Amar Chitra Katha, or Immortal Picture Stories, Pai intended ACK to bridge the gap between a burgeoning middle class and the traditional culture that they seemed to be leaving behind in favor of industrialization. With wide circulation, distribution, and even incorporation into school coursework, ACK has become the benchmark for much of Indian comics culture. By looking at the figure of Rama in the Amar Chitra Katha and other Indian comics, this article analyzes the process and implications of this transformation from folk to mass media. In particular, the analysis of Rama as contemporary hero reveals how Indian comics creators are participating in traditional storytelling.
Each narrative not only requires the audience to have preexisting knowledge of the stories, but also exists alongside other stories, where other parts of the Hindu worldview and India’s history are provided. In addition, by relating the mythical and historical function of heroes like Rama, these comic narratives provide a ‘time out of time’ for readers, yet one that also pushes for an ever-current presence of traditional worldview. These stories thus help people to deal with daily life at the same time that they affirm another, older way of understanding the world. Through this analysis, this paper will demonstrate how, although the comics format in other contexts has lent itself to episodic, commodifiable narratives, comics creators in India have adapted the comic book to effectively re-maneuver traditional tales as a modern, folkloric inheritance to future generations.
Although ACK’s creators and artists reference folk culture in the telling of the Ramayana, their retelling condenses a vast diversity of tales into one story in support of a Hindutva, nationalist agenda. In narrating Hindu religion and Indian culture, Rama is important as a traditional role model because, as noted in the prologue to ACK’s issue entitled Rama, “Rama, he is the ideal man; he never lies, he is a filial son, a loving brother” (Mulick and Pai 2007). Yet, Pai and others have noted, as described in this prologue, that “[The Ramayana] is so much an integral part of our heritage that even our apparent diversities are reflected in the slightly differing versions to be found in different languages” (Mulick and Pai 2007). More importantly than his ideal status, then, Rama stands for the manifestation of the many traditions within the larger India.
In order to evoke these multiple experiences and adaptations of a common culture, ACK bases their retelling upon a common background in folk culture, particularly darsan. In the concept of darsan in Hinduism, one finds the roots of visual communication as encountering the divine, as ‘the act of seeing and being seen’ by the gods (Eck 1998). In encountering the divine through ritual, believers encounter the ritual object or figure imbued with power, such as images of Shiva or Vishnu that are dressed, bathed, and fed on a daily basis. Similarly, darsan also includes secular encounters with divine images on a daily basis, such as god posters from calendars and images in advertisements (Shukla 2008). With no central, Hindu text, these religious images become visual texts that not only present divine realities, but also tell the stories that undergird belief (Glassie 1997). People are thus able to move through their daily lives while simultaneously engaging with darsan and remembering the stories to which such images refer.
Accordingly, when approaching the creation of Indian comic books, especially religious ones, artists and authors have appealed to pre-existing sensibilities. In particular, artists engage with the sequential storytelling characteristic of many religious images and often draw upon similar iconography as well. In Karline McLain’s India’s Immortal Comic Books, the authors and artists behind Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) describe how they actually referred to religious images when designing artwork and depicting particular stories, especially due to the religious content of many of ACK’s first comics. For example, McLain describes how the artists behind the ACK issue on the Ellora Caves actually visited the caves in order to portray the experience of them, while other issues required the use of pre-existing images in order to ensure an authentic representation. From the layout of cover images to the positioning of figures on a page, these authors carried over the aesthetic experience of sacred images (McLain 2009).
Further, both comics and traditional narratives in India work with nonlinear narratives that require knowledge of a particular world. For example, both earlier religious narratives and contemporary comics require a narrative leap by audience members. As Scott McCloud notes, the power of these image-texts lay in the gap, or gutter, between two panels, where readers use their imagination to fill in the missing time, as in the moment between a fist forming and a punch hitting its target (McCloud 1993). As a result, these narratives are told through a collaborative storytelling similar to that of the fan cultures studied by Henry Jenkins. For Jenkins, common relationships with texts provides the basis for intertextual knowledge, which allows audience members to enter anywhere in a chain of narratives (Jenkins 2006). In the case of Indian comic books, through shared, folk culture, where each text references a common intertextual competence, readers are capable of filling in the gaps in between different versions of the same story. This kind of engagement with common narratives through multiple media, from sacred statues to secular posters and more recent comics, sustains audience interest and motivates deeper experience (Jenkins 2006). Comics in India thus engage with audiences in much the same way as traditional visual narratives because they are based upon similar relationships between text and audience.
Although comics narratives primarily engage with this intertextual common ground through reference to the ritual act of darsan, the reference to folk culture may hide the manipulation of what both folk and culture mean. In particular, McLain points out that narratives in the comics form, similar to any storytelling form, require boundaries in order to be understood by an audience. Writers and artists thus bound their creativity to ensure narrative cohesion and the resulting communicability of their stories. However, in the process, creators may cut off the potential for new interpretations and intertextual connections that they themselves do not foresee (McLain 2009). The comics medium itself fundamentally frames narratives in the framing of individual moments within a story, where creators cut off action, characters, or storylines that do not fit within the panels. Thus, at the end of ACK’s Rama, Sita and Rama sit together, ruling in glory, after she has proven herself pure enough for him by walking through fire. What is left out of the story, however, are the controversial events that follow in many versions of the Ramayana, where Rama denies Sita again and sends her into the wilderness alone, pregnant with his children (McLain 2009). What gets lost in this transformation, then, is the ability to imagine alternatives and the diversity of voices telling tales within a larger, composite, Indian national whole.
Since the 1970’s and 80’s, though, other comics publishers have drawn on ACK’s legacy of publishing to critique the all-encompassing narrative that ACK and Anant Pai have drawn. In particular, publisher Vivalok Comics has stressed the diversity of stories in India, highlighting variation and adaptation of stories. As Rukmini Sekhar, founder of Vivalok Comics, notes in a conversation with McLain, Vivalok’s main goal is “’to draw out the undercurrents and subtleties of mythology, to use comic books for rigorous inquiry’” (McLain 2009: 209). Rather than emphasizing the hegemonic power of folklore, Vivalok has emphasized the ability to remain within that framing and simultaneously question it. For these artists, “Folklore as a very field lends itself to dramatic and vivid narrations” in a way similar to the visual narratives of comic art (Sankunni et al. 2002: 6). Just as folklore allows authors to both work within and question larger, hegemonic forces, Indian artists have used folk narratives, especially the epics Ramayana and Mahabharta, to mediate the pursuit of social justice (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998). Vivalok thus reframes comics as the medium for cultural heritage of all India, not just of a nationalist, Hindutva nation.
The authors of Vivalok Comics primarily accomplish this by emphasizing the interactive quality of traditional narratives, rather than merely pointing out the intertextual quality. Yet this turn in fact draws upon the actions of their predecessor, Amar Chitra Katha. In creating ACK, Pai consciously moved his own storytelling into the comics form in order to engage with younger audiences who were more involved with contemporary media than they were with traditional culture (McLain 2009). In so doing, he also engaged directly with his readers’ intertextual knowledge and with the interactive power of the comics and folk narrative forms.
For instance, after publishing the first issue of ACK on Krishna, Pai received a large backlash because he had not included several miraculous moments in Krishna’s story. As an author himself, Pai had cut these moments because they contradicted his personal belief in the secular presence of Hindu deities, whose miraculous feats would distance them from daily life in India. However, an influx of reader feedback eventually caused him to revise the story some years later, as he recognized the power that ACK’s visual narratives had over readers and comics fandom (McLain 2009). In drawing from common folklore, Pai recognized from this audience reaction that he would have to draw upon as many variants of each narrative’s basis in order to satisfy as many readers as possible. Thus, later comics include details from multiple versions of each story, including ancient texts, devotional art work, movies, TV shows, and even other comics (McLain 2009).
ACK and Pai’s editorial response to fan audiences’ demands not only demonstrates the political power of these stories in simultaneously negotiating national and religious identity, but also set a precedent for audience involvement in comics culture. Several stories in ACK’s repertoire of comics have been harshly criticized by its readership, particularly due to the representation of women as generally subservient to men and of non-Hindus as often animal-like and incapable of human intelligence (McLain 2009; Chandra 2008). Even in terms of male, Hindu figures like Rama, though, many local variants and stories of local figures in religious and public culture were deemed ill-suited to broader comics circulation by Pai. This censorship tended to alienate many audience members who otherwise identified with ACK’s narratives. (McLain 2009) As a result, along with pressure upon ACK, many fans have become involved in comics production themselves, from finding employment within Amar Chitra Katha to creating competing comics narratives themselves.
Accordingly, publishers like Vivalok Comics, which is funded by the education-focused NGO Viveka Foundation, entered the comics scene; this company and others like it, though, have attempted to mediate folklore through comics in the social justice movement. Rather than silencing local diversity and storytelling, Vivalok and others have attempted to put creative power in the hands of regional experts and artists. Further, these comics attempt to represent the many other stories circulating in India, especially those not recognized by official discourse, and accordingly by ACK. Vivalok Comics, in particular, is dedicated to educating youth on the diversity of cultures within the seemingly monolithic India and voicing local perspectives that would otherwise be silenced. As stated in their Mission Statement, “[d]elving deep into the wisdom of Indian folklore, the young readers can better understand the multiplicity of human experiences. [Comics] help them question a monolithic view of our historical and cultural past” (Sankunni et al. 2002: 6). By questioning nationalist histories of India, these publishers hope to provide a stronger sense of the relationship between the multiple local communities within that larger national context. Vivalok Comics thus combine the comics medium with folklore and a socially active agenda to engage the many communities in India in imagining an alternative, modern India to one framed by the Hindutva movement.
Accordingly, Vivalok casts the Ramayana today, and further, the focus of the story is one of the later episodes in the traditional epic. Specifically, they focus upon the ultimate fate of Sita after she and Rama have settled back into Ayhodha after years of exile and the war with Ravana. In contrast to ACK’s telling, Vivalok first focuses upon one of the most controversial episodes in the Ramayana, and secondly, leaves the interpretation of meaning up to the audience. The retelling is based upon a local variation, which the creators claim to have received directly from a village storyteller. The story thus works to engage readers who may not be familiar with this turn in the story from ACK and other contemporary variants. Accordingly, the heroes of Vivalok are both local and contemporary, as well as multiple, just as multiple as the many communities and worldviews encapsulated by the larger Indian culture. Further, the framing of the stories themselves pushes readers to question and interact with narrative; for example, “Sita Banished” from Godavari Tales ends with “Since [Rama] was king, he banished Sita to the forest. That too when she was carrying her first child! So…what do you make of Rama’s decision?” (Gayen 2003: 41). Unlike ACK, Vivalok places the power of interpretation squarely in the minds of readers. In setting the Ramayana in the present, then, Vivalok directly engages its audience members’ intertextual knowledge, as well as the interactive framing of comics and folklore, to draw upon the diversity of telling in finding meaning. As McLain argues, Vivalok and other local variants thus draw upon a notion of culture as composite, not merely based upon the nation-state or one overarching, hegemonic identity (McLain 2009).
In particular, they draw upon the notion of reading as performative, such that, like a storytelling performance, reading a comic book creates the potential for transformation. Similar to the darsan encounter in these works, comics artists draw upon the power of the reading process to invoke the ritual experience of the divine encounter. Just as the proverbial Indian grandmother previously used storytelling to make children aware of Hindu narratives and their cultural prevalence, comics provide an entry point to much broader storytelling traditions and folk culture (McLain 2009). Further, reading itself creates a potentially transformative experience comparable to that of ritual by requiring readers to engage with texts outside of everyday life. As Mircea Eliade points out, “[e]ven reading includes a mythological function … because, through reading, the modern man succeeds in obtaining an ‘escape from time’ comparable to the ‘emergence from time’ effected by the myths” (1952: 205). Written works allow an escape similar to both myth and ritual’s ability to move an audience outside of ordinary time and into the sacred world. In Victor Turner’s model of liminal states, the reading experience could be understood as a state of being ‘betwixt and between’ that individuals enter in order to resolve personal crisis and be reincorporated into society. However, as the reading of comics does not always resolve a crisis and is optional for readers, reading may be understood to create a liminoid space for transcendence (Turner 1982). In this sense, unlike a fully liminal experience through ritual, reading does not necessarily transform, but provides the individual with a play-like experience of division and reincorporation. Comics creators thus draw upon ritual experience through the form itself, as a medium whose reading engages with audiences as potential participants in the transformation of self and society.
In drawing upon references to spiritual experience and folk culture to invoke power, folkloric comics enact a reframing of reading as a performance of national identity. For the many retellings of Rama, then, Vivalok draws upon the same discourse as ACK, but emphasizes the interactive and transformative quality of a common understanding of sight as ritual. In the process, Vivalok and publishers with a similar focus on comics as a manifestation of local culture enable the voicing of the multiplicity of stories within the many national epics of Rama.
Conclusion: The Lost Ramas
In his utilization of comics to educate youth about Hinduism, Anant Pai set a precedent for social consciousness in Indian comics culture. In particular, ACK set the stage for the recent movement away from strictly traditional comics to the use of comics for more activist purposes. Through recognition of reader criticism and ability to re-narrate common texts, Pai and ACK in general recognized the importance of fan audiences in the production of comics as texts capable of engaging readers across multiple media. Smaller comics publishers and ones funded by non-governmental organizations have built upon this basis in audience involvement and constructed alternative readings of folklore in comics in order to question the predominance of the nationalist turn in Hindu culture and religion, as in the case of Vivalok.
Comics artists in India thus turn to folklore in order to play on its ability to exist within hegemonic or dominant culture while simultaneously questioning it. Similar to Vivalok and ACK, Virgin Comics was established in the mid 2000’s to reinvigorate Indian storytelling, with a wide array of titles based upon traditional culture. Further, Virgin worked with movie directors, famous actors, artists, novelists, and others, as well as comics creators, to create several new series, hoping to engineer their own buzz and publicity. As stated in their mission statement, their goals were “the creation of original stories and characters that tap into mythology and reinvent indigenous narratives, as well as collaboration with creative talent from around the world to work first through comics and then through multiple media platforms” (Buchner 2008). However, unlike Vivalok or ACK, Virgin was more interested in spreading stories across multiple media than arguing for any particular stance towards the diversity of stories and cultures that thrive within contemporary Indian culture. Yet, similar to Vivalok, Virgin was unable to stay afloat. Both Virgin and Vivalok have stopped publishing new material, the former through selling their company in order to become part of Liquid Comics and the latter through apparent lack of funds.i Why have these comics failed where ACK succeeded? Perhaps this is because in each community, local adaptations and variants abound, variations that simultaneously question any one illustration of India and provide the tools for understanding the many.
As demonstrated by multiple scholars, Pai’s comics came at a time when Indian culture was in transition, particularly when upper middle class Hindus were restless for a way to pass on their cultural background to youth who were more interested in foreign media (Rao 2001; McLain 2009). Thus, Pai reframed Indian culture as popular culture in away that incorporated tradition, albeit stiflingly, into mass media. Rama became a more relate-able figure for youth, for adults, and within the world of common, composite culture. However, as Vivalok has demonstrated, this was only possible with the erasure of the multiple Ramas that might have been drawn from the multiple communities within the Indian cultural whole. Further, as both Vivalok and Virgin have demonstrated, these stories can only succeed when they are directed to a particular audience.
However, the rising wave of graphic novels coming out of New Delhi, India’s center for comics production since the 1980’s, are working to create their own audiences. Most recently, in 2011, writer Samhita Arni and Patua scroll-painter Moyna Chitrakar collaboratively created Sita’s Ramayana, a book “told through the eyes of Sita [that] offers us a rich, relevant, contemporary approach to an ancient epic” (Arni and Chitrakar 2011). By telling the story from Sita’s perspective, as in many traditions and variants of the epic, and in the style of Patua scroll paintings, Arni and Chitrakar appeal to folk culture. In the process, they craft their own audience by appealing to each reader’s familiarity with both the story of the Ramayana epic and Patua style through the comics form. Whereas previous comics may have failed to appeal to a particular audience, comics creators in Delhi today create audiences by making people aware that they are members of their readership. As members, they are responsible not simply for reading folk narratives, but for becoming more aware of and helping to sustain traditional storytelling and worldview in their own lives. Like Amar Chitra Katha, then, contemporary graphic novels in Delhi transform readers by incorporating them into a community, but one defined by diversity and the need to question any one Indian nation.
Arni, Samhita (s) and Moyna Chitrakar (i). 2011. Sita’s Ramayana. Delhi: Tara Books.
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Gayen, Prithvishwar (i). 2003. “Sita Banished.” In Godavari Tales. Illustrated by Jayanto Banerjee and compiled by Syamala Kallury and KVSL Narasamamba. New Delhi: Viveka Foundation: 36-41.
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Mulick, Pratap (ill. and cover) and Anant Pai (ed.). 2007. Rama. Amar Chitra Katha: Illustrated Classics from India, no. 504. Mumbai: India Book House.
Rao, Aruna. 2001. “From Self-Knowledge to Super Heroes: The Story of Indian Comics.” In Lent, A. John (Ed.), Illustrating Asia, Comics, Humour Magazines, and Picture Books. Richmond: Curzon: 37-63.
Sankunni, Kottarattil, Rukmini Sekhar, and Subir Roy. 2002. “Myths, Legends, and Folk Tales.” In Aithihyamala, the Garland of Legends: Selected Legends from Kerala in Comics. New Delhi: Viveka Foundation: 6.
Shearer, Alistair. 1993. The Hindu Vision: Forms of the Formless. London: Thames and Hudson.
Shukla, Pravina. 2008. The Grace of Four Moons: Dress, Adornment, and the Art of the Body in Modern India. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Turner, Victor Witter. 1982. “Liminal to Liminoid in Play, Flow, and Ritual: An Essay in Comparative Symbology.” In From Ritual to Theatre : the Human Seriousness of Play. New York: PAJ Publications: 20-60.
i I was unable to find information on this company’s publishing status, but the last book to be published was dated 2003. Still, Vivalok’s books were available as recently as 2010, at a children’s book festival that I attended in downtown New Delhi.
Jeremy Stoll is a PhD candidate in Folklore at Indiana University whose research investigates and celebrates how creators of comic art and other visual narratives mediate social and environmental injustice. His research interests include narratives and environment in public culture, storytelling and community, performance and nature, and comics and other visual narratives in India. He is currently composing a dissertation based upon fieldwork done in collaboration with comics artists, authors, editors, publishers, fans, and others in New Delhi’s comics culture in Fall 2010. Titled Follow the River of Stories: Comics, Folk Culture, and Social Justice in Delhi, this work explores how contemporary creators appeal to folk culture in crafting audiences and increasing awareness of social and environmental issues.