‘I write because I need to. I draw and paint as a means to an end’: Amruta Patil
In 2008, Amruta Patil broke new ground in Indian English storytelling with her compelling graphic novel debut, Kari. Then in 2012, she uncovered Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean, a most exquisite retelling of the first book of the Mahabharata. And it is not just a retelling, there are sly interjections by the sutradhaar of the tale, Ganga; visual cues that remind us of cultural overlaps of mythologies; head-reeling detail in costume and landscape … and now, the sequel Sauptik: Blood and Flowers is here, to be released later this month.
‘… keep your hand on the thread of the story. You will be led.’
In the final panel of Adi Parva, these are Ganga’s words to a wounded and speechless Ashwatthama. And finally, Ashwatthama is here to carry the story forward in Sauptik. And we must listen.
Sohini Basak, editor at HarperCollins India, spoke to Amruta Patil over email:
Sohini Basak: One of my favourite aspects about both Adi Parva and Sauptik is the revival of the sutradhaar for a contemporary audience. There is a lot of research on the ‘storyteller’, the archetype of the figure by the fireside, but not so much on the sutradhaar. To begin with, could you tell us why you chose the figure of the sutradhaar? And about your specific sutradhaars: Ganga who tells the story in Adi Parva, and Ashwatthama who carries it forward in Sauptik?
Amruta Patil: I am intrigued by the alertness and editorial flair a sutradhaar – thread-bearer of stories – needs while engaging with a live audience. You need to have your finger on the pulse of the audience continuously, you need to blend erudition with entertainment. Since it isn’t top-down delivery, sutradhaars must really know their stuff to engage with contrarians and seekers.
For my books, I chose two sutradhaars that are as far apart from one another as possible. Adi Parva’s Ganga was a cool-headed river/goddess, a queen, an unsentimental mother who could drown her babies unflinchingly. She straddles the worlds, involved and detached at once, telling stories to ease the journeys of those in her audience.
Sauptik’s Ashwatthama is a warrior who could never be the best, a roiling and insecure man who spent his life yearning for his father’s approval, who ended up being the assassin of his childhood friends’ sleeping children. He has a wound that will not heal, and his own journey is of tending to that wound…
SB: The concept is most fitting for the books too: being not just retellings and re-imaginings of one epic, but also of ancient oral literature, the Puranas…
AP: The device of the sutradhaar seemed ideal to me to bring the stories close to the now. The sutradhaar’s setting could be modern-day Varanasi, for all we know. The queries, jokes, disagreements and scepticism that the sutradhaars meet echo the sentiments of a lot of contemporary readers/people when faced with the epics. It is also a loving ode to the idea of discussing/debating about philosophical ideas rather than giving custody of all wisdom to miserly/bigoted/elitist hands.
SB: Both Adi Parva and Sauptik make me think of tapestries: gigantic, intricate ones with overlapping scenes … and this makes me want to look at the other side of the creation, the complication of threads invisible on the finished side, the knots, weave crossing over and coming together … so how do you select the episodes you want to paint? How do you choose, condense, combine and then explode in lines and colours from the various textual sources?
AP: My own work process is via negativa. Reaching the essence – not through adding one thing atop another – but through continuous elimination of what does NOT belong in the tapestry.
The other analogy is (unsurprisingly) of jewels. One sieves through impossible volumes of sand from a riverbed in hope of finding the one potential jewel. Having chanced upon a keeper, there begins the tireless time in the lapidary – shining facets of raw rock until you reveal the fire at its heart. If I were to get any more specific than that, I would be tongue-tied.
Do I have a blueprint? Only hazily, a lot of editorial decisions happen on gut-level. The choice of sutradhaar is also a natural filter vis-a-vis the type of stories that particular character would be interested in telling.
SB: The jewellery analogy is great! And has this process changed from Adi Parva to Sauptik?
AP: I am older, more in control of my faculties and emotions than I was when I started off on the project. So while Sauptik was more gruelling than Adi Parva, the highs were also higher. A lot of the basic trial and error was behind me – including the knowledge of how a pipedream turns into a book – this time, I could just focus on my skill. As my understanding of the world increases, so too does the colour palette get less muddy, the forms less laden with artifice and adornment, the language more precise. It’s an ongoing thing.
SB: Right … and what are the tools of your craft? What material did you find most suitable for Sauptik?
AP: I like the physicality of ‘real’ paint and art supplies; the fact of having an object – flawed though it may be – resting on my desk at the end of a day. I have worked with acrylic paints, collage, watercolour, charcoal.
I work in actual size, except for my double-spreads which are larger to allow for detail. The visual form of Sauptik is more of a hybrid than Adi Parva. There are text pages adorned with a spare illustration, black and white pages where sutradhaar Ashwatthama interacts with his audience, and colour pages. One interesting detail is that there are no boxy panels in the book at all. Events on a page flow seamlessly, on a single page, the way they would in an Indian painting from Kangra or Rajasthan.
SB: Yes! I love how there is a stylistic/colour-coded key to the various ‘threads’ of the narrative in Sauptik. And that’s the thing isn’t it, these are books to look at again and again: we are bound to find some detail that we didn’t on the first read, something else strikes us on the third and so on.
The references to other artworks, for example, a hidden tribute to an artist: one of Henri Matisse’s paintings jumps out in Adi Parva, temple architecture in Sauptik, I see shadows of Jamini Roy’s brushstrokes in the steady glare of Draupadi, pattachitra-like frames in a sub-story, the Kangra paintings you mentioned which are great choices for the Krishna–gopis episodes … a visual syncretism almost.
From the point of view of the artwork, how do you select your influences, do they come scene by scene, frame by frame, or do you always keep the larger narrative in mind?
AP: Adi Parva and Sauptik – and, to a lesser extent, Kari – are determinedly open-source in the DNA. In effect, visually, there is a lot of crosstalk going on between my work and the work of those I admire and aspire to (more or less) be in the lineage of; sometimes between my work and one singular image encountered somewhere along the way that spoke to my bones.
You will meet them all, if you look carefully enough. Roerich-esque mountains, playful Kalighat-style Hanuman, gopis that reference abhisarika nayika (from the ashtanayika pantheon), war scenes whose composition echoes sculpture from Angkor Wat, many colours and forms from Tantric imagery. Beloved traditional representations of Gajalakshmi or the mourning Shiv with Sati’s corpse on his shoulder are tweaked and taken the extra distance. But none of these is done gratuitously, or as gimmick. I have lived with this inside me for years and allowed it to tell me what to do next.
SB: ‘Spoke to my bones’ … that’s a lovely way of putting it. And any particular book, artwork or film that you have lived with in a similar way? And do they have an effect on how you choose to tell your stories?
AP: My influences aren’t from the visual storyteller’s canon or even the mythologist’s canon. Unpredictable books have fired my synapses in the last few years. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile. William Bryant Logan’s Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth. Bernard Werber’s Empire of the Ants. Roberto Calasso’s Ardor. Tarun J. Tejpal’s The Story of My Assassins. Frank Herbert’s Dune books. Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Very recently, Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement. Lot of non-fiction, popular science, science fiction, some poetry. These are my sustenance and benchmark. What, precisely, about them inspires me so? Their largesse, laterally-crisscrossing sprawl of ideas, panoramic vision and lion voice.
SB: That is eclectic. When we were working on Sauptik’s proofs, you did mention that you avoided reading too many Mahabharata-related works and retellings while working on the book…
AP: To clarify: I did not read too many peoples’ ‘takes’ and ‘transcreations’ of the epics after 2004. I did read straightforward translations (like Bibek Debroy’s multi-volume Mahabharata, published by Penguin) and more academic writing. It’s better that way, keeps the uniqueness of voice.
Also, since I try to retain the freewheeling way of the oral storyteller, my references come from all over the place, not just the Mahabharata (although I keep true to the soul of the epic). A lot of conversational back-forth also feeds into the book. Lot of the questions and disagreements put forth by Ashwatthama’s audience come from real push-pull online.
SB: I’m also curious about your early influences, what kind of stories did you grow up with?
AP: I spent a lot of time outdoors and in the fold of nature as a child. Barely any TV. My parents believed in gifts of travel and experience rather than material things and store-bought toys and gadgets. Growing up in a small town meant no access to book stores or cinema houses or museums – but, really, these things can be caught up with later in life.
The sweetness of growing up with neon-green paddy fields and lashing waves in one’s vicinity, on the other hand. My mother is a natural storyteller and mimic – so even mundane things were made hilarious and animated in recounting. I also owe a debt to my primary-school teacher Neela Chakrapani for a most unusual back-n-forth written correspondence – exchanged in school corridors at lunch break – that we had for years. And to K.T. Sandip Nambiar, who, in the course of a single Bangalore summer, introduced a fourteen-year-old bumpkin me to Salinger, Steinbeck, Winterson, Rilke, John Kennedy Toole, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Plath… My brain was rewired that year, I think.
SB: Your childhood setting sounds so lovely. So were you always drawing as a child? Most of us draw and paint in our childhood, at school, but then we stop. When did you decide to keep doing it?
AP: I was drawing throughout, yes. Not for pleasure (I don’t really like to draw, I like to paint. And I only started to paint five years ago) but for embellishing and clarifying. I write because I need to. I draw and paint as means to an end.
One of my regrets is not having had another profession, a separate metier – like being an environmental scientist or a cardiac surgeon – so there would have been no edge of survival-related despair to my writing and painting. I do try to keep them un-desperate, but lapse periodically, come up gasping for funds.
SB: Ahh … speaking of being an environmentalist, there is a very strong undercurrent of ecology and conservation in Sauptik, more than Adi Parva, I think. In fact, the story begins with a striking image of a tree. Was it a conscious decision to highlight the environment of our ancient tales to remind us of our contemporary crisis, our need to treat the earth, Bhoo incarnate, with respect?
AP: A thrilling realization midway through my research for Sauptik was that the avatar story was, in essence, an ecological story: the alliance between the avatar and the earth goddess – Bhoo; and with entities who are in synchronicity with nature. That was the beginning and millions of tiny pieces started falling into place after that. The way so many characters in the epics are so firmly tied with the elements (the birth stories of the Pandavs, for example).
All lore can be read on many levels; but people often ignore this Bhoo aspect in favour of sociological, historical, feminist, often-polarizing readings. I am uninterested in pulling individual characters out of their contextual location in the tale and have worked very hard with artwork and choice of tales – to the best of my limited skills – to keep flitting between purush and prakriti; deeply personal and sprawling-ly multiversal. Because that is how the gaze of wisdom must aspire to be – attentive to detail and to big picture; able to slide between one’s own eyes and the eyes of the Other. Most people get caught up with one or the other.
SB: That’s fascinating, the detail to flora–fauna in Sauptik is indeed a real treat. Talking about big pictures: Kari will complete ten years in a couple of years. So my final, if somewhat clichéd, question to you is: what has this journey been like, from Kari to Adi Parva to Sauptik?
AP: It has been a journey of honing my understanding of humans, their neuroses and preoccupations. And of finding my centre of gravity.
(Sauptik is available for pre-order. Order it here: http://amzn.to/2cZcVCM)
(Photo credits from top – Amruta Patil: Photograph by Rohit Chawla; all other images and photos courtesy Amruta Patil)