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Review of Graphic Narratives and the Mythological Imagination in India

By Sourav Chatterjee

Roma Chatterji, Graphic Narratives and the Mythological Imagination in India, Routledge, 2020.

In her monograph, Roma Chatterji explores graphic stories that employ “temporal dislocation” as a device to reconfigure, retell, and reimagine Indian epics—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata—in innovative ways (2). Through ethnographic research, Chatterji tries to comprehend how graphic narratives disseminate Indian myths, how cross-generic texts treat narrative time, and how aesthetic sensibilities influence Indian comics and graphic narratives across time and culture.  Chatterji succinctly delineates in the Preface that comics, while embodying narrative fragments (kimvadanti) of Indian myths, offer new ways of understanding processes of re-mediation, intermediation, and translation of stories (xi-xii).  Moreover, she conceptualizes India as a “field of dispersal” rather than a “space or… a specific orientation to the world,” which permits a hybrid reception of the Indian comics culture inflected by oral literature, regional storytelling traditions, and various indigenous painting styles (13). In her interdisciplinary monograph, Chatterji addresses the narrative/stylistic intertextuality and mythological transcreation of Indian comics by closely reading commercially published and auteur-driven graphic narratives.

The book comprises five chapters. The first chapter, titled “Mythological Revisionings,” doubles as the book’s introduction. Chatterji engages in lively discussions on adapting the figure of the chiranjeevi (immortal) from ancient Indian tales into the shutradhar (storyteller) in contemporary Indian graphic narratives (2). She writes that commercial comics create relevance and viability of ancient epics by using the trope of fantasy and the technique of “‘retcon’ (retroactive continuity)” to produce “continuity” narratives of epic characters (2). This introduction outlines how ritualistic dimensions of folk-style illustrations in scroll painting produce a sacred aura around realistic events/narratives (3). She also provides a brief overview of the historical development of Indian comics and graphic narratives within the discourse of post-Independence Hindu-nationalist politics. This historical background helps understand the ideological thrust of Indian (rather Indian-English) comics and graphic narratives from the 1960s onwards. In each remaining chapter, she addresses graphic adaptations of Indian myths and narrative temporality from specific genre-based vantage points (15).

Chatterji’s central argument commences from the second chapter, where she writes about the politics of adapting narratives from epic poems to comics; from text to image-text. The second chapter, “Comic Gags and The Mahabharata War,” delineates the plot structure, style, and artistic novelty of Vidyun Sabhaney and Shohei Emura’s Chilka (literally: a banana peel), published in 2012 in PAO: The Anthology of Comics 1. Chilka is a modified manga-style comics retelling of the epic poem Mahabharata. Chatterji draws out different narrative approaches to the Mahabharata in Chilka, Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, and Anand Pai’s Amar Chitra Katha (18). This chapter concentrates on slapstick in the comics adaptation of the Mahabharata that “somaticize(s) internal states” through graphic representations of physical and gestural distortions (20). Chatterji’s interviews with the authors of Chilka, Sabhaney and Emura, offer insight into their creative process and reveal the artistic networks within which they created Chilka. The chapter concludes by enquiring into the appeal of revisiting the Mahabharata war through graphic retelling for an already assumed Indian readership of the epic narratives (31).

From the adaptation of the Mahabharata into the comics medium (Chilka), Chatterji moves on to foreground the complex adaptation of Chilka in the image-textual-performative work of chitrakars in the third chapter. Chitrakar refers to a traditional folk artist who paints on cloth. To help readers navigate through these different mediums, their complex storytelling traditions, the third chapter titled “From Comic Book to Folk Performance” offers a comparative analysis of Sabhaney and Emura’s another manga-style comics Mice Will Be Mice (2012) (initially conceptualized as a shadow puppet play) and its folk-performative adaptation by Dukhushyam Chitrakar. Here, Chatterji is interested in how a narrative re-inscribes itself, surrenders its intrinsic story to emerge in multiple genres and mediums (34). Chatterji closely reads the plot modification, narrativization, and characterization of Mice Will Be Mice’s adaptations. The section on Dukhushyam Chitrakar’s intermedial storytelling captures a nuanced shift in narrative focus which becomes evident when a story is adapted from an image-text (comic book) into aural-visual-gestural performance (folk storytelling) (35). In comic books, the illustrator and the writer create the story, whereas, in folk performances, the illustrator, the writer, and the performer come together to weave the story. Chitrakars compose stories through parataxis which “allows contradictory ideas to co-exist” (37). Chatterji, in conclusion, emphasizes how different multimodal narrative genres uniquely treat the perception of events, temporality, characters, and intertextual references within epic narratives. 

There might be a niche market for experimental manga, but a market for folk performance sounds like an oxymoron. It is difficult to access folk performances due to their provincial situatedness and linguistic limitations. Medial limitations of folk performances hinder their circulation, unlike other objects of mass consumption. It is like watching a play in the theatre where time flows linearly in one direction. One cannot pause and go back. Unlike comics readers, audiences of folk performances relinquish their agentic rights to disrupt the one-way flow of time.

Discourses of nationalism, gender, class, and caste can only arise within mass circulated art forms with a broader audience and complex production, distribution, and consumption networks. The distinct flavor of Indian comics born of these discourses is discussed in chapter four, titled “Myths, Science Fiction, and Indian Superheroes,” which focuses on how superhero comics depict the dissemination of myths in popular culture (85). It provides a brief overview of the history of Indian superhero comics printed by publishing houses like Indrajal Comics (1964), Amar Chitra Katha (1967), and Raj Comics (1986). This chapter outlines contesting political ideologies, pedagogical approaches, the lure of Marvel comics, nationalist politics, and target audiences that influenced these publishing houses (57). Here, Chatterji delves into three adaptations of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata: Ramayana 3392 AD (Virgin Comics LLC), 18 Days (a web-based animation series by Grant Morrison), and the Nagayana series (Raj Comics). Ramayana 3392 AD and 18 Days draw heavily from fantasy, science fiction, and new-age spiritualism, while the Nagayana series employs aspects of folklore (58). Chatterji summarizes the plots of these adaptations. In the course of the chapter, she endeavors to discern whether Indian epics can be read as superhero stories or not and whether epic figures like Rama, Arjuna, or Bhima function according to Campbell’s idea of the heroic monomyth (62). Moreover, within this context, she unravels the collaborative influences of science, technology, magic, and myth in science fiction and fantasy comics (71). She writes that “references to religion are only possible when translated into mysterious, mystical, and occult presence” (73). Lastly, Chatterji shifts her attention to Chariot Comics’ VRICA and Damned series to explore the “inherent cruelty in the theme of exalted individualism at the heart of the superhero mythos” (75). The concluding section on intertextuality and the superhero genre explores how commercial superhero comics eventually produce “autotelic or self-generating” characters that resemble mythic characterization (86).

The underlying secondary theme of the book—the treatment of time and space not only in superhero comics but in all comics narrative and Chitrakar’s scroll painting—appears in the last chapter of the book. The final chapter, “Words and Images: The craft of comics narration,” dives into the formal aspects of the comics and graphic narratives discussed in the previous chapters. Chatterji maps out formal devices (like speech balloons, panel layout) and their treatment of time and space that magnify comics’ material, sensory, and emotional dimensions (90-91). She also explicates the uses of distinct color palettes for different characters, empanelment, captions with voiceover texts, and diegetic horizon in Ramayana 3392 AD and VRICA that set these comics apart from their Western counterparts (91-95). In her discussion of the Nagayana series, Chatterji writes that Indian comic creators assume “a level of visual literacy among its readers that is far higher than was found in Indian comics of the 1970s and 80s” (95). She further delineates how Indian comics problematize historical time and space by deliberately depicting past events in the future (97). This chapter also addresses issues of temporality in the science fiction mode of adventure storytelling (101-102). Chatterji concludes the chapter by assessing the malleable and transmediational properties of comics and epic narratives. Comics narratives in their transmediation into “video games and cartoon films” acknowledge their traditional provenance (102-103). This somewhat prolix chapter is also quite prosaic and generic.

Chatterji’s Graphic Narratives and the Mythological Imagination in India does timely work in the field of Indian comics studies by exploring new possibilities in theorizing the latent potentials of Indian comics to retell Indian epics and be retold through familiar Indian aesthetic modalities. For example, Chatterji’s insightful discussion on Dukhushyam Chitrakar’s adaptation of Mice Will Be Mice examines how folk performance capaciously adapts comics. The book’s laudable efforts to show the influence of the rich world of Indian mythology in comics would benefit from a more careful (and perhaps cautious) consideration of mythological genres. Even as the text refers to the Mahabharata and the Ramayana as epics, they are not epics; they are mahakavyas (great or lengthy poems). The mahakavya is a different genre with its own unique narrative and compositional parameters—distinct from the European construction of the epic. The book also makes a few incorrect factual claims, particularly in its overview of Indian superheroes in chapter four (55-56). It claims that “indigenous superheroes take firm roots” only in the 1980s (55), which is further supported by citing Arunima Chanda to establish that Narayan Debnath’s Batul the Great “acquired superpowers only in the 1970s” (56). However, contrary to this observation, in the Oct-Nov 1965 edition of the Shuktara magazine, Narayan Debnath illustrates the superheroic feats of Batul during the ongoing Indo-Pak war. Bengali comics of the 1960s by Narayan Debnath and Mayukh Chowdhury depict a few superheroes that forever eluded serious scholarly consideration because of their regional and linguistic specificity. To this day, most of these comics are not even translated into English. 

Nevertheless, Chatterji’s work remains a must-read for scholars on the still-nascent field of Indian-English comics. People interested in Indian-English comics and graphic narratives of the last sixty years will find this book helpful. Besides its primary consideration of only Indian-English graphic narratives, Chatterji’s book also offers new ways of understanding graphic transcreation/re-mediation through which comics can be Indianized. Chatterji’s scholarship pushes us to think about the “Indian” in Indian comics, whether the medium of comics can ever be formally Indianized, and whether we can ever theorize Indian comics through Indian classical aesthetics. 

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