“Cosmic tales are like fish tanks in their need for continuous aeration.”
– Amruta Patil, Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean
Written and painted by Amruta Patil, Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean, published in 2012 by Harper Collins, is the first installment in the Parva Duology. As the name suggests, Adi Parva, is a graphic revisit to the epic Mahabharata, the treasure trove of most Indian tales. But Patil’s Adi Parva is not another Mahabharata, rather it is a singular manifestation in the series of the vast repertoire of ancient Indian tales that exists in an unending continuum.
The narration begins not by emphasizing the antiquity of the story itself but by underlining the long legacy of the storytellers who are responsible for carrying the stories from the past, dispersing them in the present, and preparing them for the future storytellers. Stories, as represented by Patil, cease to be playful recapitulation of events that occurred “once upon a time”. Rather the stories are breathing entities enlivened every time some new sutradhar seeks to recount it. Thus the readers enter into the frame narration of the story where Ganga, the sutradhar and a character in the stories as well, catches two young lads, up for some mischief at the dead of the night. Gradually as conversations flourish, people begin to gather around to listen to her story. Thus, the readers are ushered into the embedded narrative where we encounter the echo of the same old names and events known to most Indians since their childhood. Narrated in an episodic manner, the embedded narrative as told by Ganga, begins with Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiv, the great trinity of Hindu mythology, contesting each other for their position as creators which makes the story of genesis quite ambiguous. As the conversation among the general folks, headed by the sutradhar unfurls further, more stories begin to bloom out to color our imagination. Thus, we encounter Janmejaya, blinded by his raging vow to kill Takshak, we meet the little boy Dhruv who became the pole star after his death, we witness the love and disenchantment of Shakuntala, the wrath of Durvasa, and the great event of samudra manthan and finally the royal drama unfolds with the stories of Hastinapur. One very important artistic decision made by Patil in Adi Parva, is placing the stories of the royals of Hastinapur at the concluding section of the book. This strategic positioning, if we may say, diffuses the attention of the readers to various other stories of the Mahabharata. Less discussed characters like Vinata and Kadru, two sisters married to Kashyap, or Matsyagandha, whose union with Parashar rishi gave birth to Krishna Dwaipayan Vyas who will later compile the entire Mahabharata, rightfully plays their part in intensifying the complexity of the narrative. In other words, Adi Parva, disengages the general preoccupation with the Kuru-Pandava conflict, or the battle of Kurukshetra, by drawing our attention to the dense weave of stories, one leading to the other, that inform the entire narrative of Mahabharata.
As mentioned earlier, Adi Parva is a return to our ancient epic with an urge to recount the tales anew. Patil’s re-visitation becomes unique as she tellingly prioritizes the oral nature of the stories, rather than their being documented text, fixed and constant. Thus, Adi Parva restores the character of sutradhar. Patil’s dexterous portrayal of Ganga as the sutradhar is aptly metaphorical, as Ganga is the only being who engenders from the celestial realm, then stations herself in the deadlocks of Shiva to finally arrive in the mortal world. She is resultantly the reliable narrator whose erudition is derived from her cosmic travels that has enriched her with the countless tales. As we encounter Ganga, striking up a conversation with two random fellows and engaging them in her tales, we can perceive her genuine urge to tell stories. However, soon we realize that Ganga is more than a sutradhar, bounded by her duties to narrate. As the story progresses, we see Ganga, the conversationalist, whose knowledge does not create an anxiety to impart but an inclination to teach and enlighten as the situation arises. Thus her stories are always a means to explicate a question or an observation made by the fellow conversationalist in due course. With this, Patil once again consolidates the Indian culture of oration which was the only means of disseminating and receiving knowledge in ancient India. One very interesting variation made by Patil in Adi Parva is the way she projects her authorial self. Unlike other books where the name of the author on the cover page suggests the text being an original creation by his/her good self, in Adi Parva, Patil uses the word “via” to connote her role in writing the book which is somewhat equivalent to an author. The use of “via” situates Patil herself in the long line of storytellers and we realize that she is another vessel that urges to function in carrying the tales to posterity.
Another very important aspect of introducing the trope of oration is to bring out the multitude of contending voices—voices that question, contradict, observe, confide, and sometimes agree. The listeners of Ganga, as Patil represents, are a crowd of real men and women having different social position, opinions and habits. They not only question to inquire or contradict but sometimes are critical of Ganga’s words too, thereby calling into question the credibility of her words. Some of them even pass lurid comments to the woman-narrator speaking to strangers in the middle of the night. Such dialectics not only complicate the position of the sutradhar but also provide an earthy habitat to the cosmic tales. The ancient myths acquire a new value in the lives of the common folks.
Patil’s work is deeply symbolic, especially in the use of colors. The distinctive nature of the mundane as represented by the crowd and that of the imaginary as embodied in the stories of the Gods and kings, is strikingly demarcated by the choice of colors. Ganga speaks to her audience in the middle of the night, which is represented as sketchy, dark, and mysterious, while on the other hand, the representation of stories is done in bright bold colors. Moreover, the constant shift between the two parallel worlds—one live and the other narrated—enables the readers to comprehend both the contradiction and the connectedness between the two worlds—how one is complimenting the other.
Lastly, one must confess that Patil’s Adi Parva is an important contribution to the existing body of literature on myth in terms of her new perspective and rendition. It is a visual treat for any reader who seeks to know our past and the value of it.