Her picky parrot was partying somewhere and the crystal ball was dead, though she chanted to switch it on nevertheless, the old fortune-teller, with a trademark red-riding-hood cloak, was keen to predict the future. “Your future”, she squeaked suddenly.
Looking at the fixed-price board she beamed unambiguously.
“No, tell me about your future, predict first one for yourself”, said the customer confidently, sternly. “I’ll pay you extra.” The customer took out three silver coins and kept them on the table.
Fortune-teller’s eyes sparkled, slowly but firmly she picked the silver coins, mumbling to herself, gleefully, she hid the coins in one of her many pockets. Grinning, with some plans in her mind, she casually said, “I don’t believe in predictions.”
One hand still clutching her silver coins, she realised her mistake. “I-I mean, I can change the future. I often play with my-my future predictions.”
After a short staring competition between the two, she rudely said, “Now listen to what I foresee for you.”
“If you are any good, first predict your own future”, the customer said adamantly, taking out one gold coin and placing it near the crystal ball. The old fortune-teller’s toothless, sweet smile made her look delicately pretty.
She nodded her head, picked the rugged bag that was lying on the floor next to her and rummaged for something in it, happy and mumbling once again. Nimbly, she took out a tiny tin box, tore a paan in half, placing it in her mouth to the right side, she readied herself.
“Hmm, I carry five things with me you see, magical objects, I change the future as I please using these… mm (enjoying the paan) first is that precocious little parrot of mine, little nuisance, for ages now I have been looking after this (gestures towards the empty birdcage)… parrots are picky you see, mine feels he is a filthy gourmet (laughs loudly)… once he flew away, returned only a week later, bloody I almost fried him that day (more laughter)… but my parrot keeps me grounded, taking care of this fine finicky red-green creature I never lose focus when I sit down to alter my future life… if I mumble a wrong spell, my parrot rebukes me brazenly (laughs and relishes the paan).”
“My magic staff (points towards a wooden quarterstaff resting silently against the tent wall), partly made of dragon bones, many centuries old… swish-swash and the scene changes magically… ask those two thieves I met near, near (trying to remember the town’s name, coughs a little)… they thought an old dame like me, what can I do, I broke their noses, hit them with my staff non-stop, then I broke their ankles, heels and their filthy toes. Tempest-no-tempest, I always face it head-on (with an emphatic look raises a finger as if pointing towards her head), head-on, come what may… ya-hoy, I have built new paths where…where there were no lands you see, me and my magic staff.”
She tried to pick the gold coin that was silently shining brighter than the crystal ball sitting next to it, but the customer took it back and said, “what about the other three magical items?”
Visibly displeased the old fortune-teller swallowed the paan and then mumbled something, possibly some curses.
“Hmm… this crystal ball is no ordinary crystal ball, I can see the future and the past in it. But don’t ask me to see your past, I cannot make it work for others, what a shame! If you can give me two gold coins, I can give it a try, hmm? No? Sissy!”
The customer looked at the crystal ball and pondered.
“This crystal ball shows me my past, times when I acted like a goof and times when I was a spectacle, I balance things, add condiments accordingly, that is the recipe to a pickled life. And here, see-see this red cloak it has so many pockets, I keep my charm books in it, plus (takes out an old hand-mirror from one of the pockets) this mirror, it is also magical. Do you want to buy it? Hmm? Think wisely!”
The old fortune-teller showed the inside pockets of her cloak, she tried getting up but her aching knees refused to budge. The customer got up and turned to leave.
“Listen, special offer for you… buy this cloak and get one of my charm books for free; refer to it when stuck somewhere or attacking an enemy, this is the best way to create a bright future; (gets up slowly, grunting and pushing her chair backwards) buy this mirror then, magical hand-mirror, price -one silver coin only, ask it when you have failed and it will brazenly speak the truth, I always use it, did it just before you came in, and see I have moved on, so… hey!”
The customer turned, keeping the gold coin on the table said, “I would need all the five”, then smiled and left.
The old-fortune teller, as if transfixed, picked the coin, checked its authenticity and kept it safely in her pocket. As she sat down slowly, her parrot flew back in; she cursed him badly before offering him half of the paan.
If you were the customer, which magical object you would have bought and why?
Chihiro – My goodbye card’s still here. Chi-hi-ro… Chihiro, that is my name, isn’t it?
Haku – That is how Yubaba controls you, by stealing your name… so hold on to that card, keep it hidden and while you are here, you must call yourself Sen.
Chihiro – I can’t believe I forgot my name. She almost took it from me.
Haku – If you completely forget it, you will never find your way home… I have tried everything to remember mine.
Chihiro – You can’t remember your real name?
Haku – No, but for some reason, I remember yours.
Those forgotten names, memories, thoughts, bemused glances, talks, ear-to-ear cheers, that sweet-warm feeling of forgetfulness and the forgotten tales complete us in the truest sense. Our best friends, these forgotten episodes, always stay with us, kindling our being with love. Absurd if seen with open eyes, pleasant when seen with eyes closed, our forgotten selves are immortal. And surprisingly these bond us strongly as a community.
A warm feeling of forgetfulness slips away and enters this community hoping to meet us one day. Just remember… remember if you want to meet such a feeling, it will come and surprise you.
Forgetfulness, a boon or a curse, every individual experiences it differently. One of such mystical experiences captured is titled Spirited Away, in a Japanese anime style by the incredible writer, animator, director Hayao Miyazaki.
Chihiro and Sen’s Spiriting Away is the literal translation of the Japanese title of this film. But how can a 10-year-old girl experience the “spiriting away” twice? Maybe it can be done by forgetting and accepting.
Storytelling & the Art of Forgetfulness
Folklores and myths, since ‘eternity’, have used the art of forgetfulness to complicate the hero’s journey and to open a gate to a unique never-heard-of-yet-familiar world; an enchanted world with flying mountains, a lotus island with tempting, misleading heavens, a charlatan with a devious plan, a monster masquerading and a memory trick that evades reality.
What is the art of forgetfulness? Surely something very delicate, absurd and too hard to explain. That we forget both good and bad days and yet remember it all when the need arises, that everything is stored in our subconscious and we forget what we must, to evolve, we forget and make mistakes and grow and bring a change… this is such an ephemeral art, and nonetheless, we have mastered it.
In stories, forgetfulness raises the stakes for a hero that it becomes a matter of life and death, bringing a drastic transformation.
Chihiro almost forgets her real name when working for Yubaba at the Bathhouse, Chihiro becomes Sen, but this helps her to be in the moment and give her best when trapped in the spirits’ world. She is worried for her parents who have turned into pigs and her goal is to rescue them and return back, but as if cut-off from her past, she works in the Bathhouse as an employee, searching for answers, helping Haku and others, living like her true self, making decisions without her parents’ guidance.
A very thin thread connects her with the real world, she holds on to it without sorrow or regret and moves ahead anticipating nothing, accepting every new surprise.
What Chihiro doesn’t remember about herself, we do and this information gives us an upper hand, we stick to it galloping blindly, trusting her at every step, waiting carefully for a breakthrough. The storyteller uses the art of forgetfulness to build a strong bond between the audience and the character via a short fabulous episode.
And so if someone asks, “why doesn’t Chihiro simply runs back to where she comes from or why doesn’t she take Haku’s help to escape”, we leap forward to answer, “because she cannot leave her parents behind and because Haku is Yubaba’s slave.” We know Chihiro only too well because we know something of great importance that she now doesn’t remember.
The Japanese ‘Chi’, when translated in English, means thousand and ‘hiro’ means to question or search. When Yubaba hires Chihiro, she steals her name, her identity, trying to trap her in the spirit world forever.
Your name is something that defines you throughout your life and Chihiro, having lost her name in the spirit world starts to forget about the living world. So she will effectively forget everything about her life of the living, who she was, her parents and basically everything she ever knew.
– Hayao Miyazaki
Chihiro survives, she tackles and finds the untapped power source within, like the leaves of grass she holds her ground and even without a clear picture of herself and her name, she lives by it; she questions and searches without knowing concretely what she is looking for. She simply doesn’t give up and continuously reminds herself that she has forgotten something.
Initially hoping the spirit world to be nothing but a dream, later Chihiro accepts it without any qualm. Why? Because she is Chihiro, the one with abundance, thousands of questions, she is someone who has plenty of tricks up her sleeve, moves on freely, whose imagination is still alive, just like any other little 10 year old.
Adults, routinely signing their names on several documents well aware of its meaning, forget to live by it. Often begrudgingly they accept the plain perspective, effacing a possibility, forgetting their search, abandoning it altogether.
Haku, the Dragon
Haku, the spirit of river Kohaku, serves Yubaba as she stole his real name “Nigihayami Kohaku Nushi”. He remembers nothing but the fact that he had met Chihiro when she was very little. He recognises her and helps her from the beginning, expecting nothing in return. Chihiro saves Haku from Yubaba’s cursed spells and liberates him in the end as a sweet warm memory returns to her. As a little child she had almost drowned in a river, but survived mysteriously; the name of the river, she tells Haku, was Kohaku. Immediately Yubaba’s spell breaks and Haku’s memories return to him.
A forgotten childhood memory, an upsetting one that must have left everyone (related to Chihiro) troubled, beautifully turns into a magical key setting a soul, a dragon soul free.
And in flashes when we see those episodes, those hazy childhood memories – good, bad – we realise how it has shaped us, how far we have come and how its randomness is actually a puzzle piece.
Chihiro and Haku’s friendship represents the fragrant spirit of the romantic era (late 18th century); an era (especially Europe) that through its artists shifted towards a more imaginative and free life, valuing the sublime thought and expression, living more passionately, revolting against classicism and Yubaba like overwhelming Industrial Revolution.
Valuing freedom, both Chihiro and Haku, take risks to win it back, to win it back for each other. In a short span, they bond strongly, like one does with an old memory, not burdening their steps with the idea of remembrance, but only sealing their love with a promise to meet again. That is how they part ways.
Yubaba and Zeniba
Two twins, one evil the other caring, Yubaba and Zeniba, act like a see-saw on which the story plays (and plays so well). Yubaba is not a dark character nor is Zeniba a saint; Yubaba is greedy, cunning and at times silly, silly enough to be tricked.
She may thunder when on a hunt or when managing the Bathhouse employees, but she becomes a tip-toeing mother of a giant baby (Boh), ready to do anything for him. She has flaws and this makes her a doubly interesting antagonist.
Zeniba, a kind-hearted smart witch, recognises Chihiro’s bravery and admires her amiable nature. Her presence assures Chihiro that Yubaba too is vulnerable. She supports Chihiro but not by snapping her fingers and resolving everything, rather by trusting her spirit and asking her to trust it too.
Zeniba – I am sorry she turned your parents into pigs, but there is nothing that I can do. It is just the way things are… You will have to help your parents and Haku on your own. Use what you remember about them.
Chihiro – What, can’t you please give me more of a hint than that…? I feel I have met Haku before but it was a long time ago.
Zeniba – That is a good start. Once you have met someone, you never really forget them, it just takes a while for your memories to return.
Zeniba asks Chihiro to call her granny when at her place and later, Chihiro before leaving the Bathhouse thanks Yubaba and calls her granny too (leaving her annoyed). Things turn out to be in Chihiro’s favour by the end, as her memories return, she keeps no hard feelings against anyone, not even the antagonist.
Chihiro forgives and forgets easily, like children usually do, freeing her own spirit, feeling its happy push towards the next destination.
Purgation, the holy ritual of cleansing oneself of the sins committed, is one ceremony that is celebrated in many religions worldwide. The Great Bath of Mahenjo-daro, built in the 3rd millennium BCE, had a special religious function for the Indus Valley civilisation according to the scholars.
The unrecognisable “stink spirit” who is Chihiro’s first customer is the spirit of a polluted river. She and her partner Len, Yubaba and all the employees at the Bathhouse work together to cleanse it; the free and happy river spirit, in the end, floats away, giving Chihiro a gift (a herbal cake) that she uses later on to heal Haku’s fatal wound. The purged river spirit also, like a mirror, shows Chihiro her forgotten memory, just a sneak peek of the incident when she had fallen in Kahaku River as a little girl – of how she and Haku first met.
Forgetfulness is not an answer, it is a stage, a brief mental stasis, that gives you a momentary way out or presents you with a leeway so that you can start your journey again.
The Bathhouse here represents a place where you can not only clean your spirit but also free it by remembering all that you have forgotten, ignored, absorbed, quietly accepted, helplessly agreed with. The bright and active Bathhouse, run by Yubaba, is strictly professional, always focusing on the guests need.
Amongst Yubaba’s employees busy running the business, elevators moving up and down, workers keeping the baths clean and the floor shiny, the spirits find peace; in all this loud drama, the spirits manage to find a way out, they cross the maze and pay the company for allowing them to play.
A contradiction for Yubaba steals names, removing an individual’s memory and the baths tend to remind a guest of her unique forgotten identity, the Bathhouse tirelessly functions to unite the community. Together and yet alone we all move forward towards the unexpected future.
The Spirits and Yubaba’s Employees
In my grandparents’ time, it was believed that kami (spirits) existed everywhere – in trees, rivers, insects, wells, anything. My generation does not believe this, but I like the idea that we should all treasure everything because spirits might exist there, and we should treasure everything because there is a kind of life to everything.
– Hayao Miyazaki
The animal, plant, river and other spirits, and the little dark soot-ball spirits, bring in, ironically, the element of permanence in the story. These forgotten souls never pause, they steadily keep acting, dutifully participating in the after-life drama.
The radish spirit’s gaze, the old river spirit’s thank you gift, the soot-ball spirits’ liveliness all help in solidifying the backdrop; it appears then that Chihiro has entered an ancient mythical land, where everyone has a job to do. That it is not a vague dream but a wonderful possibility. And the same goes for the weird looking frog-like men and women.
Every spirit and employee gathers near the Bathhouse’s entrance where Yubaba quizzes Chihiro about her parents at the end, when Chihiro wins, the spirits jump up and sway joyously. We don’t meet them once Chihiro leaves, but one feels that they must have gone back to work immediately.
A spirit that has no memory, no goal, waits in stillness and clings on to the first hope it gets, a hope to create new memories, to set a new goal. This is No Face, a very interesting grey character; vulnerable for it is clueless, dangerous for it has limitless powers.
When Chihiro, out of generosity, keeps a sliding door open for him to enter as it is raining outside, No Face quietly enters the Bathhouse with the sole purpose to help Chihiro; very soon it becomes greedy to fulfil this purpose – first by offering Chihiro too many herbal soap tokens and then by showering gold. No Face, hungry and out of control, starts swallowing the workers and creates havoc in the Bathhouse. Chihiro then feeds him half of the herbal cake gifted by the revived old river spirit, bringing No Face back to normal; it regurgitates all that he had swallowed.
This quiet, puzzled spirit then accompanies Chihiro on her train journey to Zeniba and later, agrees to stay back and help Zeniba.
How superbly then No Face’s journey points at the significance of memories and a purpose in life! And what an apt name it has got… No Face… purposeless, faceless, one without an identity.
Kamaji & Lin
The spider-like six-armed, goggled eyed boiler man, Kamaji, is a character who never forgets, even if he does, he hasn’t got the time to remember what and when, because he singlehandedly runs the water-supply system in the Bathhouse, he and his little soot-ball spirits. Kind-hearted, but always occupied, wise, but always busy, Kamaji’s six arms, which can stretch indefinitely, also find it difficult for such is his workload.
Another character who hasn’t got the time to forget things is Lin; a human-like servant who is not less than an informant as she knows everything about everything. Interestingly, according to the Japanese picture book, The Art of Spirited Away, Lin is described as the spirit of a white tiger, she surely is like a free-spirited soul, rushing, resourceful and undaunted.
It is with Kamaji and Lin’s help that Chihiro survives her time at the Bathhouse; they are the ones who make Chihiro see the spirit world’s reality, suggesting her to adjust immediately and act quickly. And this is what Chihiro needed the most, to keep her forgotten memories aside and build some new ones for her own good. Action always leads to progression; it is the answer to Chihiro’s thousand questions.
Before Yubaba could steal Chihiro’s name and her identity, we get to meet her parents who are two lost beings, unaware of their true identity. Living on the borderline, they act superficially smart on a routine basis but get greedily excited on seeing something that they love – food (or whatever is free).
As they are hardly in touch with their inner voice, with every passing year they have learned the ways of the consumerist society, they are the first ones to forget the reality, leaving their kid with the responsibility to liberate them.
We are not supposed to hate Chihiro’s parents, they may be lost, stubborn, calculative, but they too can find their way back, all they have to do is remember what they have forgotten about themselves.
The fact that their greediness leads to Chihiro going forward all by herself doesn’t appear to be a stereotypical writing tactic because they immediately raise the stakes for the protagonist by turning into pigs. What if they are butchered, what if they can never return back to their human selves? Will Chihiro be able to save them?
These tense queries leave us with no time to wonder about any cliché, we are hooked to witness the unfolding of the uncanny drama. We forget the rest.
The vast stretch of grassland, the well-lit restaurant market, the flooded river with big bright carrier ships, the Bathhouse building and rooms, the staircases, the pigsty, Kamaji’s boiler room, Chihiro’s dormitory, the witches’ dwelling, the railway track under the ocean and the dainty cloudy blue sky… the film’s setting contributes richly in making us feel the Chihiro’s “spiriting away”.
It is unique and dreamy, it is intense and crowded, scenic and sublime, wonderful and ridiculous and more… the setting makes the story believable and palpable in a brilliant way. It is a place we have never been, yet is remarkably familiar… like a forgotten memory.
‘Spirited Away’ is one of the most loved and successful anime of all time; a bundle of magical moments and surprises, tussles and raptures, it connects with our inner child, one who believed in dreams and magic and talismans…
It reminds the forgetful ones that they too can find a way out of the crudeness that ties them down, that the answer to their thousand questions and their endless search lies within, hidden in a forgotten memory.
Winner of Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (making it the only hand-drawn, non-English-language animated film to win the award); it was also named the second “Best Film… of the 21st Century So Far” by The New York Times.
It held the record of becoming the most successful and highest-grossing film in Japanese history for 19 years (Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train broke its record in 2020.)
Read these reviews to know more about Spirited Away –
“Sri Krishna said: Whenever righteousness declines, O descendant of Bharata, and unrighteousness prevails, I manifest Myself.”
These profound words are etched in every Indian’s heart and soul, no matter which century she is born in, to which caste or creed, everyone knows these words of Lord Krishna; words that have a philosophical meaning, words that talk about a divine scheme of things which might be hard for some of us to contemplate, but no one can deny its power for these words still influence us all.
And so does the story of a great king who brought an end to the evil, giving every Indian across the world the festival of lights – Diwali.
Such is the reach of the great epics of India, such is the magnificence of epic poems – The Ramayana and The Mahabharata – that both the texts are still very much alive, guiding through, warning about and presenting life as it is.
These extensive ancient epic poems, The Ramayana with 24,000 verses in Sanskrit, credited to the sage Valmiki and The Mahabharata with an overwhelming 200,000 verse lines and long prose passages in Sanskrit, making it the longest epic poem in the world, credited to the sage Vyasa, are astoundingly both simple and complex, meaning that, while a little school kid can narrate its storyline in one go, a scholar might find it hard to encapsulate its essence in even hundred pages.
These two epics of India present us with a whole new world of characters, tales, ideas, powers, fears and also a mirror that holds an answer for every individual.
The Ramayana and The Mahabharata came long after The Vedas. The Vedic literature is vast; it contains the highest spiritual thoughts of our Rishis (sages). But the language and the complexity of the thoughts barred it from being accessed by the commoners as the people found it hard to study, to understand the depth of The Vedas, Upanishads and Aranyakas.
Thus, the Rishis, the seers, shaped the philosophical texts in the form of a story, so that the core message could spread amongst one and all. And so it did, in the form of the legendary story of Lord Rama and the epic war fought inKurukshetra.
Ramayana – The Story
Rama was the eldest son of the king of Ayodhya, Dashratha and queen Kaushalya. Rama was the epitome of magnificence and great virtue. After his tutelage under the great sage Vishvamitra, Rama got married to the sublime Sita, but only after bending God Shiva’s mighty bow at her Swayamvar.
When the old King Dashratha expressed his desire of crowning Rama as his successor, his second queen Kaikeyi, provoked by her maid Manthara, reminded the king of the two boons he had promised her in exchange for saving his life once. Kaikeyi thus demanded to send Rama to exile for 14 years and to make Bharat, her own son, the new king of Ayodhya.
After Rama is banished, he retreats to the forest with Sita and his favourite half-brother, Lakshmana, to spend 14 years in exile. A shocked Bharat goes to the forest and pleads with Rama to return to Ayodhya, but on Rama’s refusal, he takes his foot-wear to place on the throne and to rule the country on behalf of his elder brother.
The epic explicitly narrates the journey of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana in exile; the hardships they face, the various people they encounter and several lessons learnt. There Sita is abducted by the king of Rakshasas, Ravana, while her two protectors are busy pursuing a golden deer sent to the forest to mislead them.
In Lanka, Sita resolutely rejects Ravana’s attentions, and Rama and his brother set out to rescue her. After several adventures, they enter into alliance with Sugriva, king of the monkeys, and, with the assistance of the monkey-general Hanuman and later Ravana’s own brother, Vibhishana, they attack Lanka.
Rama slays Ravana and rescues Sita, who undergoes an ordeal by fire to clear herself of suspicions of infidelity. When they return to Ayodhya, however, Rama learns that the people still question the queen’s chastity, and he banishes a pregnant Sita to the forest. There she meets the sage Valmiki and at his hermitage gives birth to Rama’s two sons – Lava and Kusha.
The family is reunited when the sons come of age, but Sita, after again protesting her innocence, plunges into the earth – her mother – who receives her and swallows her up.
Mahabharata – The Story
The kings and generals of the Lunar Dynasty – Shantanu, Bichitrabirya and Bhishma – successfully ruled a place called Hastinapur. King Bichitrabirya had two sons –Dhritarashtra and Pandu. Since the elder Dhritarashtra was blind, his younger brother Pandu ascended the throne after the death of their father.
Pandu had five sons named as Yudhisthir, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadev. They were known as the Pandavas and a hundred sons of Dhritarashtra were known as the Kauravas. Duryodhan was the first among the sons of Dhritarashtra.
After the death of king Pandu, his five sons were given one portion of the kingdom to rule where the Pandavas built their capital and named it Indraprastha. Envious of their success, the Kauravas invited the Pandava brothers to play the game of Dice with them with a bet over victory or defeat. Playing with a trick, the Kauravas defeated the Pandava king Yudhisthira again and again.
According to the bet, the defeated brothers agreed to live the life of exiles in forests for twelve years, and thereafter to spend one more year in disguise to escape detection.
During this period the five brothers end up marrying Draupadi due to their mother’s misunderstanding – one of the rare examples of polyandry in Sanskrit literature.
After thirteen years the Pandava brothers returned and asked the Kauravas for their kingdom, but the Kaurava king Duryodhan refused to give back their territory. Because of this injustice, a fierce battle was fought between the Pandavas and Kauravas in the field of Kurukshetra.
With Krishna on their side, the Pandavas won the war. All the Kauravas are annihilated, and, on the victorious side, only the five Pandava brothers and Krishna survived.
The Pandavas got the whole kingdom and Yudhisthira became king. But, in deep repentance over the death of his kith and kin, Yudhisthira left the throne in the hands of Parikshita, the son of dead Abhimanyu, and left for the Himalayas with his four brothers and wife, Draupadi.
One by one they fall on the way, and Yudhisthira alone reaches the gate of heaven. After further tests of his faithfulness and constancy, he is finally reunited with his brothers and wife, as well as with his enemies, the Kauravas, to enjoy perpetual bliss.
Influence on the Society
Ramayana, also considered to be the Adi-Kavya (first poem), was written for the masses with the purpose to show mankind a virtuous path. Hence, this epic has inspired and regulated the Indian way of life like a social and moral constitution. Ramayana depicts the values of truthfulness, morality and nobility as supreme ideals of life; it emphasises on the duties of relationships, portraying ideal characters like the ideal father, the ideal servant, the ideal brother, the ideal husband and the ideal king.
Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Bharat, Hanuman, Shatrughna, Vibhishan and Ravana are characters vital not only to the cultural consciousness of India but also Nepal, Sri Lanka and south-east Asian countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Thus, we find many versions of the Ramayana within India, besides Buddhist, Sikh and Jain adaptations; there are also Cambodian, Indonesian, Filipino, Thai, Lao, Burmese and Malaysian versions of the tale.
The Mahabharata, which is more complex and realistic with polity, caste, gender roles and the problems of how to act in a particular situation, is aptly called sometimes the Fifth Veda. Like Ramayana, it also aims to guide the public to live an honest and diligent life, to follow the path of Dharma.
With this central theme, Vyasa added many legends, traditions, Puranic episodes, accounts of other royal dynasties, as well as descriptions of prevailing socio-religious systems, customs and manners, moral values, political conditions, traditions of war and diplomacy, and faiths and beliefs of the people.
The Mahabharata described the virtues of vigour for worldly existence as well as of the higher ideals of life like truthfulness and righteousness. At several places, Vyasa included deeper philosophies and spiritual thoughts to create awareness about man’s divine existence.
A short section of Mahabharata adds to its magnificence, it is the famous Bhagawat Gita – the song of the god – containing the essence of Upanishads, which is considered as the core of the highest knowledge for mankind. On the battlefield of Kurukshetra, commander of the Pandava forces, Arjuna, after seeing his own family lined up against him, realises that war is futile and will lead only to bloodshed. Thus, Arjuna declares to Krishna, his charioteer that he won’t fight.
It is in this crucial situation that Krishna, the Supreme Being in human form, utters the words of wisdom, concerning the creation and existence, the inner purpose of life and the value of duty, as well as the true awareness regarding the reality and the unreality. Krishna’s spiritual utterance on Karma, Gyana and Bhakti-Work, Wisdom and Devotion reveals to Arjuna the real meaning of life.
He realized the truth that while he was doing a deed, he was not the ‘DOER’ himself – he was only an instrument of the Divine Will to uphold a sacred cause for sacred truth and justice. Work without attachment or desire for the result will lead to true knowledge which ultimately will lead man to a stage of devotion for a selfless, detached and peaceful life.
The Holy Gita is regarded as the sacred-most scripture of the Hindus and a unique contribution to mankind’s spiritual consciousness.
Both Mahabharata and Ramayana together form the Hindu Itihas (history) and though the archaeological facts do not support these detailed tales, people have wholeheartedly accepted it as the truth.
The impact on Indian literature, art and culture has been so deep and profound that even today we see books are being written to analyse one or the other aspect of these epics; apart from TV serials, theatre plays, films and the famous Ram-Leela (enactment of Ramayana), simplified versions of these texts with illustrations are created for children, and hence, this knowledge, through the technique of storytelling is being passed on and on.
Mahabharata teaches the truths of the tricky world and also takes us to the root of our being so that we first fight the battle within and then partake in the battle in the outer world. And the idealistic world of Ramayana, where good and evil take firm stands against each other, reminds us that even if evil is all-powerful and wise, the virtuous always wins in the end.
Rama’s journey to win over the sinful is relatable to the journey an individual takes to fight her own weaknesses; the individual has to banish her desires and struggle for her purpose in life, and with ‘Rama like focus’, one can become victorious in all the battles.
Such individual battles are what we see vividly in Mahabharata, for example – all the five Pandavas fought for a different reason – Yudhishtira fought for the war was inevitable, Arjuna fought for Krishna showed him the ultimate truth, Bheema fought for the sake of Draupadi, Nakul and Sehdev fought for it was what their elders wanted.
This is what makes these epic poems timeless, unique and so relatable. There is righteousness, honesty, duty, spirituality and metaphysics in both the epic poems, but the fact that both reach out to the individual and both give emphasis to individuality, makes it stand apart from the other epic works in the world.
Neither the society, the family nor the beloved is responsible for your decisions, it is you alone who is responsible. Thus, it is all up to you, your thoughts, your actions – the true power is in your own hands.
Powerful animated images, quick words locked in speech balloons, bold sound effects ‘Pow’ ‘Boom’ ‘Zap’, an amalgamation of drama and comedy, so much and more presented in a small booklet makes a single copy of a comic book.
The popularity of comics is such that you will easily find fans of Suppandi, Doga, Shikari Shambhu, Super Commando Dhruv, Rajan Iqbal and Bahadur and most definitely every Indian is a fan of Chacha Chaudhary, Nagraj, Biloo and Pinky.
While India boasts of its timeless rich literature, music and other art forms, the beginning of comic books took its time to establish successfully. Magazines like Baalak and Honhar started in the year 1926 and Chandamama began in 1947, but these were simple works with illustrations and not an out-and-out comic.
The fact that Baalak ran for decades, from 1926 to 1986, and Chandamama’s last issue was released in 2013, proves that the storytelling techniques of Indian writers are impactful; it won’t be wrong to say that we might soon see these magazines in the digital platform.
Syndicated comics from the West first entered the lives of readers; international strips like The Phantom, Mandrake, Rip Kirby, Flash Gordon and many others found a loyal audience in our country. Illustrated Weekly of India, the magazine, that ran over a century in India, started giving space to the comic books, though only the international ones as yet.
But not for long as Uncle Pai (Anant Pai, the pioneer of Indian comics) in 1967 was ready with Indrajal Comics to present a country full of epics and folklores, the ‘comic book world’ of its own.
Inspirations were taken from the West, which had a flourishing comic industry by then, and thus, Deewana Magazine came into being that followed in the lines of the world-famous American magazine – MAD. This magazine had illustrations and jokes, but the themes were serious and political, it meant to be sarcastic and mock the folly of the power-hungry.
It was Anant Pai who began the Amar Chitra Katha comic book series (and later on Tinkle) which started with Western fairytales like Little Red Riding Hood and Pinocchio, but then soon switched to Indian mythology, epics, history, literature and folklore.
The Ramayana, Sati and Shiva, Karna, Ravana, Shakuntala, Panchatantra, Birbal, Tenali Raman, Rana Pratap, Raja Raja Chola, The Mughal Court, Valiant Sikhs, Great Indian Emperor, Brave Rajputs, The Kuru Clan, Great Rulers of India and many such comics took over the stores all over India and people started eagerly waiting for the next issues.
It was Amar Chitra Katha’s comic book based on the adventures of Krishna that became the biggest hit; more than 5 million copies have been sold till date and it remains one of their best-selling comic book series.
In 1969, a brilliant comic character was born who was in contrast to the macho heroes of the West – an old, frail man with a white moustache and white Paghari (turban), whose brain worked faster than a computer – it was Pran Kumar Sharma’s creation Chacha Chaudhary. Undoubtedly, India’s most popular character, Chacha Chaudhary enchanted the minds of the children and adults alike, the entire nation welcomed this loving and wise character.
Published in the Hindi magazine Lotpot, Chacha Chaudhary’s stories were translated into over ten different languages and it sold more than 10 million copies.
Such was the appeal of this simple yet witty, old but brainy character that this comic book also got made into a television series in 2001, starring Raghuvir Yadav as Chacha Chaudhary. Rocket, Chacha Chaudhary’s faithful dog and Sabu, his strong friend, an alien from Jupiter, also became famous. Everyone enjoyed and learned from Chacha Chaudhary’s anecdotes, making him the entire nation’s Chacha (Uncle).
With the advent of a new era, the ‘70s, many publishing houses started taking comics seriously. Indrajal Comics to give competition to Amar Chitra Katha started new series based on Indian mythologies and epics.
Focusing on the problems of dacoits, which was prevalent in those days, Aabid Surti gave the readers of Indrajal a new hero – Bahadur – strong, smart and stylishly dressed in Kurta with a pair of jeans; this progressive Indian hero became an idol for many.
Several publishers had a stint in this field, like the Goyal Comics, Madhu Muskan, Champak, Lotpot and the Manoj Comics, while some publishers were there to make a mark and begin the golden age of comic books in India, these were Diamond Comics (started in 1978), Tinkle Magazine (founded in 1980) and Raj Comics (founded in 1986). Thus, by the mid-1980s, Indian comics had reached its golden age, with more than twenty publishers publishing a vivid range of comics.
Diamond Comics successfully brought new characters like Fauladi Singh (India’s first sci-fi superhero), Rajan Iqbal (kid duo detectives), Lambu Motu in the comic world and invited Chacha Chaudhary to guest in some of its series. They knew what the audience wanted and they were ready to change with the changing times; these reasons make Diamond Comics one of the longest-lasting indigenous comic publishing houses in the country.
Tinkle, a fortnightly magazine, brought another treat for the comic book lovers; it started offering puzzles, quizzes and contests usually for school children making it extremely popular in no time. Suppandi, Shikari Shambu, Ramu & Shamu, Ina-Mina-Mynah-Mo got nationwide success.
Suppandi was created by legendary artist Ram Waaerkar, who illustrated for the Amar Chitra Katha as well; a large chunk of other characters was created by pioneers of Indian comic book space like Anant Pai and Margie Sastry. Such is its fascination that Tinkle is very much active in the 21st century and also has an active official website.
Raj Comics, the longest-lasting Indian publishing house for comics along with Diamond Comics, gave to the masses a strong lineup of fantastic Indian superhero characters, a category in comics that wasn’t yet truly explored in India.
Anupam Sinha’s character, Super Commando Dhruv became young boys’ favourite hero, the striking feature being that Super Commando Dhruv had no superpower, he fought bad guys using his intellect, ability to talk to almost every kind of animal, scientific knowledge, martial art and acrobatic skills, unparalleled willpower and a determination to eliminate evil from this world.
Other popular Raj Comics’ heroes include – Parmanu, a hero with superpowers like the ability to fire atomic rays from his wrist and chest, to teleport and fly; Bheriya, the cursed wolf-human hybrid, who is a skilled warrior, who lives in and protects the jungles of Assam; Bhokal, a winged warrior prince who fights with the mystical sword that can cut through any matter.
The Doga series too had a huge readership; Doga, a ruthless, fearsome vigilante who wears the mask of a dog and believes in uprooting the problem rather than solving it, has no superpowers, except that he can talk to dogs and take their help in finding goons.
Doga is a dark character, an antihero who roams in the sewers of Mumbai and shows no mercy to any criminal. The fan base of Doga series is so strong that there have been talks of making it into a feature film.
But there was another comic book published by Raj Comics that surpassed the success of all these superhero comics, it was the Nagraj series. Nagraj was created by Sanjay Gupta, he was an unmatched superhero with many powers like to release micro snakes from his body, shapeshift, read minds, he had superhuman strengths etc.
With terrorism becoming a reality in the late ‘80s, Raj Comics presented the reader with Nagraj who fought terrorists and aimed to bring peace for the public. Dressed in a striking green skin-tight suit, with a cool hairstyle, Nagraj became a trendsetter.
Nagraj aur Bughaku, a double-sized comic book starring Raj Comics’ flagship characters Nagraj and Super Commando Dhruvpublished in 1991, sold more than 900,000 copies within the first three months of its release, a record that remains unmatched.
Characters like Bankelal, Gamraj, Fighter Toads (Raj Comics), Detective Moochwala, Gardabh Das (Target Magazine) also became popular in the ‘90s. Manoj Comics published more than 365 comics within a year in the ‘90s, thereby implying that there was a time in the era when readers had one new comic book to read every single day.
Fascinatingly, before the advent of the millennium, the first two graphic novels of India were published, one in the year 1992 – Bharat Negi’s ‘Kissa Ek Karod Ka’, a politicized work based on the Harshad Mehta scam and the second in 1994 – Orijit Sen’s River Of Stories, that talked about environmental, social and political aspects of the controversial construction of the Narmada Dam.
Seeing the success and reach of Indian comics, a US-based company – Gotham Comics, was established in 1997 and with them they brought the publishing rights of DC, Marvel, Dark Horse and MAD Magazine for the Indian subcontinent, to the gladness of the readers.
But to the bad luck of the publishers, the dawn of the 21st century brought the video games, television boom, internet and other major technological leaps that affected the interests and lifestyles of the majority; this caused the decline in the sales of comic books and thus, ended the golden decade of Indian comic books.
The downfall of comic books in India didn’t make this art form extinct. Many Indian artists along with some international publishing houses kept trying to bring back the comic book industry to its glorifying days.
In 2002, San Jose, California-based company published ‘Bombaby The Screen Goddess’, created by Antony Mazzotta; the story revolves around a typical Bombayite who finds that she has powers of the Goddess Mumbadevi and thus, has new responsibilities to handle.
Marvel also launched its Spider-Man: India Project, which went on to become the first major release by a comic book company in India. Understanding the Indian readership, the Liquid Comics and Gotham Comics of India collaborated and together they created epic series on Indian mythology and ancient history; some of their most popular titles include– Sadhu, Devi, Snake Woman and Ramayana 3392 AD.
In the new era, the ever-changing and still unstable comic book industry has adopted unconventional ideas and unique methods to lure the public’s interest.
Graphic novels are here and are presenting the adult audience a mirror, not shying away from the grey realities; the drama is real in novels like Kari by Amruta Patil (2008, also the first by a female graphic novelist), Moonward: Stories from Halahala by Appupen (2009), An Itch You Can’t Scratch by Sumit Kumar (2010), Holy Cow Entertainment by Vivek Goel (2011), Sudershan (Chimpanzee) by Rajesh Devraj and MerenImchen (2012), Krishna- A Journey Within by Abhishek Singh (2013), Nirmala and Normala by Niveditha Subramaniam and Sowmya Rajendran (2014), Munnu: A Boy From Kashmir by Malik Sajad (2015).
In today’s fast world, where life has become both advance and complex, artists with their different mediums try to study this advancement, this complexity. Their poems, paintings, novels, comics are like a laboratory of emotional ailments, successes and failures. So for every busy being, what better way to reach this laboratory than through a comic book?
Comic books in any form – print or digital – are here to stay as this storytelling medium is a very powerful one. Whether the sales record approves of it or not, a rich source that offers stories won’t disappear, because humankind cannot do without stories.
We are social animals, we are meant to bond, work together and grow as a society, and thus, nothing can act as a perfect guide as the art of storytelling, not even the advancement in science. This is because science deals with the outer world and the biology of everything, while stories deal with the universal soul and the human soul.
As long as humans thrive, so will the stories, as long as there is imagination, the comic books will keep the readers engaged.
Signifying nothing, says Macbeth and says it passionately, firmly, with anger and despair. He knows his end is near. All the desires, great ambitions, strategies to win, greed to own it all, everything looks foolish now when he is facing his death.
Macbeth is helpless, he triggered this, he invited his doom and unable to believe it he cries out that, ‘it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’
But it signifies everything, not only the perplexities, the complexities, the horror that the character faces, but also the routine dilemmas, confusions, ups and downs that any of us go through. And like Macbeth if we are in the wrong then we do strut and fret and also shout, ‘out, out brief candle’.
The majority which is not as ambitious and as covetous as Macbeth, the majority that has tied itself down to the daily chores and their precious little things, little things that take big space in their hearts, they, my dear, commit follies differently, they strategise differently and thus, are fooled differently.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, it will signify the same when another Macbeth will take the centre stage.
Keep walking! Walking? Together! Together?/
For a bright future – said the leader,/
Sitting comfortably on the throne.
A storyteller, following the ancient tradition of cave chroniclers, standing in vrikshasana (the tree pose) on a hill top (it is sunny, but windy), breathing in and out stories (relishing it all, but at times overwhelmed), declares animatedly that she will continue to – tell stories, share rare story gems, and connect with the pacy universe while also keeping the website ad-free.
Big thanks to my readers. Stay tuned!
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Chiming Stories (formerly Home Chimes)
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