Storytelling

The Great Grand Epics of India

Brief Introduction

“Yada yada hi dharmasya

glanir bhavati bharata

abhyutthanam adharmasya

tadatmanam srjamy aham”

(Bhagwat Gita: Chapter 4 verse 7)

“Sri Krishna said: Whenever righteousness declines, O descendant of Bharata, and unrighteousness prevails, I manifest Myself.”

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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

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Rāmacandra standing in a rocky landscape with Laksmana and the bear and monkey chiefs of his army.
[Source – Wikimedia Commons]

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.

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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

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Draupadi and the five Pandavas; a painting by Raja Ravi Varma.
[Source – Wikimedia Commons]

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.

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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.

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Thai Khon Dance, performance at Frankfurt/Main, Germany (2006). Khon is based on the tales of the epic Ramakien (Thai adaptation of Indian Hindi epic Ramayana), as Thai literature and drama draws great inspiration from Indian arts and legend.
[Source – Wikimedia Commons]

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.

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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.


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Indian Comics – The Odyssey Continues

Feature Article

Sneak peek into the world of Indian comics.
[Source – kanigas.com]

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.

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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.

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Mischievous Krishna!
[Source – daily.social]

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).

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Chacha Chaudhary and his pet dog Rocket.
[Source – Wikipedia]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow

[Image credit – Keith Ikeda Barry]

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.  

  Macbeth’s speech; By William Shakespeare

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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.


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