Mahabharata: The Story of Panchali Comes to Life Visually
For many of us, the Mahãbhãrata has been part of our childhood where our grandparents told interesting stories of this famous epic. But the power of the Mahãbhãrata is such that it is an epic that can be revisited thousands of times in our lifetime. Each time we read it, we discover new aspects and take on new meanings of this epic that has filled us with diverse characters, emotions and lessons for life. Today, an illustrated edition Panchali: The Game of Dice (Penguin India), written by Sibaji Bandyopadhyay and illustrated by Sankha Banerjee, gives us new insight into how the game episode contributed to the war in Mahãbhãrata. In this conversation with The Sunday Guardian, Sankha Banerjee talks about this book and tells us what’s next for them.
TSG: What was the inspiration behind this illustrated edition?
Sankha Banerjee [SB]: Eternal contemporaneity is one of the strangest aspects of the Mahãbhãrata. Warehouse of stories, the epic offers them infinite routes of interpretation. I have invaded for over a decade. Anything huge like the Himalayan forest or humble like a fallen leaf was inspirational. A story linked to an anonymous little girl could be a source of inspiration. It’s hard to express. This stimulating opening of the stories was the inspiration behind the graphic novel adaptation of the massive text for the writer Sibaji Bandyopadhyay and me as an illustrator.
TSG: Why did you choose this dice game and Draupadi in particular?
SB: Penguin India asked us to collaborate to produce a series of graphic novels based on the Mahãbhãrata. Panchali: The Game of Dice is the second part of the project, the previous one being Vyasa: The Beginning.
The book, Panchali; The dice game selected stories from Laksha Griha’s Mahabharata at the end of the dice game. Incidentally, many argue that the dice game and subsequent Panchali/Draupadi humiliation are the two central events that led to the overall devastation of the country of Bharata.
TSG: What were the challenges you faced in making this book?
SB: Well, for the sake of economy, the writer necessarily had to reduce the massive text, but he did so without undermining its integrity. And, to mix and match the words, I had to experiment with thousands of visuals for this book, all hand-painted. It takes a different kind of mental preparation and mindset. I often lock myself in a room for weeks. A harrowing experience for both of us.
TSG: Amar Chitra Katha, for example, is known for his illustrated interpretations. How different did you want it to be?
SB: Amar Chitra Katha did a great job. I grew up with ACK but we shouldn’t compare ourselves to them in any situation. Panchali: The Game of Dice bears no resemblance to ‘Amar Chitra Katha’s view of the Mahãbhãrata. First, our graphic novels don’t shy away from depicting incidents usually considered by adults to be “adults only” – omitting them would have stripped the epic of its grandeur. Second, while the dialogues are invented by the author, the events that are presented in both books are firmly anchored in the most reliable version of the “manuscript tradition” of the Sanskrit epic, i.e. the critical edition of the Mahãbhãrata contributed by Poona’s Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. TSG: Many Indian authors today tell mythological stories with their own version.
SB: India has a long tradition of storytelling. We love to hear and read mythological stories. If not all, at least a substantial amount of myths circulating in India lend themselves to multiple reading. At the same time, they are also subject to oversimplifications and ideological misappropriations. Shunning the noise, our effort has been to combat such reasoned distortions of the Mahãbhãrata without compromising our right to poetic freedom.
TSG: What’s next for you?
SB: Panchali has come, maybe a book on Arjuna will come. We are working on it or maybe some selective Mahabharata stories! We never know.