January 22, 2014

Story Boxes: Moyna Chitrakar & Samhita Arni

By Preksha Sharma

“I do not wish to be queen. I have been doubted once, twice and I do not care to be doubted again,” replies the protagonist, a determined Sita to the persuasions of her husband Rama, the Hindu god, in Sita’s Ramayana (2011), published by Tara Books. The novel re-narrates the epic Ramayana with feminine renderings, a version popular in the Medinipur district (West Bengal, India). The portrayal of Rama as an indiff erent, egocentric and unsympathetic warrior king might seem to have pushed the limits for many, especially the followers of Hinduism. Yet, Moyna Chitrakar, the Patua artist who illustrated the book with traditional Patua art, says that she has narrated the Ramayana through the imagery ‘as she knew it.’


Lef: Samhita Arni; Right: Moyna Chitrakar

Patua is a centuries old indigenous art of story-telling where the narratives are sung in synchronization with the unrolling of a vertical painted scroll which depicts the story. The narrative song in the book is effectively replaced with cogent text by writer Samhita Arni who has made sure that the images remain the primary narrative and that the text would just contextualize and complement the visuals created by Chitrakar.


Chitrakar belongs to a family of Patua artists and learnt to draw and sing Patua from her mother Gauri Chitrakar. Years later, she illustrated the New York Times Best Seller, Sita’s Ramayana, narrating the Patua artists’ version to the world. She had earlier assisted her husband Joydeb Chitrakar in illustrating Tsunami (2009), a 12 page graphic scroll-book on the devastating catastrophic tsunami that hit the country in 2004. Interestingly, the couple has also worked on a book, The Enduring Ark based on the story of Noah’s Ark, from the Bible. Both were published by Tara Books. “Give me any story and I can convert it into Patua. Like for Tsunami, we scanned newspapers and watched TV news to create the narrative,” says Chitrakar.


Evolution of a graphic novel from a traditional Patua art required learning some fi ner nuances. “This meant that they had to imagine a scroll opening horizontally, and also that  continuity in terms of showing character is important,” explains V Geetha, editorial director, Tara Books. Tara Books conducts workshops for traditional artisans where they learn to conceive a tale as separate panels accommodated in book spreads and the technique of representing close-ups, an action or a sequence of actions. Chitrakar was mentored by comic artist and graphic novelist Orijit Sen during the course of the workshop.

Chitrakar’s poignant focus on Sita was obvious when some initial panels depicted the queen as a strong willed, independent woman in contrast to her perceived demure of a comely, obedient wife. A point of view that clearly coincided with the one presented in Arni’s recently published novel, The Missing Queen with Sita at the center stage.


Arni’s endeavour to create minimal yet effective text is apparent throughout the book. Also, the text is devoid of purple prose generally associated with books on mythology. For example, in a spread depicting a scene after war, Rama tells Sita that he hadn’t fought the war for her; he fought it to redeem his honour. To which Sita replies, “His honour has exacted a bloody price.”Arni has played with the sentence case and the placement of narrative boxes to convey variable intensities. Throughout the process, Arni spent a lot of time with the images. “…Just staring at them, looking at all the little details that Moyna’s expressed in each image, and then working on the text. The text went through a lot of drafts, and I kept trying to pare it down,” she says.


Arni developed a penchant for mythology very early in her life and having a unique perspective comes naturally to her. As a child, Arni, then 11, illustrated and wrote Mahabharta: A Child’s View (Vol. I, 1996; Vol. II, 2002). “She (Arni)  had read at least half a dozen versions at that very young age, and managed to work a very complex plot into a terse, compelling narrative. But I think her greatest strength and unique approach were best refl ected in her art — at once bold, graphic, funny and inventive, she managed to invest contemporary meanings and energy in her pictures of epic heroes and heroines — Draupadi for instance has a fine and busy dressing table! Krishna sleeps in the  whirring comfort of a fan that gets its energy from furious pedalling… and fi nally her images of war, those arrows and weapons that she drew — stunning,” says Geetha. This book was also published by Tara Books in 1996.


Arni has received various awards for Mahabharta: A Child’s View and opines that India has come a long way with graphic novelists like Amruta Patil “doing some wonderful work” and she admires the “ground breaking work” both in the narrative and art in The Obliterary Journal by Blaft Publications. Her favourite still remains Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. “It is a graphic novel without any text — and it tells a beautiful (and absolutely comprehensible) story. I love that — and I keep thinking about The Arrival,” she says.

Around the time when Sita’s Ramayana was published, Delhi University’s Academic Council decided to drop AK Ramanujan’s essay, ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’, which presented various versions of the epic, for its potential of hurting religious sentiments. To present a version, then, of the great epic that questions on the ‘ever righteousness’ of a supreme god of Hindus is a bold and probably a necessary step. And Tara Books has gone a step further to revive indigenous graphic narrative culture of the country by salvaging a dying art and bringing it to the mainstream.

This article was first published in Kyoorius Magazine 16.

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