The Ramayana is the ancient epic story of the exiled prince Rama and his beautiful wife, Sita. When Sita is kidnapped by a love-struck demon king, her husband’s efforts to rescue her result in a war that eventually involves not only demons and mortals, but also gods, monsters, and even animals. This story has been told and retold, painted, performed and translated in every medium imaginable.
High kitsch. By the way, if you've never seen this movie, Sampoorna Ramayana, you owe it to yourself. The dancing! The singing! The floating rocks!
In this book, a Patua scroll painter has adapted the Ramayana as a fast-paced, brilliantly bold graphic novel. All of the suspense, treachery, sorcery, and pathos of this epic is depicted in homemade natural dyes layered onto paper in energetic lines, rhythmic patterns, and fields of hot, bright colors. Taut but soulful narrative and dialogue help to tell the story, especially for readers unfamiliar with Hindu iconography.
A spread from the book, from the publisher's website.
The Patuas are a little hard to explain in a Western context. They are a community in West Bengal, they are their own caste, and their traditional occupation is performing traditional stories with scroll paintings. Here it would be like saying that Bluegrass is performed only by the intermarried members of about eight families in Kentucky.
The neat thing about Patua, and why it is a great choice for this graphic novel, is that it is combination visual and performance medium. Large paintings are made with poster paints on cloth or paper and then sewn together and rolled up. The patua travels from village to village with this big scroll and sings his or her stories of gods and monsters or politics and social movements while unspooling the pictures.
From the documentary Songs of a Sorrowful Man.
The book's layout merits particular mention: translating the scroll transitions to pageturns has been done very skillfully. Large panels on pages with abundant white space are interspersed with busier, more action-packed pages. Panels with diagonal edges indicate movement, while round dialogue bubbles and rectilinear swatches of narration are used as compositional elements, sometimes captioning a panel, sometimes stitching two panels together.
It might be a tough sell to your average middle schooler, and it might not even be a choice for leisure reading at all. But even if this book were not created in a little-known traditional medium, even if its story were not one of the most prominent epics in South Asian culture, even if the authors had not made the unusual choice of presenting the Ramayana from Sita’s point of view–this book would be a must-purchase based on the strength of its dramatic story and arresting art, enhanced by superior design and high-quality production.
Adapted from a review written for School Library Journal.