There’s little in Indian mythological texts that escapes the scrutiny of contemporary storytellers. The power of these potent stories have manifested in many interpretations—traversing the festering political and social commentaries to give birth to a kind of storytelling that derives from these texts’ inherent multiple realities.
Which is why when Kolkata-based Upamanyu Bhattacharyya, a 24-year-old animator and illustrator, decided to look at the Mahabharata, he did so by referencing the modern-day retellings of the epic. “The Mahabharata and Ramayana are stories I've grown up with, and I have seen many different kinds of representations of them,” he says. From Ganesh Pyne’s dark portraits and scenes to Peter Brooks’ seminal theatrical adaptation that was led by a multi-racial cast, to author Arshia Sattar’s lessons at National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, and Amruta Patil’s feminist retelling in Adi Parva—Bhattacharyya found himself drawn to a narrative that was stripped of its “gold and dazzling weaponry and went for the human element”. “What's more, the story carries heavy threads of cause and consequence, which is something I wanted to explore,” he adds.
And that is how they emerged: Stark and pared-down visuals from the myth that depict characters such as Bheem, Draupadi, Arjun, Ashwatthama and Duryodhana in various scenes. “The Mahabharata is always going to be relevant as a very complete index of human thought and reaction. We can never stop drawing lessons from what the characters did,” says Bhattacharyya, whose work can be seen on Instagram and Behance.
The series brings together scenes such as Bheem and Duryodhana in the middle of their final battle, Arjun and Ashwatthama after they both release world-ending weapons, Krishna’s death—“I felt it was important to note that he dies a very old man, and his mortality is a lesson that nobody is above the consequences of their actions”—and Krishna witnessing the destruction of his entire clan. “In the contemporary climate, I feel it is important to humanise icons that are now being appropriated as symbols of ultraviolence. Depictions of war now need to carry a strain of despair and indignity, and they shouldn't be idealised,” says Bhattacharyya.
Bhattacharyya’s depictions come with no prologue, neither do they indulge in elaborate explanations. His retelling—comprised of only a few scenes because the Mahabharata is “way too vast and takes a lifetime to cover”—establishes an alternative perspective to the original text, one that engages with its distorted figures and exaggerated shapes. “Mainly, I grew up reading a Bengali illustrated edition of the Mahabharata, but I’m not sure who the artist was. So if put out there [on social media], I’d hope for an adult audience to find it, and also to think it worthwhile to show to young people to give them a slightly alternative viewpoint,” he says. “It’s not that it’s a drastic reimagining: it doesn’t make the setting futuristic, or overly spectacular or fantastic. But hopefully, the viewers will find something interesting in the composition, the body language, the exaggeration and the shapes.”
Bhattacharyya has been drawing these characters since he was a kid and admits that his work stems “more from disagreement with existing depictions”. Responses on social media led him to study his own methods and explore the layers with every line. “Why is Krishna so old? Why is Arjun crying? Why is everyone so distorted in the Kurukshetra piece? Maybe these curiosities will make people engage with the text on a level that goes a little beyond the linear and familiar narrative. It makes me want to pick up a lot of other moments to express them in a similar way. It's also found its way into my other work, as an exercise in choosing defining moments and trying to pack as much narrative into a single image as is possible,” says the artist, who hopes that his work catches the eyes of publishing houses who can ask him to do a complete illustrated Mahabharata.
A Life in Motion
Bhattacharyya’s lessons in graphics and animation go back to an influence of comics, art and animated films at an early age, which took shape when he joined National Institute of Design’s (NID) animation film design undergraduate programme in 2010. He started working digitally in 2011. Drawing influences from the work and life of artists from Bengal—especially KG Subramanian, Pyne, Ramkinkar Baij, Nandlal Bose and Abanindranath Tagore—Bhattacharyya developed a style that is local but “rooted in Bengal”.
Bhattacharya’s work in the public domain has set a firm and positive groundwork for his independent creations. In 2017, he collaborated with Swati Shelar, a Bengaluru-based student, to create a Google Doodle on the late Kannada poet, Kuvempu. That aside, he has worked with artists from his Kolkata-based animation studio called Ghost Animation to create animation titles for filmmaker Mani Ratnam’s OK Kanmani (2015) as well as storyboarding sequences for the director’s Kaatru Veliyidai (2017). He has also worked on an animated title for 102 Not Out , and stand-up comedian Kenny Sebastian’s Amazon Original series Die Trying. His latest feat is a shot at storyboarding for virtual reality for AR Rahman’s upcoming Le Musk.
Ghost Animation—comprised of fellow NID animators Kalp Sanghvi, Isha Mangalmurti, Gaurav Wakankar, Anwaar Alam and Shaheen Sheriff—which was formed in 2016, gives the collective opportunities to create independent content in order to “not be too reliant on the existing industry”. A crowdfunding campaign in 2016 has led to their first short film Wade (to be released soon), which is about a dystopia set in Kolkata to draw attention to climate change. At the same time, an anthology called The Others—comprised of five stories based on the subject of discrimination—is also in the works along with the collective’s first feature film.
With an aesthetic that aspires to be clean-cut expressions of stories—be it mythical, modern-day or dystopian—Bhattacharyya is firmly rooted, very close to, just like his Mahabharata depictions, the human element.
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