In a realm where creators are constantly waging a war to produce works that lingers in the mind of readers, turning to mythology for inspiration is not uncommon. Not only do the creators have impressive worlds to borrow from, they also have familiar characters to play around with, tapping into nostalgia that rise from tales we heard in our childhood. In the realm of Indian comics and graphic novels, the Ramayana is a favourite when it comes to adaptations.

The fallen hero

Written by Vijayendra Mohanty and illustrated by Vivek Goel, Ravanayan introduces us to a young man who is nothing like the ten-headed terrifying demon myths. Good looking, clean-shaven with glorious locks of white hair – truly a man of noble descent.

Easily one of the best graphic series inspired by Indian mythology, Ravanayan portrays Ravana as an intelligent, aware man. He is knowledgeable and a fearless leader. But he has flaws too. Arrogant and insolent, he is a typical fallen hero who manages to pique both adulation as well as a profound sense of tragedy. Surprising the reader brought up on the conventional Ramayana, Ravana grows to be a man who is a hero more than the villain he is considered to be.

A result of excellent research, this adaptation involved the task of depicting a quintessential antagonist as a protagonist – which was quite a challenge in itself. But good adaptations are no easy task. Says Mohanty, “The purpose of all good speculative fiction is to make the reader think by questioning prevailing ideas about reality. Science fiction does it by questioning our ideas of physical reality and our ideas about the future. With Ravanayan, we questioned not the reality of the events of the Ramayana, but the reality of the Ramayana as a story – how it exists in our minds and what it stands for. That sort of a mental exercise is always something one can use.”

Ravanayan is elaborate, emotive and realistic. And apart from the gripping story and excellent artwork, it also has a generous offering of aesthetic violence as the “war of the century” colours its pages. Very few instances of Indian graphic novels have successfully been able to capture violence of such proportions in its true glory. With grotesque monsters, divine weapons and superpowers that can put any mainstream superhero to shame, Ravanayan is indeed an adaptation that has been crafted to win hearts.

A twist in the tail

Hailed as one of the best graphic novels of 2014 at the last Comic Con Awards, Vikram Balagopal’s Simian is a tale of the most epic personal war from Indian mythology – the war between Rama and Ravana. Retold by the devoted Hanuman, the story begins to unfold when Bhima chances upon an ailing monkey blocking his path in the forest.

Realising that the simian is none other than his brother Hanuman, the two spend the night exchanging stories and notes of their adventures. And through Hanuman’s eyes we are offered a glimpse into a twilit world of war.

But with so many retellings of the Ramayana already available, what was it that inspired Balagopal to create this graphic novel? “My intention was to more than retell the Ramayana. It was to explore the characters through Hanuman's eyes, and even look into myself and deal with some of my own personal demons that I'm constantly grappling with. It is a story I have wanted to tell for years and the project itself was years in the making because of that personal nature,” he says.

Indeed, there are many things that startle the reader. In this adaptation Hanuman is a baboon, and the bright, shining star that changed his face, a moon! But in a bit of a let-down, much of the book is just another retelling of the epic.

Didn’t turning to mythology seem a trite idea – especially when retellings from different perspectives aren’t uncommon? “I didn't choose mythology as a subject for the book, just as making it into a graphic novel really was not a choice,” confesses Balagopal. “This was a story I had wanted to tell for many years and when I began developing it, there was no question in my mind that it had to be a graphic novel. I think visually, so it was not a great leap from filmmaking in terms of storytelling. And the story you are telling is always the most important, be it an adaptation or an original story. So they all have the same aim, and their own challenges.”

Sita’s lament  

In 2011 Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar introduced to the world an illustrated adaptation of the Ramayana that stunned readers simply with its elegant artwork. Borrowed from West Bengal’s Patua style narrative paintings,  Sita’s Ramayana was the first after Bhimayana (which employed the Gond art form of Madhya Pradesh) to use Indian folk art to depict a sequential narrative. Characterised by bright hues of red and yellow, this graphic novel explores the legend of Ramayana through Sita’s the eyes.

So what’s new? Well, while most retellings of the myth speak of Sita only as the wife of Rama, Arni’s adaptation reminded us that she indeed is the daughter of the earth. After a very impressive introduction to the traditional tale at the very beginning of the book, we the readers are let into an unfamiliar world. One that is deeply personal.

Sita’s commentary not only talks of the events that occurred in Valmiki’s version, but also makes us question these warriors indulging in acts that lead to such devastation. It makes us ask about the fate of female survivors – whose honour has been at stake – and their burden in knowing that male aggression has stemmed from this. It also accords due importance to the other women of the epic, like Kaikeyi and Surpanakha, via Sita’s responses to them.

Those familiar with Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues will not get the same humorous and feminist retelling of the epic. This book refuses to put Sita on the pedestal that empowers her with unreal heroism. Instead, it places her in a patriarchal world which feels uncomfortably realistic at times.

Sita’s tale of her life in exile with her husband and her brother-in-law, and her consequent kidnapping by Ravana, are stories we have grown up with. But as the pages of the book depict a resolute Sita rejecting Ravana’s advances – and, later, a Sita who is engulfed by anger and pain upon realising that Rama doubts her chastity – we see not only a young, beautiful queen, but also a strong, resolute woman who emerged a hero after being a victim of injustice.