literature and myth

How a 15-member team produced a lush visual version of the ‘Mahabharata’

The new edition focuses on art and borrows stories from regional versions of the epic.

The Illustrated Mahabharata: The Definitive Guide to India’s Greatest Epic, published by DK India along with well-known mythologists and experts of the classic epic, is an extraordinarily beautiful book. With an impressive design, the new edition transfers the layered and embellished narrative style of oral storytelling into the fixed printed form. The story is told through the 18 parvas as in the familiar arrangement of the oral epic. Alka Ranjan, Managing Editor, Local Publishing, DK India spoke to Scroll.in about leading the team who put together this book. Excerpts from an interview:

Which version of the epic did you refer to?
We were keen to tell the entire story of the Mahabharata, including the Harivamsa, and, wherever possible, dip into the regional versions as well. To be true to the classical version, we referred to Bibek Debroy’s ten volumes of the Mahabharata, from where came some of the details of the stories and also the quotes. Ultimately for DK India it was the visual rendering of the epic which was more important, something that was not attempted before, and something that makes our book unique, setting it apart from the other books available in the market.

Photo credit: The Illustrated Mahabharata: The Definitive Guide to India’s Greatest Epic
Photo credit: The Illustrated Mahabharata: The Definitive Guide to India’s Greatest Epic

How long did this project take to execute from start to finish?
It took us almost eight months to put this book together. To this we could also add three months of production. The entire team, including the technical members, reached 15 in number, during some stages.

Does DK have other religious texts illustrated in a similar fashion? Was there anything unique as a publishing experiment in this book?
DK has brought out the Illustrated Bible in the past. This book is in the same series style. Unlike our other reference books, which work mostly like non-fiction with their dry, neutral tone, our version of the Mahabharata is a retelling of the epic. It was a challenge for the editorial team to adapt their skills to storytelling, to ensure that the text flowed like a tale, to weave in dialogue wherever needed, and inject drama to create impact.

It seems to be meant for the general market but the stories are easily told, a child too can read them. How did you manage such a gentle and easy style?
Our aim was to keep the stories accessible for a large readership, and in a lot of ways that is the DK style. While we segregate our books in adult and children categories, depending on the subject matter, comprehension level, interests, so on and so forth, the text for the adult ones is almost always aimed at ages 14 and above.

Photo credit: The Illustrated Mahabharata: The Definitive Guide to India’s Greatest Epic
Photo credit: The Illustrated Mahabharata: The Definitive Guide to India’s Greatest Epic

If you could have a section on “Mahabharata in art”, why didn’t you have a section on the history of the different text versions of this epic?
We could have done so many things with our book, but because it was going to be a visual retelling we decided to focus on art, showcasing the pervasive reach of the epic in our daily lives. However, a lot of our “boxes” talk about the different versions of the epic, including drawing parallels with Greek myths.

This epic has been translated into other languages. Why not have images of those texts at well?
It was not always possible to get all the images that we wanted, but we have used a couple of book covers to make the point about translations or different takes on the epic – mostly for the latter. I can think of a book on Yudhisthira and Draupadi by Pavan K Varma which we used to discuss their relationship. We also used the cover of Mrityunjay (Shivaji Sawant’s celebrated book) in Karna’s profile. The choice of other retellings of the Mahabharata invariably depended on the context of the stories we wanted to tell and the point we wanted to make, and not the other way around.

Some of the other books that find mention in ours are Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Shakuntalam, Rabindranath Tagore’s Chitrangada, Pavan K Varma’s Yudhisthir and Draupadi, Krushnaji Prabhakar Khadilkar’s play Kichaka-Vadha, Dinkar’s Kurukshetra and Rashmirathi, Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjay, and Bhasa’s play performance by Japanese students, Urubhangam.

Photo credit: The Illustrated Mahabharata: The Definitive Guide to India’s Greatest Epic
Photo credit: The Illustrated Mahabharata: The Definitive Guide to India’s Greatest Epic

It would have been fascinating if a chapter on myth-making in this epic had been included as a standalone chapter rather than inserting boxes into various chapters. Why not address myth-making?
I take your point, and it would have been certainly interesting to have such a chapter now that you point it out. However, when we conceptualised the book, we were sure that we wanted the focus of the book to be on retelling the epic and layering them by adding side stories in boxes. We also wanted to have a few chapters/spreads on Hindu gods and goddesses, and philosophies, mainly to facilitate the understanding of the non-Indian readers, people not familiar with our cultural ethos.

How did you standardise the spelling of the names?
We wanted to use the more common spellings of the popular characters (Draupadi instead of Droupadi), although we did finally add the vowel sound at the end of some names, for instance “Arjuna” instead of “Arjun”, “Bhima” instead of “Bhim”, which takes the names closer to their Sanskrit pronunciation, but stuck to “Sanjay” not “Sanjaya” because it was a more common spelling.

Photo credit: The Illustrated Mahabharata: The Definitive Guide to India’s Greatest Epic
Photo credit: The Illustrated Mahabharata: The Definitive Guide to India’s Greatest Epic

Have you used any creative licence to retell the stories for the modern reader?
While most of our stories came from the original, classical text, we also dipped into the regional versions to borrow some. For instance, Iravan’s story (A Human Sacrifice) came from the Tamil Mahabharata. A few other stories borrowed from regional versions are: Pururava’s Obsession, Draupadi’s Secret, Gaya Beheaded, Divine Vessel, News of Home, and The Talking Head.

Will you be creating special pocket-book editions of relevant chapters? For instance I see potential in the section on women. If you resized it to a pocket edition with an introduction and add the original shlokas, thesales might be phenomenal.
Thank you so much for the suggestions. The book does lend itself to several spinoffs, and we have thought of a few. However, we want the current book to run its course before bringing out another one.

Photo credit: The Illustrated Mahabharata: The Definitive Guide to India’s Greatest Epic
Photo credit: The Illustrated Mahabharata: The Definitive Guide to India’s Greatest Epic
Photo credit: The Illustrated Mahabharata: The Definitive Guide to India’s Greatest Epic
Photo credit: The Illustrated Mahabharata: The Definitive Guide to India’s Greatest Epic
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