In the late 1980s, comic book publisher Amar Chitra Katha had released a 42-issue graphic retelling of the Mahabharata. It is one the best-known series of comic books on Indian mythology, and continues to be a bestseller in that genre. When one picks up Vyasa: The Beginning, the first book of The Mahabharata, by Sibaji Bandyopadhyay and Sankha Banerjee, an inevitable consequence is the urge to compare the two. But the comparison stops at the characters and the story and art on some pages.

This is an ambitious project involving retelling the epic in a graphic narrative form that uses several postmodern storytelling techniques. The attempt is to enable readers to delve into a world not dominated by truths that come in good/bad, black/white or beautiful/ugly packets.

As the writer, Sibaji Bandyopadhyay sets the ground rules for the narrative. He uses elements present in the Mahabharata to attack the majoritarian versions of the epic, such as the one in the Amar Chitra Katha stories, or those recited at akharas in north India, or the soap operas on TV. Instead, Bandyopadhyay conjures up a world that is more familiar to the reader. And yet, his invention is only limited to a few lines of dialogue, mostly in crowd scenes, to carry the story forward.

The subaltern view

This version of the Mahabharata is a story of human beings, some of them are sages, “gods”, kings, strong women, and manipulators. It considers their emotions such as love, sex, anger, empathy and so on. There is also the deliberate inclusion of the “other” in the narrative. The clever use of the second narration of the epic by Sauti Ugrasrava, a storyteller, to a group of sadhus forms one of the main narrative flows for the graphic novel – in fact, it holds the story together. The narrative ignores Vyasa’s disciple Vaisampanya’s narration of the epic at the snake sacrifice of King Janamejaya. This allows a lower caste “suta” or storyteller, rather than the higher caste Vaisampanya, to become a “source” for the epic.

In Sauti’s version Vyasa is another character, like Bhisma or Pandu. Here the storyteller is almost like a puppeteer and Vyasa, one of the puppets. Sankha Banerjee’s brilliant visual presentation of Sauti as a dancer-storyteller with his blue face-paint and complex eye movement reminds one of the characters from Kathakali. Sauti doesn’t have any sympathy or anger towards any character or event in the epic – he narrates with passion, and Banerjee’s art records every movement beautifully.

Despite not being the usual stuff of comic books, the art does not surprise. Banerjee is an old hand in this form, but other than offering a glimpse or two of his talent, he has decided to play it safe. Besides Sauti, pages 6 and 7 of the book that need special mention here. Banerjee’s visualisation of Vyasa’s ominous pronouncements on the state of the world on the eve of the war between the cousins is fabulous. One wonders what forced him to abandon the abstractions that made those two page standout examples.

A rocky collaboration

The pace of the narrative is uneven. In fact, in some places text and art follow two different narrative structures. The Mahabharata is nonlinear in its flow, and Bandyopadhyay adds further to its complexity – but to follow this structure in the art needs an intimate knowledge of the intentions of the writer. Banerjee appears to be playing a game of catch up with the text. He tries all the usual as well as the relatively unfamiliar techniques of comics art to come up with solutions to the challenges that Bandyopadhyay throws at him, but there seem to be an absence of dialogue between the two in places. This makes reading difficult.

Also, the text is a queer mix of an academic discourse and the colloquial. Is this deliberate? If it is, then the purpose is difficult to fathom even after several readings. For instance, Sauti’s narrative at many places reads like translated Sanskrit verses, and at other places, like pulp.

The size of the book is troublesome. Whatever the form, the Mahabharata is an epic and it needs a better design and display. The size is neither here nor there. The cover is surprisingly like that of a superhero comic book, while it’s a different world inside. The printing is an injustice to the authors. The pages are crammed with very little negative space. Also, the arrangement of texts on some of the pages affects readability. One only hopes that, in the future volumes, as is hinted in the appendix, things will improve.

The appendix in parts is defensive, bordering on an apology. Bandyopadhyay the academic is not known for pulling his punches. If Banerjee’s past works are of any relevance, he too holds an independent view. It is difficult to understand they repeatedly say in the appendix that their retelling of the Mahabharata is “no secondary innovation.”

Like Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva and Sauptik, Vyasa is a significant addition to the genre. Given that two talented creators are at the helm, the series will surely break new ground in comics. But for that to materialise, the artist and writer must speak the same language of graphic narratives.

Vyasa: The Beginning, Story by Sibaji Bandyopadhyay, Art by Sankha Banerjee, Penguin Random House India.