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Beyond the writer: Devdutt Pattanaik

Koral Dasgupta @KoralDasgupta

Updated: October 7, 2015, 10:13 AM IST
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My love for mythology and epics have generously reflected in my writings, and on this very platform I have been appreciated and criticised ruthlessly. But the factors that motivate me have been far stronger than those that discourage. And one of the strongest forces ever that inspire me relentlessly, generating within me the seeds to think further and simultaneously teaching some fundamentals about culture and philosophy, are the columns and books by Dr Devdutt Pattanaik. Having read many versions of the epics, Pattanaik’s columns seemed to be an added incentive, luring me towards a world that can never be enough explored. I started buying his books one after the other, reading his works almost back to back, when the columns felt too less and I most certainly wanted more. And I have no qualms in admitting that whatever mythological reference my books carry are largely based on the thoughts that his writings had provoked. As his books transpired a new horizon of metaphorical examples and learning, I was equally drawn by the illustrations he offered, visually depicting an ancient moment, occurrence and emotion, all strategically placed in between the prose. Hence, right when I started writing my art blogs, I knew that one day I would reach out to this master and delve into his brand of art, not to explore him further as a writer but to understand the roots of this artist!

If you have ever turned the pages of Pattanaik’s books or browsed through his columns, you may have realised that his art is an extension of the vision that he may have had as an author. It is perhaps some kind of creative restlessness that doesn’t end with the beautiful flow of words, and prolongs itself to offer a visual explanation of things that can’t be described with language. His art and writing thus, work as a team in most of his books. Those figures with long big eyes, slender bodies and strong features are as discreet and graceful as his literature. Just like mythology can’t ever have an absolute conclusion and depends largely on the interpretations of the reader, Pattanaik’s art follows a particular style and is dependent on expertly sketched lines but the focus is never the perfection of hands and limbs and props. The pursuit is clearly that of beauty and depiction; not the grammatical detailing of a photograph!

In mythology and writing and art, Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik has never been professionally trained. His educational qualifications talk about a degree in medicine. Grossly disconnected from that, mythology and art most obviously happens to be a self-driven commitment which reflects in his research and the way he processes his tales. His art never required elaborate canvasses and technical paints; rather he uses a basic kit to portray a moment of a story, that way it appears in his mind. “I like to use ordinary materials like simple A4 paper and a nice black pen, sometimes two pens: one thick and the other thin. For complex work I may use a pencil and eraser, otherwise I just go for it. I have some concept before I start but a lot is improvised as the work progresses.” He says. “I see my illustrations as diagrams to illustrate a point I make in my articles. So 500 articles have had 500 illustrations. This is where the idea of illustrated retelling came from.” To reiterate to the readers, Devdutt Pattanaik’s books often follow this “illustrated retelling” pattern where he tells mythological stories with his interpretations and adds sketches to support them.

Many versions of The Ramayana and The Mahabharata carry beautiful illustrations. Does those cast any influence on the artist to any extent? Pattanaik clarifies, “I get inspired by them but I want to tell something more with my illustrations. The new ways of looking at old epics. For example, the image of Ravana in ‘Sita’ is designed to show Ravana very differently. Or like the various types of facial hair in Ram: clean-shaven initially, then beard while in exile, a moustache after he is king, something not common in modern comic books but often seen in miniature paintings.” This brings me to understand that the artist consciously or subconsciously tries to add that human angle to his characters when he is dealing with mythology. The chronological or environmental impact on the depiction of figures as they travel through different times and phases of their life cycle, make them more relatable and real, compared to the earlier books where the same face carves into the mind of readers from the beginning to the end of the tales, making them celestial and Godly since they remain untouched by time! Of course Pattanaik’s initiative of rewriting mythology is meant to bring the complicated Sanskrit verses closer to life and learning, and make them easier for contemporary reading, understanding and adapting.
Since mythological illustrations have lots of symbolic relevance, it is important for an artist to unfailingly accommodate those. These symbols carry deep spiritual meaning and are close to the cultural traditions of the country. Specific features of a character (like for hands, third eye, etc.), icons (lotus, veena, conch, chakra, vehicles, animals, flowers, etc.) and mudra (gestures and positions) occur as symbols adding profound wisdom to mythological personalities and tales. Pattanaik attempts to apply and decode them so that their significance doesn’t become heavy for his audience. ”Symbols are key to mythology. In fact the whole point of my illustrations is to remove the clutter and focus on the symbols associated with gods and goddesses so that the viewer can appreciate them better,” he says. “Ganesha is always a personal favourite as the form allows you to draw the deity in different ways. I also enjoy images of trees where branches follow no rules.”

Art is a significant part of his being since it comes to him naturally! I wonder whether he had ever been tempted to represent a story in his own way, without necessarily conforming to the technical descriptions of a character or a scene as elaborated in the ancient pages. Have you ever felt the internal conflict between depicting a mythologically accurate story and a visually beautiful sketch that won't mind compromising with accuracy? I ask him trying to understand whether the artist and the story-teller ever had different minds. Pattanaik confirms, “In mythology, there is no such thing as accuracy. You tell your story based on your data points. The more data points you have the better is your analysis and interpretation. But not everything can be expressed by the written word. Sometimes a line, a curve, an expression in the art, can reveal much more than what text can. So the image and text complement each other. They are two expressions of the same idea.”

Pattanaik’s sensitivities towards art is grounded and deeply connected to the traditions and designs that have emerged and evolved across the ages, changing multiple hands and exchanging visions to finally become a school in its form and format, or just remain scattered somewhere for onlookers who might be interested to explore! “I love crafts and often in crafts you don’t know who the artist is.” He clarifies. “I love public art that is more communicative, rather than abstract art. I love all kinds of art. I spend hours gazing upon them as they reveal so many different ways of looking at the world, different notions of beauty and proportions and design and composition. Everything from a patta chitra to a temple carving to a pahari miniature painting excites me. Chitrakathi paintings are a special favourite as it is both tribal yet sophisticated in its lack of symmetry.” Given his interest which is varied and his artistic command which is a visual delight, it was more than evident for his publishers to assume that he would write, illustrate and design the books to offer a complete experience to his readers. However, not all his books are illustrated by him. For example, the 7 secrets series is based on traditional illustrations and sculptures.

Works published by Westland haven’t employed Pattanaik's art in the books that he has written for the publishing house. As CEO Gautam Padmanabhan says, “The series (7 secrets) evolved from the first book 7 secrets of Hindu calendar art which by its very nature involved using samples of art from various external sources. Thus the content influenced the decision.” Readers, however, are completely smitten by his sketches. Ananya Mukherjee, Singapore based art and literary patron says, “He reminds me of Rajkahini (by Abanindranath Tagore). Don't ask me why. Devdutt Pattanaik’s illustrations just complement the words in such a lyrical poetical stroke that the text looks like a painting and the sketches read like a story.” Educationist and entrepreneur, Karan Jagani explains further. “My love for Devdutt Pattanaik’s books or articles started with those accompanying sketches; they create curiosity and an unknown vibe which drives you till the end of the script. The illustrations helps to connect & understand easily while reading. I have given his books to non-readers. To my, and their surprise, it’s the first book they completed.”

Artists have their own understanding with art. Their eyes and hands forming the most basic tools; senses and sensibilities being their biggest inspiration; keen observation and intelligent interpretation putting up a process in place. Pattanaik’s illustrations touch the audience simply because of their minimalistic designs that are simple, yet impressive and comprehendible. They don’t just narrate a story, but also display a range of emotions, making the story-telling skills of the author far more entertaining, engaging and communicating. May this partnership of mythology and art produce more masterpieces in the days to come!
First Published: October 7, 2015, 10:13 AM IST

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