Hindu Gods' Avatars On the Page
JANUARY 7, 2010
By ARNIE COOPER
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art may have the Western U.S.'s largest assemblage of South Asian art, but for the next several weeks the permanent collection, featuring sculptures dating back to the Bronze Age, will be supplemented by a decidedly modern art form: the comic book.
"Heroes and Villains: The Battle for Good in India's Comics" is, according to curator Julie Romain, the first show of its kind in the country. Ms. Romain, an art historian and UCLA graduate student specializing in Medieval Hindu sculpture, says the goal of the exhibit is to demonstrate how India's artistic legacy of heroic narratives and archetypes has been embraced by comic-book creators.
Consider the first image you encounter in the introductory "teaser" section of the 54-piece exhibition: a Virgin Comics cover depicting Rama, the avatar (or incarnation) of the god Vishnu, shooting what appears to be an electrically charged bow and arrow set against a scintillating orange background.
And if you take a closer look—at the fine print above the title—you'll recognize the name Deepak Chopra, who apparently isn't just focused on love, god and wrinkle-free skin. Ms. Romain says Dr. Chopra is one of the "visionaries" (his son Gotham was one of the founders), along with the Indian film producer Shekhar Kapur, responsible for "conceptualizing the idea of retelling Indian myths." Originally called Liquid Comics, the company owes its new name to an infusion of funds from Sir Richard Branson.
But enough about new-age gurus and billionaire industrialists. Best to focus on the art—which isn't difficult when you consider the next piece. It's another Virgin Comics cover, this time spotlighting the story of the female divinity Devi, the Sanskrit word for goddess. Clad in skintight black leather from neck to boots, the contemporary version of the mother goddess has been transformed into a modern-day superhero. Only unlike Wonder Woman, Devi can also be seen (albeit in more modest attire) immortalized in a ninth-century sandstone sculpture in the adjoining Gallery of South Asian Sculpture.
"This would probably be on the outside wall of a temple in a niche. It's an icon that's worshipped, but it also depicts this climactic scene in the Devi Mahatnya, the origin story of the goddess, where she conquers the evil demon Mahisha, who takes the form of a buffalo. In a way, this is like the first comic-book story," Ms. Romain says, laughing.
Whether cartoon aficionados agree is debatable, but one thing is certain: When compared to their American counterparts, Indian comics constitute an entirely different beast.
Says Ms. Romain, "I think the big difference with these comics, especially the earlier ones, is they're stories about divine heroes and deities who are part of a living tradition, which in this case is Hinduism."
This is one reason the show also includes a series of storytelling paintings, called Paithan, named for the region in central India where they originate. The 19th-century paintings in this small collection were used by traveling storytellers. "This is probably the closest parallel to the comic book, because it's a sequential narrative," Ms. Romain says.
While the LACMA exhibition focuses on the two main Hindu deities, Rama and Devi, one of the messages you'll come away with is that the comics reflect, as Ms. Romain suggests, "an extension of [Hindu] practice, culture and tradition."
Not that all of them ignore their American counterparts. For example, once in the show's main exhibition space, visitors will instantly recognize the familiar red-and-blue human arachnid portrayed in a 2004 cover from Marvel Comics' "Spider-Man: India" series.
In fact, Ms. Romain says: "You see more and more a similarity to American comic books and also a retelling of iconic American superheroes. Basically the entire story of Spider-Man and Peter Parker has been lifted and inserted into an Indian context." So instead of Peter Parker it's Pavitr Prabhakar. Aunt May becomes Auntie Maya and Mary Jane Watson is Meera Jain.
One could say the history of Indian comics has come full circle since its relatively recent beginning in the 1960s. For apart from a lone strip, "Daabu," created by Pran Kumar Sharma in the early part of that decade, Indian comics unfolded largely with reprints of "The Phantom" and "Superman." These were sold to Indian newspapers by Anant Pai, a newspaper executive credited for launching the Indian comic-book industry.
In the summer of 1967, Mr. Pai was watching a television quiz show and became disturbed because none of the contestants knew the name of Rama's mother, yet they could answer correctly a question about the Greek god Zeus. Add to that the burgeoning popularity of American comics in the subcontinent and Mr. Pai (or "Uncle Pai" as he is best known) decided it was time for India to stake its own claim to the genre.
Later that year he launched his Amar Chitra Katha (Immortal Picture Stories) line with an adventure series about Krishna. Today the company sells about three million comic-book reprints a year in more than 20 languages. Its offshoot, ACK Media, supplies a range of new media from audio books and films to mobile-phone applications. This is a far cry from the early print-only days, when the art resembled the typical Indian calendar prints from the 19th century.
A reprint of a 1975 ACK cover depicts Valmiki's Ramayana. Valmiki, an ancient poet, is believed to have written the original Ramayana in the fifth century B.C., the standard text known throughout India. For the uninitiated, the story outlines Rama's adventures, notably his quest to rescue his wife, Sita, who's been kidnapped by an evil demon, Ravana, with multiple heads.
No doubt Mr. Pai saw his endeavor not just as a moneymaker, but also as a way to educate the young. The inside cover used the slogan "The route to your roots."
Ms. Romain notes that these comics were not only used to educate Indian schoolchildren but also collected by Indians abroad who hoped to foster their foreign-born kids' connection to the myths and epics of their heritage.
"That's still happening today. I've talked to a lot of families here who say, 'Oh, I have a bunch of these in my closet that my son used to read.' That's the real draw, and that's why I think they continue to be really popular. These are being reprinted all the time."
—Mr. Cooper is a writer based in Santa Barbara, Calif.