Even as the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023 passed by the Rajya Sabha this August is being contested in the Supreme Court — for exempting copious tracts of tree cover from public scrutiny to develop 'security-related infrastructure' — an eerie hush is settling upon nature's highways of sound. Smothered by the unholy bedlam of cities, bird song and insect calls are whittling down to a barely audible frequency. Within the idylls of Indian narratology, quixotic heroes are still trudging through sylvan groves, eager for spiritual clarity. India's first female graphic novelist Amruta Patil does not dabble in any anthropocentric fallacies about Bhudevi or Mother Earth, who she represents as terrifying and nourishing in equal measure, with her modern parable Aranyaka: Book of the Forest.
Published in 2019, with creative input from mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik, this slim volume of watercolour illustrations and Vedic commentary substantiates how wisdom may lie in unexpected quarters: like the kitchen or within the belief system of someone who wouldn't exactly be described as intellectual. "It uses a small episode in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad as a stepping stone," surmises Patil. "There is a one-line mention of Yajnavalkya's wife, where it says something to the effect that she had the intelligence common to women." From the barbed seeds of this condescension, unfurls a philosophical response that does not seek to "cancel all bearded, learned men." Patil's ecological feminism abrogates mainstream discourse, patriarchal or otherwise, in a bid to join the dots between what people claim to believe and how they live out their reality.
In Goan praxis, the goddess called Sateri Devi traces her origins to santer, an Old Konkani word for the mounded nest built by termites. "We decimate the anthill to build a temple," muses Patil. "The more disconnected people are from natural settings, more they cannot look past nature as a metaphor." Following the revisionist legacy of her previous graphic novels Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean (2012) and Sauptik: Blood and Flowers (2016), the author appends a comprehensive glossary at the end of her latest work for those who wish to take a deep dive but she insists that an uninitiated reader should not worry about context but simply wade in the stream of its visual odyssey and let it lead them.
As the legend goes, Hindu sage Yajnavalkya (pared down to simply Y in Patil's rendition) held forth cerebral discourse in his ashram, that attracted the reverence of many pupils including his wife Maitreyi (the Fig). It is Y's second wife Katyayani, who eluding the shackles of Cartesian logic, surrendered herself to an untamed wilderness or aranya. "Human beings would like to make tiny little paths that go through a forest," Patil elaborates. "Cutting down trees to make rectangular shaped fields that they can easily plough but you cannot control nature." Even Gargi (the Weaver) — who embodies our need for a rational framework — could not rein in Katyayani's voluptuous appetite to grow abundantly.
Cavorting with the tactile sensuousness of a water soluble medium, Patil's imagery is laden with recontextualised diversity of skin tones and body types for its human characters, while dizzyingly impressionistic in depicting the great outdoors. "The very different physicality of the characters mattered because it's very easy to like people who resemble you," she quips. "But what do you do with the inconvenient others?"
Fiercely individualistic for the most part, both Devdutt Pattanaik and Amruta Patil found that a "book about seeing the other should not be created in splendid isolation, but in tandem with another person". While Pattanaik was involved in encrypting Purusha (consciousness) and Prakriti (matter) within the substratum, concatenating these primaeval concepts into a human story was solely a result of Patil's ingenuity. Leapfrogging over tokenistic advocacy, the author maintains that her story is more to do with different personalities and world views co-existing in mutual respect — whether it be the austerity of Y or the free-spiritedness of Katyayani, the universe can hold space for all our idiosyncrasies.
From sociologist Irawati Karve to the novelist Vaishnavi Patel, reclaiming folklore under a marginalised lens is not a new fangled phenomenon. Although updating our mythos to align with evolving sensibilities can facilitate a sense of catharsis, one also risks losing sight of the big picture, much like Oppenheimer who cherrypicked scenes of annihilation from the Bhagavad Gita while turning a blind eye to the multiple peace attempts by Krishna that preceded the apocalyptic ending. "Oppenheimer may have looked at it differently, had he read the whole story," she signs off.
You can order your own copy of Aranyaka here.