Photographer Recreates The Ramayana Through These Unique 'Painted' Photos

Photographer Recreates The Ramayana Through These Unique 'Painted' Photos

“This project is a personal and modern retelling of a timeless myth. The objective is to produce pictures and texts that will reflect the imaginary realm emerging from The Ramayana and its influence on everyday life.”

For half-French, half-Sri Lankan photographer Vasantha, the Ramayana was an epic story that absolutely changed his life. With the aim of capturing the distinctive culture of the country and the ‘Indian soul’ through his lens without any staging, he uses the common thread of the Ramayana to bind together a ‘personal allegory’ of the ancient Hindu poem in his riveting project ‘A Myth of Two Souls’. The project has won the photographer the IdeasTap and Magnum Photography awards for its ambition, unique perspective, as well as the tenacity of Vasantha himself, who has made three trips around India, to places related to the epic, to lend authenticity to his series.
The Ramayana is one of the two epic poems in the country that most of us have grown up around, in some form or the other. Whether it was the Indo-Japanese collaborative animated series, Amar Chitra Katha versions or Ramanand Sagar’s rather moralistic series that was widely popular in the 80’s and 90’s, its many-mirrored perspectives have found a way to seep into the nation’s collective consciousness, and Vasantha’s project is an evident reflection of this. The tale of Rama has come a long way since the wandering sage Narada inspired Valmiki into reciting what is widely accepted as the oldest Sanskrit rendition of the saga, dating back variously from 500 BC to 100 BC. Handed down by word of mouth, it was rewritten and interpreted in countless ways, naturally embellished and glorified as the story travelled with the storyteller.
In ‘A Myth of Two Souls’, Vasantha uses a combination of text and photographs, as well as original extracts from the epic, press clippings related to modern events linked to the Ramayana and various vernacular documents to create a unique and enchanting landscape reflecting how ubiquitous the story remains even in the modern world.

The city of Ayodhya was once the capital of famous sovereign Dasaratha’s kingdom. Photograph/Vasantha Yoganathan
Prince Rama was loved by all, and as the eldest of King Dasaratha’s four sons, he was about to make his way to the throne. Photograph/Vasantha Yoganathan

In collaboration with book designers Kummer and Herrmann, he re-interprets the unfolding of the epic Indian poem with the goal of creating an online community, both in India and Europe, to share and exchange personal stories along with various interpretations of the Ramayana.

“Seven photobooks – one per chapter – will be published from 2016 to 2019,” he told British Journal of Photography“They will be available in both French and English editions. Two travelling exhibitions will be produced for India and Europe. A special photobook will also be published in Hindi in 2019 in a format and production allowing a low price, to make it available to the widest possible audience in India.”

Vasantha has also been named as one of the top 30 photographers under 30 by the prestigious Magnum, and he’s going to be publishing his Ramayana project with Chose Commune in France, an independent publishing house that he has co-founded.

“The judges loved the fact he was using local people to illustrate stories from the Ramayana,” the editor of IdeaTap, James Hopkirk says“And also that a traditional Indian artist was hand painting all of his black and white images. Ultimately, we all wanted to see the project unfold – it has a long, exciting road ahead of it.”

That’s right: there’s one more element to this project that really sets it apart. Vasantha shoots the picture solely on black and white large format film, after which the photograph-painter, Jay Kumar, tints a selection of the pictures with watercolours. He’s given a ton of creative leeway as well, making this a balanced collaboration. This element adds a degree of ambivalence that’s associated with mythology, and what is portrayed in the photographs is definitely not reality - the element of embellishment, after all, is as much a part of our culture as any other curious habit.

“In some pictures, black-and-white elements are left. In some, colour elements were added – they will all look different. It will confuse the viewer; and this is really something I am looking for.”

Rama’s people see him leaving, too late to follow him. Photograph/Vasantha Yoganathan
Rama, wild of sorrow, travels across the country looking for Sita, in vain. He then decides to ask Hanuman for help, General of the army of monkeys. Photograph/Vasantha Yoganathan

Vasantha has travelled extensively to make this project possible, from Dunagari in north India, to Nepal, to Mumbai, to Trivandrum, and even further south to Sri Lanka. He has trekked with a translator from one state to another on each of his visits, letting the subjects react naturally to his camera instead of orchestrating anything for his photography.
The conceptualisation of this project itself took him three trips to figure out; he began with the idea of documentary photography but felt like something was amiss - the intimacy, he finally decided, was lacking in the project. Thus, he chose to go closer to the people that Ramayana has changed irrevocably for having been exposed to it, much like himself.

Our socially conservative society offered up some challenges to the photographer though, as he navigated his abstract endeavour. “Taking pictures of women outside Bombay and New Delhi is very difficult. If you go into the rural areas you can get into a lot of trouble, so the only way is to live with people.

“You stay in a small village for a week and they start to engage with you – not only as a photographer but something else. You make friends with the families. You can’t just ask: ‘Can I take a picture of you alone without your husband?’”

While we at Homegrown have dug up different interpretations of the Ramayana spanning various mediums before, Vasantha’s photographic style is a completely new spin on things that has us enchanted and while he isn’t ready to say whether his work could be classified under ‘magical surrealism’ yet, we’re quite happy to inhabit this intriguing in-between space he’s created, existing somewhere between myth and reality.

After Hanuman discovered that Sita has been abducted by Ravana, Rama and his army launch an attack on Sri Lanka. Photograph/Vasantha Yoganathan

Image Source: Better Photography