Indian comics, Indian mythology, and the Indian image

Someone asked me recently why Indian comics are stuck with mythology as a core theme. I gave a brief answer as it was only an email, but I think  should elaborate. There is more to this than is obvious at a first glance. Complaining aside, I think we should try and focus on ways to make this marriage work.

Comics and mythology gain from each other’s respective specialties. Both have qualities that the other can profit from. While some think Indian comics are doomed to retell tales from Indian mythology forever, I feel that in the long run, the trend will help the cause of comics becoming a popular medium in the country.

Ideas from Indian mythology are deeply ingrained in all of our daily lives. ‘Ram-Ram’ is a greeting in our villages and good brothers are called ‘Ram Lakhan ki jodi’. Family disputes are referred to as Mahabharats and mischievous babies are frequently compared to the image of Krishna when he was a baby. This awareness of mythic themes spreads across lines of region and religion, all over India. Comics are a popular medium. They tell stories to the masses, just like Bollywood does. But comics in India are not as pervasive as movies are. So comics as a medium can ride on the reach of mythology as a language that every Indian understands. Mythology as a core theme can help a lot of people overcome the initial obstacle of getting comfortable with a new medium.

On the other hand, stories and ideas from Indian mythology haven’t really had the ‘pop’ treatment until recently. One of the first things that pop into most people’s minds when the word ‘mythology’ is uttered are memories of TV serials with bad special effects and theatrical dialogue. India’s ancient tales have evolved along with India herself. The Ramayana alone has been retold more than 300 times in at least 300 different ways. Comics as a medium can be a whole new grassy field for our mythic cows to feed on and grow fat. Comics dealing with mythology, both as retellings and as reinventions, can expose people to a whole new way of looking at our thousand-year-old stories.

Comics dealing with Indian mythology in any way can be a great tool for Indian soft power the world over. I have often marveled at the magic that the Bruce Lee worked for the popular perception of Chinese culture. Nowadays, whenever I see a grim looking actor with Chinese features on the screen, I expect him to break into Kung-Fu and destroy everything and everyone around him.  Granted, it is a stereotype, but it is an empowering and positive stereotype — way better than the bumbling and clueless chinaman image early Hollywood perpetrated.

Imagine retold mythology doing the same for India. Our stories are the most powerful export we can give to the global market in this age. India has always been a land where fantasies flourished. Mythology can help strengthen that image in modern times.