Q. How does Raavan Chhaya differ from traditional versions of the Ramayana?
Vishal K Dar:
On the surface, Raavan Chhaya follows a similar narrative structure that one
will find in Valmiki’s Ramayan, but its aspirations are not to retell or recall
the nostalgia of the traditional versions of the text. With each
retelling/version of the Ramayan, you will find inventions and variations within
episodes. Sometimes whole new episodes with characters were introduced to add
density and complexity. Raavan Chhaya is not really a “version” as it does not
include all seven books of the traditional Ramayan. It is composed as a visual
poem that unfolds over 75 scrolls, which are divided into the three books, Book
of Pain, Book of Hope and Book of Loss.
There was a conscious
choice of emphasizing only certain episodes, which in turn also determined which
characters would be retained in Raavan Chhaya. For example, I am not in
agreement with the concept of Laxman Rekha, so it became one of the reasons for
Laxman’s exclusion from the story and led to newer inventions within the
abduction episode. In that episode, when Raavan tries to touch Seeta, she burns
like fire. Unable to hold her, he scoops the earth beneath her and carries her
away (Book of Pain). The choices of certain episodes over others and the drops
in continuity help create a dreamlike movement within the scrolls.
Raavan Chhaya is also presented as a cautionary tale. ‘A woman should never fall in love with a warrior’, is an emotion voiced by three woman characters at various stages: first by Tara at Vaali’s deathbed in the Book of Pain; Mandodari prior to the war call and Seeta as she enters the fire in the Book of Loss). This is the core of my version. Meenakshi marks the beginning (in the Book of Pain) and Seeta closes the story (in the Book of Loss which refers to the Yuddha Kand).
Q. You were inspired by the folk art of Raavan Chhaya, a form of shadow puppet theatre from Orissa. How did the traditional form lend itself to a modern one like animation?
I was never inspired by the aesthetic of shadow puppet theatre, but was
interested in the unusualness of its title and also the way it’s performed. It’s
a haunting presentation: sounds and puppets in stark black cut-out forms, with
no movable parts.
The two words, ‘Raavan’ and ‘Chhaya’, when put together, indicate a strange relationship between ‘sound’ and ‘shadow’. As the story goes, the Earth is said to have quaked at the King of Lanka, Daśagrīva’s cry of pain, when Shiva pinned him under Mount Kailash. But Shiva was also pleased with the ten-headed king’s devotion, and christened him ‘Raavan’, or (He) of the terrifying roar. And then there’s ‘Chhaya’, who is also personified as the Shadow Goddess, the consort of the Sun.
Q. Is this a comic book, a graphic novel, or an iPad app?
VKD: The scrolls, disguised as comic book, present an elaborate visual poem that embodies what remains an ageless, tragic story of loss and love. Even though the images are presented in the style of a comic book, they are deeply rooted in sculptural murals and cinema.
This is my first iPad app where the static scroll panels are animated with music/sound to create an interactive experience. A team of assistants and consultants have worked at various stages in the long production period spread over six years.
Q. Why did you think of releasing Book of Pain, which is sequentially the first book, at the end?
VKD: We begin our journey with Book of Hope, a magical tale which references the Sundara Kand (the fifth book in Valmiki’s Ramayan). It represents the rise of an individual against all odds. The following release will be Book of Loss which is in direct continuation, leaving the mysterious Book of Pain to close the loop.
Q. Is Raavan Chhaya part of your general practice?
VKD: My practice has been diverse, from the light-sculpture creatures made from stolen car lights, to Praja-pati, an oscillating searchlight at the massive 10-acre DLF pit, to Raavan Chhaya. Myth-making, transformations, the hidden code within iconic imagery, and the nocturne are some of the more visible themes seen in my works. Forests, with their mystery and intrigue, have always attracted me. They house creatures and kingdoms that we have seldom seen.