Amruta Patil tells Vivek Menezes that Kari, her acclaimed coming-of-age graphic novel, started out as the story of her alter-ego but eventually became a narrative about her own self.
From the very moment Amruta Patil came into public view with the striking Kari (HarperCollins Publishers India, 2008) it was clear that she possessed a vision that would be difficult to pigeonhole. Her spiky debut graphic novel was the first by an Indian woman. It had a far higher word-topanel ratio than the genre was accustomed to, and the text was itself, unusually, overly literary. The artwork also reached far beyond standard comic book conventions; some pages paid homage to iconic paintings by artists like Frida Kahlo, Gustav Klimt and Andrew Wyeth, while others used collage and multimedia techniques.
The elegantly produced book quickly attracted many devoted loyalists and became the fi rst and only graphic novel to become a finalist for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Award. It was eventually republished in translation in both France and Italy to considerable acclaim.
Except, perhaps, manga-crazed Japan, the nation with the most developed comic book culture in the world is France – there are vast multi-storey bookshops dedicated to the genre in every city. In the wake of Kari’s publication, the French Embassy in New Delhi sponsored Patil for a weeklong trip to the massive International Comics Festival held annually in Angouleme, a.k.a. “the world capital of comic books”. Impressed by Patil’s entry in a popular 24-hour comics marathon, the organizers urged her to apply for a fellowship to return and work among other comic book artists from around the world. The competition jury loved Kari, and with further sponsorship from the French Embassy, Patil promptly spent 2009 enjoying what she now describes as a “one-track life,” where, for the fi rst time, “there was nothing else I was accountable to, but to my work.” She says, “I was like a grazing cow, slow of gait, slowly ruminating. Looking at swans, looking at sunsets.” But then also “getting back to the table and pulling up my socks”. It’s evident that the immersive stay in Angouleme deeply affected Patil. She returned to a project she says “I was always meant to do”, to the epic stories of the Mahabharata that “have haunted me since I was twenty-one years old.” Being surrounded by ambitious comic book artists from around the world provided an extra fi llip. She says, “since every single human being in Angouleme seems to draw and paint ten times better than me, it set the standard high and I was constantly falling short.”
Patil’s response to the challenge was typically unique and unstinting. She set to work on a trilogy based on the Mahabharata that will be titled Parva; she has just completed the fi rst volume (Adi Parva). This book project became the pivot for a profound transformation of every aspect of her existence. “What makes Parva special for me is something very personal. It is not a cold project. I have rehauled my entire life and person in its creation. And in some ways, that is what is going to bring me immunity whether the book succeeds or crash-lands. Because what it has done to me cannot be taken away by people approving or disapproving of it.”
Parva ends when the Pandavas and Kauravas are born. The book has been snapped up by Au diable vauvert in France and HarperCollins in India, as part of a groundbreaking agreement to synchronize production and distribution across markets. Later this year, Adi Parva will be released as the first internationally produced Indian book of its type. Still in her early 30s, Patil is quietly emerging as one of the more inventive graphic novelists in the country.
Born in Pune in 1979, Patil grew up in Vasco-da- Gama, the port city of Goa where her father served in the armed forces. It was an idyllic childhood. “My parents got several things right. It was always emphasized that money would be spent on travel and nature adventures, not on clothes and toys.” More unusually, “the family was quite oblivious to material accomplishment. I don’t recall any conversations about what I would do professionally, and what would be the best way to be wildly successful.” Patil eventually went to Goa College of Art, while her brother trained as a marine engineer before opening Goa’s best-respected diveshop and training centre, Dive Goa.
Despite possessing two degrees in art (she also has an MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Art in Boston), Patil has always thought of herself as a writer. While growing up, she says, “I wasn’t aware of art as a career possibility, but I was always ambitious in that I didn’t want to be unknown. I knew I had no choice but to write and draw, though I thought I would be a cardiac surgeon or an actress. The first week at the art school, I was in utter distress, because I knew I was effectively blowing my chance at being a cardiac surgeon.” After graduating, Patil landed a job in Mumbai as copywriter for the advertising agency Enterprise Nexus. Languid Goa now gave way to Smog City, and close-knit family life was exchanged for paying guest digs and the daily blur of constantly changing assignments.