The Mahabharata, Illustrated in a Whole New Light
The Mahabharata has been told and depicted in various forms and formats. However, Freelance Illustrator and Concept Artist, Mukesh Singh, never felt satisfied and believed there was more to the story. In Graphic India’s project 18 Days, he illustrates the characters and their stories in a whole new light.
CG: Your artwork is a tribute to India’s rich mythology and culture. What gravitated you towards the subject of Mahabharata? As an illustrator, how do you relate to the story and the characters? How is it different from other projects that you’ve worked on?
MS: “Whatever is here is found elsewhere. But what is not here, is nowhere else”. This is the Mahabharata. It is the epic of epics, one that can be told again and again, generation after generation and still ring true. For all of their vain glorious powers, all the warriors, kings and queens are human, susceptible to the species’ frailties. Each character is a story in itself and the epic beautifully traces their lives from birth to eventual death. Read it with an expansive view of the affairs of men and Gods or choose your favourite character and walk with them as they make their way through life. Whoever you are, you will find something in the book to relate to and make of it what you will. At a personal level, compared to other projects, it was different in the sense that while I was already familiar with every major character it was also an opportunity to revisit them. But this time I was not part of the audience. I found myself set loose in a familiar world where I could not just wonder the what ifs, but also act upon my convictions.
CG: Before you could manifest the story in your own style, how did you study the script and understand the storyline? Was it as simple as reading a book, or like a writer? Did you spend some time living in India and soaking in the environment?
MS: I was born in India and have stayed here my entire life. When it comes to Mahabharata, every Indian is familiar with it. I grew up, like most kids do, reading illustrated storybooks based on the epic as well following comic book version published by Amar Chitra Katha. Not just that, my father played a major role by narrating anecdotes from the scripture. This was then followed by television series, that gave 2D character form a 3D appeal. They had become real and have remained so ever since.
CG: You have given the Mahabharata a twist of your own. How do you describe your style? What was it that you experimented with and changed around? What remained the same?
MS: The modern audience has a keen and sophisticated understanding of the narrative design. They are beneficiaries of an accelerated volution of the storytelling process that started with the invention of the printing press and refined further with each succeeding generation of newer forms of communication mediums. Combine this with their familiarity with modern technology and it isn’t difficult to sell the idea of a hyper advanced civilization of a bygone era that could communicate across vast distances or wield destructive weapons embedded in something as small as an arrow head. I also trust their evolved sense of understanding to familiarize themselves quickly with an unfamiliar cast of characters.
If we shift our gaze from the core USP of Mahabharata, which is of course its multi-layered characters, to its fascinating world of highly evolved technology, it isn’t difficult to envision its larger than life aura. While other interpretations of this timeless epic have done enormous justice to its characters, few, if any, have looked beyond them to its setting, its environment, its grandeur, its scale, its theatre stage where the lives of its players played themselves out. I had remained dissatisfied with earlier visual interpretations of the Mahabharata world. Armed with these inferences, I immersed myself with world building of 18 Days. Some images I had carried for a long time in my head, some suggested themselves based on Grant Morrison’s scripts, the writer of 18 Days. It also helped that I had spent a lot of time with its characters, through the works of others and my own interpretation of their psyche. In 18 Days the characters have remained the same, at least as I see them. Their outwards appearances though have changed. I wanted the audience of today to identify and accept not just the character’s inner selves but their outer ones too, which are external manifestations of their inner selves.
CG: If you look through India’s depiction of the Mahabharata, it appears more colourful and vibrant. Any specific reason why you chose to work with dark shades and hues? What is the overall feeling you wish to create through your designs?
MS: Impending doom perhaps? For all of their boasts and chest thumping, the characters meet their maker in the end. Some believed that they will survive the war. So they go all out heroic, in their quest to leave their mark on what they know will be an immortal event, this 18-day war. At the end, it was a pyrrhic victory for the Pandavs. Arjun questions the war in the beginning and Yudhistir in the end. What has changed?
CG: This one’s fairly straightforward; how you do manage to make violence look so beautiful? What features and characteristics do you need to balance with to make your artwork come across that way?
MS: Ah! I don’t know how to respond to that. Violence can never be beautiful. If it appears beautiful, it is only during its build-up phase, when primal anticipation overwhelms the senses. The aftermath is always ugly. A mundane analysis suggests few things. Maybe the ornate designs in the drawings coupled with composition choices give it that sense of beauty. It also helps that the art itself isn’t hyper realistic. The line art based style may also have something to do with the pleasing appearance of the images. Or perhaps it is because I knew the inevitable fate of each character. I gave them their moments of glory.
CG: No doubt people are smitten by India’s roots in history and culture. So after the Mahabharata, what’s next? In what other ways do you wish to explore Indian culture and mythology?
MS: As of now I am taking a break from stories based on Indian mythology and working on other things. But the intervening hiatus may be good. If I come back, I will hopefully have some new perspective. That is for the future though. We will cross the bridge when we come to it.
Published in Issue 28
This Illustration Special is best to know why and how illustration as a popular medium is taking the design world by storm! From evolution of illustrations to its place in the world today, renowned designers and illustrators like Abhishek Singh, Mukesh Singh, Archan Nair, Alicia Souza, Raj Khatri with some international talent such as Fil Dunsky from Russia, Iain Macarthur and Richard Field from UK, who live and breathe illustration, would be the right people to gain some insight from. With many more talents to explore with great insights and excellent techniques, again a fully packed issue is waiting to amaze you!
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