Panchali, written by Sibaji Bandyopadhyay and visualised by Sankha Banerjee is the second in a projected series of five graphic novels by the same makers that retell parts of the Mahabharata. Carrying on from the first volume, Vyasa, Panchali starts its re-citation when the sons of Dhritarashtra and Pandu are growing up together. They are playmates, of course, but the seeds of a deadly rivalry have already been sown.
The first episode we are presented with, is the burning of the house of lac in which Duryodhana and his cronies try to kill the Pandavas. The story then goes through to the cataclysmic dice game and ends with the Pandavas and Panchali (Draupadi) leaving the city for their period of exile.
Panchali is compelling, as the early books of the Mahabharata generally are, and in this volume, we easily apprehend the central story of the warring family without being pulled away into episodes that involve other characters, some of whom are peripheral to the story, and others who never appear in the main narrative.
For those who don’t know the details of the story, this volume is an easy introduction to the main episodes. For those of us who do, the volume reassures us that we know the characters, that we remember incidents well and that the central story really is the spine of this sometimes overwhelming, encyclopaedic text.
We meet the characters we know and they behave as we expect them to – Dhritarashtra is weak and vacillating, Vidura is truly the moral conscience of the royal family, Bhishma has become otiose, Duryodhana and Karna are driven by ambition and anger, the Pandavas function basically as a tight unit that acts in unison despite the particular personality traits that periodically emerge and create some kind of individuation among the brothers.
Of course, it is Panchali who dominates the narrative in this volume – she towers above the men in the illustrations and in the text even though there is so much going on around her as the Pandavas emerge from hiding in the forest to return to Hastinapura and secure a share of the kingdom. She is so critical to this part of the story as Bandyopadhyay tells it, that we barely see any other women at all. Kunti is shadowy and Gandhari speaks only briefly at the dice game.
There are always good reasons to read retellings of stories that we believe we know well. My own experience with the Draupadi of Panchali is but one small example: One might think that the text of this graphic novel, which stays close to the Critical Edition of the Sanskrit Mahabharata, will offer us few narrative surprises. The visuals that accompany the text are also familiar enough, drawing as they do from a variety of indigenous historical and cultural sources. But the point of any retelling is that the person who makes it (in this case, there are two) believes that there are elements, tropes, characters, episodes in the source narrative that deserve a different perspective, or that a subtext needs to be brought to the surface, or that it can be made to speak to the times in which it is being retold.
So it is with the makers of Panchali – they ensure that their politics and aesthetics are present in the tale that they tell and that there are references to a wider popular culture (at one point, Drupada is called an “inglorious bastard”) and other well known renditions of the Mahabharata (Drona is clearly an Asian martial arts teacher, as in Peter Brook’s 1989 film Mahabharata, where that significant role is played by Yoshi Oida).
The political and social ideologies of the re-tellers of Panchali are visible in the attention they pay to the family of forest dwellers that were burned to death in place of Kunti and her sons in the lac house. A forest boy’s bewildered face fills a frame after the incident. In another aside, a trio of working men enter Hastinapura when the dice game is going on. They drink with the locals at a run-down still and comment on the ways of rich folk. While the Mahabharata itself is obsessed with the shifting power between brahmins and kshatriyas and expresses a terror of miscegenation, Bandyopadhyay and Banerjee choose to remind us of the many marginalised people that surely existed while this self-absorbed upper caste rivalry was playing itself out.
While they have kept to the central story of the epic almost exclusively, there is a glorious narrative excursion before the gambling match, into the little-known but deeply moving Rig Vedic ‘hymn to the dice.’ In this multi-voiced lament, a hapless gambler begs the dice to fall in his favour. The piece is reproduced almost in its entirety and draws heavily, I believe, from Wendy Doniger’s translation.
As in other graphic novels that push the essential hybridity of the form, Banerjee’s visuals are strongly cinematic. He uses a camera language for his illustrated frames – there are really tight closeups as well as panoramic landscapes like those that would now have been captured by drone cameras, there are jump cuts and P.O.V. perspectives. It’s a little disappointing though, that his young warriors are cliched in that they are brawny and squint all the time. But Banerjee does something really interesting with Yudhishthira — he is always depicted as wide-eyed. What is Yudhishthira looking at or for, what does Dharmaraja see (or seek) that the others do not? Krishna is also wide-eyed, but that depiction does not raise the same curious questions in the reader because he is divine, one assumes that his gaze will be different from that of other mortals.
So, if you like graphic novels, peruse this one because it is the Mahabharata presented by able re-tellers. If you don’t like graphic novels, but need to know the great epic, give this version a shot, you could be doubly rewarded. And if like me, there’s no such thing for you as too much Mahabharata, enjoy the text’s ethical and existential challenges wherever you can find them. Watch out, though, for the sagely presence that keeps saying, “Jolly Good!” Not quite my cup of Mahabharata tea, even if it might be the collision of a visual pun and a translation of “sadhu! sadhu!”
Arshita Sattar is a writer and translator based in Bengaluru