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Arts & Culture
Illustrator brings figures of Indian myth to life
If you grew up in the US, you’re probably well-acquainted with fairytales in which real animals behave like people; whether it’s pigs, wolves, rabbits or turtles. But in India, children grow up hearing about half-monkey gods and 10-headed demon kings.
Those are old friends to animator Sanjay Patel, who heard the stories of these characters in the Indian epic the Ramayana. Now, he’s bringing them to life in an illustrated version of the ancient text, called "Ramayana: Divine Loophole." KALW’s Sandip Roy has more.
SANDIP ROY: Sanjay Patel knows all about blue monsters and rats who dream of becoming chefs.
But the Pixar animator and storyboard artist says he stumbled upon a treasure trove of the fantastic in a slightly older story. It’s the Hindu epic the Ramayana, and it was written 2,500 years ago. The god Vishnu comes to earth as the prince Rama to rid the world of a 10-headed demon king.
SANJAY PATEL: Then there were characters like Hanuman, the sort of half-monkey, half-person. Half-man, and all of his special powers … and just full of demons, and animals, and gods, and humans, and kings and queens and just all incredibly lush and seemed like it was just begging to be illustrated.
And so came about Patel’s book, entitled Ramayana: Divine Loophole. It has been four years in the making. That’s about three to four days a page. But the journey to the Ramayana has been much longer for Patel. It started in San Bernardino, in a run-down motel his parents bought off Route 66.
PATEL: They still own and operate it, they still live in the motel. And it was really typical, because sadly, mostly the business we would get was really marginal characters: a lot of prostitutes, a lot of drug dealers...
Patel’s father worked at a gas station to help pay the mortgage. And Patel ran the motel after school. He says he didn’t have too many friends.
PATEL: And none of my friends would want to come over because it was really kind of strange to tell people at school that my parents: A. were Indian, and B. were living in a motel. So, do you want to come over and play with the drug addicts and the prostitutes?
So Patel says he had to invent his friends.
PATEL: I was really into GI Joe comics. I used to collect all kinds of comics. I would draw from them. Like X-Men, GI Joe, and I loved trying to focus on ninjas, I’d draw all kinds of ninjas. I do think I wanted to be a ninja at one point.
What Patel didn’t realize was that he was surrounded by superheroes from his own culture. His father sang devotional songs every day to Lord Rama, the blue-skinned warrior prince, ace archer, and all-around perfect son. He heard stories about how Rama and his wife Sita spent 14 years in exile in the forest, and how the 10-headed demon king Ravana kidnapped her, leading to an epic battle. But it just wasn’t as cool as the ninjas.
PATEL: It was just something that you took for granted. Like, there’s a stack of books there, there’s an illustrated monkey over there, there’s a blue god surrounded by these warriors over there... It just felt like that was just decoration. I would sneeze, and my parents would say "Sitaram." You know, I just thought, that’s their version of gesundheit, or God bless you.
But his cultural identity didn’t extend too far beyond his parents and their stories. Patel’s mother had been diagnosed with schizophrenia after he was born. So that meant they rarely went to Indian functions.
PATEL: I think I’ve been able to have the same four-sentence conversation with my mother ever since I can remember, which is: “What’s my name?” So she would ask my name, and I would tell her my name. She would ask me where I’m living, I would tell her where I’m living. And then she would ask me what I’ve eaten. So, and then sometimes she would ask me where my children are. I don’t have any children.
Patel says this forced him to be self-reliant, and to burrow deeper into his art. In his acknowledgments to his mother he writes, “The mystery of your mind led me to my art, and my own inner world.” Patel says it’s bittersweet.
PATEL: Even a dedication in this book … I wish I could read it to her. She’s in a world that is an absolute mystery to me and I just wish I could see her and be with her in that space, even for a day...
Patel’s images have turned a venerable epic into art that sizzles and pops and jumps off the page. When the demon capitol city burns, the flames glow orange and gold as the monkey god Hanuman streaks like a comet across a smoky, chocolate sky. This is after Hanuman visits the princess Sita imprisoned in the demon kingdom.
PATEL: This was such a fun moment for me to illustrate. ‘Cause I’m like, "Yes! Violence!" I mean I hate to say it, but just mythological violence, and … in many ways, if someone flipped through the book I just wanted it to be just a visual that would literally burn in their minds, no pun intended, but it’s just filled with oranges, and Hanuman in white, and he’s flying against the night sky. And he’s safe, but his tail is on fire.
Sanjay Patel is flying high these days himself. Drawing people who look like him. He’s worked on Indians before: He had a stint on the Simpsons, where he worked on scenes involving Apu, the oh-so-Indian shopkeeper.
PATEL: And that’s when it really struck me: "Wow, this is really the face of what my friends think of when they thing of Indian Americans. It’s this immigrant who has a funny name, has an accent, and runs a convenience store."
And I feel like in many ways that stereotype is very true for the '80s. Many of us, including my parents, were running motels or convenience stores or gas stations … But the fact is that it’s 20110 now.
And in 2010, Sanjay Patel is finally drawing people who really look like him. Except for that sky-blue skin, the pointy teeth, and the impossibly big eyes. Other than that, Patel says his art is truly where his identity comes alive.
For Crosscurrents, I’m Sandip Roy.
You can view Sanjay Patel pieces for the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco’s Maharaja exhibit through April 8, 2012. This story originally aired on April 5, 2010.