A quick word about Amruta Patil’s dark, intense graphic novel Kari: it’s the story of an alienated young woman working in an ad agency in Mumbai while dealing with acute loneliness and the heartache of separation from her soulmate Ruth. (The book opens with a dreamlike scene where Kari and Ruth attempt suicide together. Both survive – or do they? – but while Ruth leaves Smog City for a place where “the palette was pure and bright”, Kari stays behind.) The drawings often reflect Kari’s tortured state of mind and restless imagination, and there’s some ambiguity in her version of events. In fact, it’s possible to wonder – as indeed another character in the book does at one point – if Ruth ever really existed.
Patil has an MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, and now lives in Delhi. I attended part of the Kari book launch/discussion a few days ago and then did a short Q&A with her.
Many graphic novels are writer-artist collaborations, but you wear both hats. As a child, were you more inclined towards drawing or writing?
There has always been a definite keel towards the written word. I like to draw, but my applied art training makes me see illustration from a versatile, do-what's-needed slant. My writing is more careful, more uncompromised.
When I was a child, my mother illustrated every story that she told me. It was a lot of fun. I remember sitting atop a full newsprint sheet on the terrace as we drew, so that the paper would not fly away! They were growing stories – I'd add to where she left off, in word as on paper. We took great pains to draw out the houses and hills and cats and people that formed our stories!
At the launch, you mentioned working as a museum security guard in Boston, and how it helped you observe people and pick subjects for your drawings. Can you elaborate on this experience?
It was the penury of being an art student in the US that led to the museum security guard experience. Besides, being around mummies and medieval Madonnas seemed like a more interesting job than waitressing or working in a photocopy place. The feeling was not just that of being invisible, but of being almost subhuman. It's amazing how hundred upon hundreds of human beings can pass you by without making eye contact. When they did make eye contact, it was to get directions to the restroom. It made for a great vantage point for eavesdropping and watching.
How did you first become interested in the graphic novel form? What are your favourite works in the medium?
Write, and draw – that's what I know how to do. Working in a medium that combined both the disciplines seemed like an obvious way to go. Some of the graphic novels I have enjoyed include - Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, Mother Come Home by Paul Hornschemeier, Tragical Comedy Or Comical Tragedy Of Mister Punch by Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean, Blankets by Craig Thompson, The Rabbi's Cat by Joann Sfar.
What’s the story behind Kari? You drew the first of these drawings in 1999. What was the progression from then till its publication in book form eight years later?
Kari is a child of chance, she was never meant to be the great big debut book. The only thing that has remained consistent from 1999 to 2008 is the physical form of the character – none of the early illustrations form part of this work, nor does any early writing. It was too fragmented to be useful. As for planning storylines, writing and artwork go hand in hand. Just as the writing gets more refined, so too does the illustration. For example, the book I’m working on now, Parva/The Epic, is being planned in page upon page of small thumbnail sketches, rather like the storyboard of a film.
Your drawings show a range of styles. I liked the use of colour, and the ironical touches, such as the poster of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (a film that stands for tradition values and societal approval) in the background when Kari and Ruth – lesbian lovers – first meet. Who are your artistic influences?
I was very keen to capture the grey, the claustrophobic busy-ness, the dreamscapes, and the subsequent release. One style seemed very inadequate. So, instead, Kari has experiments in ink, marker, charcoal and oilbar, crayon and found images. Some, admittedly, work better than others. My illustrative style in Parva/The Epic is very different from this. Visual influences are eclectic: Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Frida Kahlo, Dave McKean. Then there are Mughal miniatures, Islamic decorative patterns, Japanese woodcuts.
Parva has been billed as a mytho-historical graphic novel. Tell us something more about it.
Parva/The Epic is the Mahabharata tale told from the viewpoint of three characters who intrigue me very much – Kunti, Draupadi, and Ashwatthama. My MFA thesis show consisted of 200 images from this body of work, and it's time to start working on it again. This project is going to take a lot, it is epic in both volume and in theme – full colour, and visual-led. I am excited about starting work on it.
Incidentally, I’m also interested in Ashwatthama, who was the protagonist of Dharamvir Bharati’s wonderful play Andha Yug; the role was played by Naseeruddin Shah in Ebrahim Alkazi’s famous production. Parva sounds very promising. Here are a few drawings from it (and from Kari) on Patil’s website. And here’s her blog, Umbilical.
[A few earlier posts on graphic novels: Maus, Watchmen, Blankets, the Buddha series, Embroideries, Kashmir Pending]