“Can you sum up the Ramayana,” I ask, “in an elevator pitch?”
Patel furrows his brow. “OK. Vishnu reincarnates himself as a blue prince named Rama. He’s sent to earth and marries the beautiful princess Sita. Through some drama in the kingdom, Rama, Sita and his brother are exiled to the jungle. While in the jungle, Sita is kidnapped by the ten-headed demon Ravana—and Rama embarks on a quest to find her. Along the way he befriends a tribe of monkeys and a tribe of bears, and with this animal army they march to Lanka, defeat the demons and free Sita.”
Just how popular is the Ramayana? “It would be safe to say,” Patel muses, “that almost every child in the Indian subcontinent would recognize the main characters—especially Hanuman, the loyal monkey god.”
In 2012, Chronicle will publish Patel’s first children’s book, written with Haynes. Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth tells the story of what happened when Brahma asked Ganesha—the elephant-headed god—to record another great Hindu epic, the voluminous Mahabharata. Ganesha broke off his own tusk to use as a stylus; the book imagines his various attempts to reattach it. (The Mahabharata’s plot, unfortunately, won’t fit in an elevator pitch.)
Among Patel’s many inspirations is Nina Paley, a New York-based animator whose 2009 film, Sita Sings the Blues, tells the story of the Ramayana from a feminist perspective. Patel credits Paley with giving him the inspiration to create his own version of the epic.
“Religion, like all culture, needs to be constantly reinterpreted to remain alive,” says Paley. “Sanjay’s work is not only beautiful—it updates and freshens history, tradition and myth.”
But interpreting religious themes can be risky, and Paley and Patel sometimes provoke the ire of devotees. Last summer, for example, a screening of Sita Sings the Blues was protested by a small fundamentalist group who felt the film demeaned the Hindu myths.
“It makes me sad,” Patel reflects. “I want to believe that these stories can withstand interpretation and adaptation. I want to believe that one person might have a pious belief in the legends and the faith, while another could abstract them in a way that’s personally reverent. I want to believe that both can exist simultaneously.”
A more immediate issue, at least for Patel, is the challenge of fame. Traditionally, Indian and Buddhist artworks have been anonymous. They arise from a culture where the artist is merely a vehicle, and the work an expression of the sacred.
“These characters have existed for thousands of years, and have been illustrated and re-enacted by thousands of artists,” he reminds me. “I'm just part of this continuum. So whenever the spotlight’s on me, I make a point of telling people: If you’re interested in these stories, the sources go pretty deep. I have nowhere near plumbed their depths.”