Writer: Shamik Dasgupta
Artists: Abhishek Singh, Ashwin Chikerur (colors)
Publisher: Virgin Comics
The Ramayan (or if you will, the Ramayana whose literal meaning is "Travels of Rama") is a name familiar to at least one person out of five (on average). I say this because that is the general ratio of Indians (born/originating from India) in the world. And even though, as a scripture/tale, it is strictly from/of the Hindu religion, thanks to its age and even more so to its countless TV, Movie and print full or part adaptations of it, more than twenty percent of the world’s population has at least heard about it. As for me, I still remember the time when having just moved to another city and waiting for the movers to arrive, I had spent a week in the company guesthouse with my parents. Come Sunday morning, I got the bejeezuz shocked out of me when I saw a crowd gather at the doors and windows of the guesthouse’s rec room. All of them were there to watch the Ramayan TV show and had the doors not been locked beforehand, I am sure that many of them would have come indoors, a rather scary proposition for an eight year old kid. Not only that, but even the guesthouse personnel, many of whom did not own a TV of their own (or at least not a color one) also seemed to leave anything and everything they were doing and for one complete hour they sat their collective behinds in front of the boob tube. That is how "big" the show (and even more so the story) it depicted is.
Thanks to that and the printed short-story/comics (in India) about the Ramayan (as also the Mahabharata, another epic tale), I’d like to think that even though I'm in no way an expert, I do have a working knowledge about what exactly goes down in this story, as also the how, why, when and where of it. Therefore, coming into this #1 issue of Virgin Comics’ new title, I wasn’t a complete noob to the tale.
So, is it same as the various versions out there or does the whole "3392 A.D." aspect actually have some relevance to it in the way of difference/originality. Well, yes and no. Though the general framework is pretty much the same, there were a few surprises, and although I do not know how the "religious reader" will take it, I for one am interested in this new century interpretation and presentation of Rama, his family and friends, and just about everything related to him.
Starting with the art, as with the other Virgin titles (Sadhu, Devi, Snake Woman), the art style, though suited to the tale it tells, doesn’t quite hit the right spot. Compared to the other "mystical" Virgin title, the visuals here are not as flashy as Devi, and rightly so. Not to take away from either title, but while Devi’s female protagonist and story warrant the bright yet matured-flashy, the atmosphere set by the writing here and the heavy masculine flavor of this issue just begs for the dark noir. Do not mistake that the Ramayana is a male only story. Far from it. After all, as important as he is, Rama’s destiny is intrinsically tied to and even defined by that of his (here future) wife, Sita. Still, even though the mood is suited to the story, the art does leave one with a hankering for a little more detailed and a lot clearer visuals.
Moving onto the story, right off the mark, once past the introductory pages, there is an effort to make it clear that this ain’t your daddy’s Ramayan. Though similar, the political setup of Amragarh (Rama’s birth kingdom) is slightly different from that in the traditional Ramayan tale. Though his father, Maharaj Dashrath is still the big man around, his official title is "Chief Councilor." A point of note here, the word Maharaj when translated into the Hindi language, means King. As for his wife, Kaikeyi, she is also one of his Councilors. In the original Ramayan story, Dashrath had three wives: Kousalya, Sumitra and Kaikeyi. As for the children, Rama was born of Kousalya, Bharat (the second oldest) of Kaikeyi while Lakshman and Shatrughan (twins) from Sumitra. It is here that this comic version really deviates from the original. With no mention of Sumitra and with Bharat and Shatrughan being Kaikeyi’s, one can assume that both Rama and Lakshman were birthed by Kousalya (Kaushalya here). As for Kaushalya, unlike the original where all three queens are alive simultaneously, her character is no longer alive here. It is not clear whether Dashrath’s marriage to Kaikeyi took place after Kaushlya’s passing away or before it.
As for the sons themselves, there is a clear difference between them, in not only their ages but also their personalities and even more so in the dynamic between thems. Not twins here, while Lakshman appears and behaves to be in his late teens or early 20s, Shatrughan is at most 14 or 15. The baby of the group, poor Shatru seems to have the worst off, at least when it comes to his physique. The most mature of the four, not even Rama is above making a quip at his youngest brother’s weight, especially with the poke-name, "tubby." As for Bharat, he is in a rather odd place. Not as old as Rama or young as Lakshman, he has an interesting mix of settling maturity and ebbing impulsiveness. Just as he is competing with Rama to come out on top, he also has to contend with Laksman making a play for his position. Still, for all their differences and all their sibling rivalry, the four seem to care about each other, even when it comes to their own biological-mothers (made clear by Bharat’s behavior with Lakshman after the younger brother has an altercation with step-mom, Kaikeyi).
As an opener, this issue works well in not only placing the characters in their defining positions, but also setting up the first proper battle scene of the series. For any fans of the demons and monsters kind of fight scenes, the Ramayan is a literal godsend. After all, what else do you expect when the Uber-baddie is a demon king (Ravan)?
Conclusion: One does not need to know the original story to understand or enjoy this one, and even though it is interesting comparing the two, even a newbie can get onto the Ramayan Vayuyan (Aircraft). The art, though a bit rough, is suited to the mood of the series. With some judiciously placed funny moments, at least as far as this reader is concerned, this one easily rises to the top of the Virgin Comics’ publications.
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