Devdutt Pattanaik, on his official website, introduces himself with a terse, no-frills bio: “I help leverage the power of myth in business, management, and life.” His bold illustrated retelling of Indian folklore and religious symbols have peppered the lives of Indians who nurse even a passing interest in Indian mythology. Pattanaik’s books appeal to adults and children alike and, in both cases, treat complex and layered subjects with deft ease. He brings to life Ganesha, Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna and a host of familiar divine characters in a human context. His uncomplicated narrative stokes questioning, while tempting the reader to inquire deeper.
Devdutt Pattanaik worked for 15 years in the healthcare and pharma industry before heeding the call of his creative muse. In this interview with Vivek Tejuja, he speaks about his new children’s book The Girl Who Chose, which is about the choices made by Sita, the leading female protagonist of the Ramayana.
How did this idea come to him? Devdutt Pattanaik says he asked himself the question: Does Sita choose in the Ramayana? “And suddenly, I found five situations where Sita makes remarkable choices that takes the narrative forward,” he says.
Read the entire interview to learn more.
Vivek Tejuja: Devdutt Pattanaik, you had already written Sita for adults. Why the need to write a book for children on almost the same topic?
Devdutt Pattanaik: How do you tell the Ramayana, deemed as patriarchal by most feminists, to a girl, without making her sick of her culture? Is the epic patriarchal, or is that a prejudiced postmodern gaze? These questions led me to relook at the epic through the lens of ‘choice’ and I was pleasantly surprised to find a whole new way of retelling the Ramayana, which incidentally could have been called Sita Charitam, one of the options that Valmiki is supposed to have had while writing the epic. Hence, this book.
Why is Sita as an introductory character to get kids to read mythology?
Devdutt Pattanaik: Because Sita makes choices – when she can – and accepts consequences with grace, without blaming others. That’s what adults should be like.
Do you think Indian kids today need a different mode of communication when it comes to mythology? Would you ever pen a graphic novel to get them interested?
Devdutt Pattanaik: I am working on the possibility of a graphic novel with Amruta Patil of Kari and Adi Parva fame. Hopefully, it will materialize in 2018.
Why do you think kids out there don’t know about Indian mythology? You think it comes from the parents or doesn’t, in this case?
Devdutt Pattanaik: Most parents are of the generation that was busy studying science and math to get jobs or American passports.
Your TV show on mythology, Devlok, is a rage. What have you done differently with it? Is it because you approach mythology in a simple and plain manner, or is there more to it?
Devdutt Pattanaik: It is what I always do. Its just the first time the general public is seeing me. So glad people loved it. Scriptures are simple and beautiful. I am just presenting things as they are, articulating and organizing it to make it accessible.
Your favorite mythology books (not penned by you)
Devdutt Pattanaik: Myth (Critical Edition series) by Laurence Coupe.
Sita has always, or rather of late, been spoken about in quite a feminist manner. What are your thoughts or views on it?
Devdutt Pattanaik: We often read our politics into an epic. Some see Ramayana as patriarchal, and others demand a feminist re-reading. Neither sees the Ramayana for what it is — a narrative presenting Vedic ideas based on infinity, rebirth and wisdom.
How did you spin The Girl Who Chose? What led to this idea?
Devdutt Pattanaik: I asked the question: does Sita choose in the Ramayana? And suddenly, I found five situations where Sita makes remarkable choices that take the narrative forward. No one had pointed this out to me before. Maybe no one asked this question. We are too busy proving that Rama is patriarchal and Sita was a victim and Ravana was a hero, not villain. When we remove the judgment hat, the epic reveals a new world.
Do you think Sita’s voice gets lost in the Ramayana? Is there anything as more focus on Ram than Sita?
Devdutt Pattanaik: When you read Valmiki Ramayana, it does not. Storytellers know that victims make your story more popular – Sita was the chosen victim for a long time. Valmiki never saw her as so.
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