The Mahabharata, one of the celebrated epics of South Asia is a part of the ancient oral tradition of the sub-continent. Down the ages it has been adopted by the diverse cultures and hence has a number of retellings keeping the basic narrative same. Growing up in South-Asia as a kid opens one to a tresaure trove of such retellings which are usually unlocked by the grandmothers.
Amar Chitra Katha was a game changer in this field, the first publishing house who thought of narrating the grandmothers' tales through illustrations and hence making it more appealing to the huge population of young readers. Mahabharata, as mentioned earlier is a part of the oral narrative so nobody knows how Draupadi, Yudhistir or Karna looked like. The readers for the first time through Amar Chitra Katha saw these imaginative figures taking shape in the pages of their books. But herein lies the ambiguity of orality, did Arjun or Krishna really look like the way they are portrayed in the pages of Amar Chitra Katha? Or was it just a figment of the illustrator's imagination? If yes then what was the inspiration behind it? I'd try to explain, if not all but some of these queries and hence trace how illustrations of the epic changed in due course of time through the brushes of artists.
Greek antiquity has always inspired the literary as well as the South Asian tradition of art and aesthetics. The reason behind this is often believed to be the similarity in the tradition of orality (Iliad and Odyssey is also a part of the oral tradition). One of the traits of the Greek epics was to portray everything larger than life and hence making it totally bereft from the real life. In Amar Chitra Katha too we find similar traits in the illustrations. Almost all the male characters have been given alpha male traits with massive muscular attributes as can be seen in the images. The brushstrokes and the use of colours should be noticed as well. It wasn't only the Mahabharata but most of the Indian mythologies that Amar chitra Katha tried to portray were in a way strereotyped with the mentioned attributes.
Not only Amar Chitra Katha but this particular trait had been adopted by Grant Morrison as well in his famous graphic novel Eighteen Days (a retelling focussing especially on the Kurukshetra episode of from The Mahabharata). He too makes the characters appear larger than life and attaching them with immortality. The concept of the Divine Intervention which is essentially a Greek concept has been portrayed through illustrations as well. Another noticeable trait in Grant Morrison is the influence of South Asian folk and classical art form, it is more evident from the use of Kathakali and Koodiyattam head gears that Morrison has used to portray a number of characters.
Amruta Patil for the first time breaks this stereotype through her graphic novel Adi Parva based on The Mahabharata and tries to answer the ambiguities of oral tradition. There are sections in the text where Brahma and Shiva are seen fighting over their claim of creation. This not only brings them down to being mere mortals but at the same time it also questions the very existence of the myths related to the epics and the Hindu pantheon.
In Patil's work almost all major characters of the Mahabharata are mortals without any divine or larger than life characteristics but the use of her brush strokes and water colour has made it aesthetically more pleasing. At the same time her work highlights the role of Sutradhars or storytellers who for ages have kept the tradition of orality alive in South Asia.
Mahabharata down the ages has undergone many changes especially because of its flexible narrative and these three artists have successfully able to retain it through their illustrative powers.