Earlier this year, a co-worker of mine traveled to India on more of a sight-seeing and arts-heavy trip than what many of us yogis/Ashtangis tend to make.
She knows, a little, that I do yoga — but pretty much in the sense that, let’s say, your aunt or grandfather knows you do yoga: in Tim Miller’s words, as some kind of exotic stretching.
She doesn’t have any idea, really, of what our Yatra was (or will be about).
When she returned, she brought me a few things, including a book. When I picked it up, I was pretty shocked. The title: The Mighty Tale of Hanuman.
I paused, trying to figure out if this was on purpose and how she knew.
“Did you know,” I asked, “that through my yoga I have a relationship with Hanuman? He’s like a role model, of sorts.” (How do you actually explain it?)
“No,” she answered, still not fully getting what I was getting at, even as I showed her the Hanuman murti in my office and reminded her I have a Hanuman hanging in my car.
It seems Hanuman had just decided it was time to remind me he’s here and watching.
This was so unexpected — a book on Ganesh maybe I would have seen coming — that I gave the book an even deeper look that I would have otherwise. After all, clearly Hanuman wanted me to see this story of his life.
It’s, in a word, wonderful. A sensitive re-telling of this most wonderful epic, it combines the familiar story with 18th century Ramayana paintings from the collection of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust in Jodhpur, India. It is modern, and multimedia, but from a time when there was no such thing. (Because, of course, so many things were multimedia.)
It transcends time, much like Hanuman himself as a Chiranjivi, an immortal being.
I especially was struck by how the paintings, the images, interact with words of the story. You are able to follow different scenes in the paintings, moving back and forth within the images. In some ways, the direction of the narrative is up to you.
As I read through the book, I realized there was quite a back story, and so I looked further. It turns out, profits from the book go to the The Veerni Project, which supports girls literacy. Here’s the author’s rationale for the book:
Our aim is to introduce children to Indian art through a book that uses the narrative in art in an interactive and interesting way. The appreciation of Indian paintings is not part of most school curriculums and so even though most Indian children are familiar with the basic storyline of the Ramayana, very few have seen the beautiful paintings that were commissioned by the Hindu and Mughal royal courts to illustrate the epic.
For children who are unfamiliar with the story, the combination of narrative and original illustrations will provide an exciting entry point into the world of Indian mythology.
Clearly, I realized, something special is going on here. And so, on the off chance it might result in a response, I emailed the authors, Mamta Dalal Mangaldas and Saker Mistri. (Their bios at the site.)
And wouldn’t you know it, they got back to me. And they were nice enough to agree to answer a few questions. Here is my email Q&A with Mamta:
1. What was the inspiration for the book project?
The inspiration really came from these magical 18th century paintings that we saw at the Mehrangarh Museum Trust in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. They are a set of 91 paintings which tell the story of the Ramayana. Even though this epic has been told and retold a thousand times, we felt that a children’s book which celebrated this much loved tale with the paintings alongside was needed.
Our book aims to introduce museum quality art to children through the engaging medium of story. This is because we believe that children who are the guardians of our culture should be exposed to the rich tradition of Indian art. Children will only protect what they love and think is precious. But, this does not happen because they are not taught about their heritage either through their school curriculum or through books or any other medium. The result of this is that children are bored with the museum experience. The only way to counteract this is to make the objects from museums familiar to children, give them a way of relating to them. Our book – The Mighty Tale of Hanuman – brings 18th century original Rajasthani art from the Ramacharitmanas manuscript, which belongs to the Mehrangarh Museum Trust in Jodhpur, to children in an accessible way.
2. How did you become involved with the Veerni Project?
The Veerni Project empowers and educates girls in Rajasthan which is where the paintings come from. We felt it would be right to give back to the place which had given us so much joy. Veerni does some amazing work to raise the literacy levels of girls in a state that continues to be plagued by female infanticide, child marriage and the lowest women to men ratio in the world.
3. Why do you think it is important to teach children about art and include art in their education?
In this high-speed digital age, where everything happens at the speed of light, I believe that art education is extremely important for children because it helps to “slow down the eyes” and encourage the use of the much ignored left side of the brain. Art education leads to “whole brain” learning and inculcates creativity and imagination – crucial components of success in our competitive world.
4. Why did you choose the tale of Hanuman? Is there something about the “simultaneous narrative” of the paintings you thought would work well in engaging children?
In our book, Hanuman is narrating his favourite story which is the Ramayana, which is also the favourite tale of millions of people around the world and has been for the past 2500 years since it was first written by Sage Valmiki. I think being on the best seller charts for 2500 years is quite a feat! The reason behind this is that the Ramayana has something for everyone and has big lessons for us even in this modern age.
The “simultaneous narration” of the paintings makes them very special and every tiny episode of the tale has been incorporated into the paintings. We wanted children to learn to decode the stories and become detectives and really learn to see.
6. What do you think the Hanuman tale has to teach children?
The Ramayana is one of India’s best-loved mythological tales. Traditionally told, the Ramayana is about the fight of good over evil, and it becomes a didactic story – a story with a moral where we tell children what is right and wrong. In our book, we have decided to focus on the reason this epic remains relevant. It is because it deals with contemporary issues and dilemmas. The Ramayana is not only about the fight of good over evil, it is as much about the shades of grey that we encounter in our daily lives – sometimes it is not clear to us, what is right and what is wrong. But most importantly, the tale is about the extreme difficulties of being good and dealing with consequences of being bad.
7. One thing we noticed that really struck us was telling the tale mostly in first-person, from Hanuman’s point of view. Why did you decide to tell it from his perspective?
Hanuman is a great favourite of children and adults alike. He is strong and loyal. He is kind and intelligent. He has super-powers. We loved him and thought others would love him too.
8. Do you have favorite images from these paintings and a favorite moment in Hanuman’s story?
I loved the images of the clouds in the paintings – they were so evocative and transported me to another time and place. (pages 32/ 33). They are part of my favourite image – “The death of vali”
My favourite moment is a very poignant one – when Ram has mortally injured Ravan because it brought me to my senses. No one is entirely good or bad. We have to choose the right path even though its often very difficult….
Quote from the book:
“Ram looked at the dying Ravan, “For a thousand years, you studied all the holy books and in return for your prayers, you received divine weapons and blessings from the gods. You were the most learned and powerful rakshas ruler but you misused your powers and became proud and cruel. It was my destiny to kill you and protect the world, even though you fought courageously to protect your kingdom.”
“Ravan recognised the truth in Ram’s words and sighed, “Sometimes we do things that are wrong and turn away from what is good for us, because the right path is often difficult…””
The right path is often difficult, which is why we all need role models like Hanuman.
I know Mamta and Saker are working on getting a U.S. publisher, but in the meantime, I’d encourage anyone interested in Hanuman, the Ramayana, Indian art, books or anyone with kids to consider going directly to the source at the Mehrangarh Fort Museum and buy it now. It does do international shipping. And when there is a U.S. edition coming, we’ll let you know.
You also could check out the book’s website.
Posted by Steve