There’s something about forests that draws storytellers, past, and present. But a graphic storybook on the stories of three spirited rishikas, urging readers to explore the great forests within them? Now that is something that is bound to make readers sit up and take notice. But then you do not expect anything less when the authors behind the project are India’s first female graphic novelist and the leading mythology writer of the country. When Amruta Patil and Devdutt Pattanaik join forces, what we the readers get is Aranyaka: Book of the Forest. They speak with SheThePeople.TV on how forests have a deep connection with women in mythology and why a book set in Vedic times will resonate with modern-day readers.

Wilderness has been a big part of storytelling in India. Why do you think that is?

Amruta Patil: Being in sub-tropical, salubrious climes means profuse vegetation and diverse fauna was part of our ancestors’ consciousness. And as with all people who live close to the land, our earliest belief systems were closely tied with what was natural and elemental, related to Prakriti. We saw culture as ‘nature, domesticated’ – a phenomenon as visible outside us, as within us.

Devdutt Pattanaik: Forests become a metaphor as well as a reality in the subcontinent. The only other culture to do this is the Chinese civilisation. They romanticised nature in Taoism and sought harmony with it, but, in Confucian thought, they saw nature as a source of all problems. Therefore, they sought to domesticate it. India had a far more fluid and nuanced approach to the forest.

As with all people who live close to the land, our earliest belief systems were closely tied with what was natural and elemental, related to Prakriti. We saw culture as ‘nature, domesticated’ – a phenomenon as visible outside us, as within us. – Amruta Patil

The forests have a deep connection with women in mythology, often empowering them and providing them shelter and necessities in times of distress. How do you think this connection was forged?

Amruta: There are obvious biological reasons why the analogy exists: the ability of a biological female to birth life, to feed a newborn with her own body; the cyclical nature of her menstrual cycle, which reminds us of the rising and setting of the sun, the waxing and waning of the moon, the turning of seasons. Biologically male beings do not have this cyclic quality about their bodies. This detail was not lost on early world cultures, and the “women = nature” parallel is seen everywhere, including in iconography from the Indus Valley civilisation. It is important, though, not to run away with this simplistic gendering. Mythology uses gender as a metaphor.

Aranyaka by Amruta Patil And Devdutt Pattanaik

Devdutt: In the Vedas, there is the concept of Aranyani, a goddess of the forest, who can feed without being cultivated. In Puranic times, the forest becomes the wild goddess, Kali, who when domesticated becomes Gauri. Both the wild and domestic forms of the goddess are seen as part of nature, while the male gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, are seen as the psychological reaction to nature. Again, these are metaphors. One cannot link all womanhood to nature and all manhood to intellectual ability – that is just absurd.

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Did the current context of concerns over climate change and deforestation influence you in developing Aranyaka in any way?

Amruta: These are timeless concerns. My work was not a knee-jerk response to the news cycle, but reflects a deeper concern with coherence, with holistic living. A quest for the essentials is bound to lead you to thinking about species we co exist with, our patterns of consumption, the ecosystem we are part of. It naturally follows. The disconnect and myopia of modern urban living, though, often makes people forget that they are within Prakriti (Nature), not atop it or separate from it.

Why do you think the narrative about wilderness has changed from dangerous yet enchanting, sustaining and loving, to altogether hostile?

Amruta: Humans fear and mistrust what they cannot control – until they are evolved enough to be self-reflexive, and to overcome the need to dominate. Prakriti (Nature) resists control and does not indulge any anthropocentric claims to specialness, which can make her a daunting ‘adversary’. The Indian subcontinent had an equation with Prakriti that was neither sentimental nor adversarial. Here, nature manifested both as the wild Kali who consumes and kills, and gentle Gauri who nourishes. Both manifestations co-exist and insist on being dealt with!

Amruta Patil And Devdutt Pattanaik
Authors Amruta Patil And Devdutt Pattanaik

Devdutt: It depends on who is telling the story. In Chinese mythology, if you talk to the Confucians, they will look at nature as something that is disorganised and needs to be controlled, while in Taoist traditions, nature is seen as the ultimate source of harmony and we have to align with it.

In Christian thinking, nature is seen as chaos, and the idea of controlling this chaos is a common theme. Therefore, St. George conquering the dragon is actually the conquest of nature. In Greek mythology, nature could create problems, since it was allied with wild creatures like centaurs, nymphs and Pan-like creatures called Satyrs. Therefore, these Pan-like creatures with legs of goats and deer become the Devil in Christian mythology. Thus, there is suspicion about nature, especially in western mythology, that is now imposed around the world.

You have touched on themes like gender politics, our limited understanding of hierarchy in nature and self-centered attitude of humans in this book. Why do you think these themes set in Vedic times will resonate with the readers of today? And did you have to resort to censorship of any sort, due to the setting?

While we are using the Vedic metaphor, we are really dealing with human beings trying to come to terms with differences, diversity and power equations. It will resonate with any society. – Devdutt Pattanaik

Amruta: There were some conscious decisions made – I see them as authorial choices rather than censorship. Like, for example, choosing the metaphor of food and nourishment instead of sex while speaking of hunger, and while turning our gaze on Prakriti. It could be seen as self-censorship at its mildest, a decision not to be distracted by petulant fools when a larger point was being made. People love to talk about food, but have a proven track record of being extremely immature around sexual imagery and sensuality. They do not get the metaphor.

Devdutt: If you read the book ‘Aryanaka’, you will notice that this deals with people with appetite: some have a male form, like Yagyavalkya and Vyasampayana, some have a female form, Katyayani, Maitri, Gargai. While we are using the Vedic metaphor, we are really dealing with human beings trying to come to terms with differences, diversity and power equations. It will resonate with any society.

Every book an author works on leaves them with personal insights. What have been your major takeaways on a personal level, from Aranyaka?

Amruta: The finished work is a bonus, a byproduct that I am happy others can enjoy or benefit from. But the personal insight and journey en route matters more to me than the finished book does. ‘Aranyaka: Book of the Forest’ did not disappoint on this count. One of the (many) things it is about is learning how to really see the Other (aka “darshan”). And working with Devdutt was a continuous exercise in refining the ability to see and to be generous, without effacing oneself. I lived the gamut of human emotions en route – from the great joy of meeting reciprocity, to the crushing pain of knowing that there are some human equations where one can never, ever be Seen in return. On a technical front, I got to refine my artwork, and to write with greater urgency and clarity.

Devdutt: One of my biggest insights is that people often read a book but don’t remember characters, like in this interview, none of the questions deal with the actual characters in ‘Aranyaka’ but refer to, at a very vague level, the forest. This is something I have observed in many writings. People read the book, and either remember some characters vividly, at the cost of other characters, or they just infer a vague understanding of the story, without personalising it. That’s the biggest insight I have seen, we focus too much on the forest, or focus too much on the character, not realising that one can be separate from the other.

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