Hindu mythology is big these days; a source of inspiration to graphic artists, animated movies, and film plots. Virgin Comics (now Liquid Comics) made the biggest splash with their Ramayana 3393, Devi, and Sadhu series, bringing a touch of Eastern exotic to manga-style action and adventure.
Graphic designer Umesh Shukla turns this model upside down. His Pushpuck comic series aims to provide that touch of Western style and professionalism to readers of Indian mythology in India.
Shukla, a graduate from NID, moved into computer graphics after a brief stint in advertising. After earning his chops in Singapore and Sydney, Shukla moved to the United States, where he spent a grueling stint working for James Cameron’s Titanic. “That was an incredibly difficult, but amazing experience,” he recalls. “Everything afterwards was a bit of a letdown!” He moved to Disney and became a visual supervisor for a wildlife film which was later canned due to story issues. Inspired by the experience, and wanting to showcase a novel approach to animation, he started Auryn, a company specializing in bringing print graphics like watercolor and other art to life in the most authentic way possible.
The idea for Pushpuck came about during trips to India, when he realized that animation was at a turning point in the media environment there. “I don’t think there really is a kids segment as such in Indian animation,” he says. “Roadside Romeo was touted as a kids’ film, but it was not something kids in India could relate to. Just having a dog as the central character, when we know what connotations calling someone a ‘dog’ has, should tell you something about the disconnect with its audience.”
However, with the success of the animated movie Hanuman, artists and film producers had found a potential market and soon a bunch of other look-alikes like Ganesha and Krishna started flooding the market. “The quality has been quite average so far, “ says Shukla, “but all the attempts have been reasonably successful so far.” This led him to believe there was truly a market for good quality children’s animation in the country.
The uniqueness of the Pushpuck comic series is that Shukla does not retell popular stories. Instead, he uses them as a launching pad for child characters he creates, who live in those times and whose lives intersect with the famous heroes of Hindu mythology. It is a daring attempt, but the reverential tone and sweet characters give the comics a sanctity of their own. In Anant, the title character meets Krishna during the episode of Mount Gowardhan. In Tarak, a young boy joins the celebrations following Rama’s return from Lanka.
The comics are also steeped in the principles and traditions of Indian culture, a culture that is perhaps under siege as Indian metropolises rapidly westernize. A voracious reader of Hindu scriptures like the Puranas and the Upanishads, Shukla is keen to preserve and disseminate the best of ancient teachings. There are subtle messages to respect elders, care for the land, while not sacrificing the adventure that draws kids to the books.
The comics are currently available only in digital form, though a transition to print seems like a breeze to accomplish, since the comics follow the format of an e-book. While the drawings are done by non-Indian artists, Shukla maintains close supervision to get the details right. “The biggest challenges are with the clothing,” laughs Shukla. “It’s hard for non-Indians to figure out the drape of a sari or a dhoti.” He also does the final colorizations himself. “People outside Indian cannot imagine the vibrant color combinations that are possible; some are unique to India.”
Check out the comics at http://pushpuck.com. The comics need to be enlarged slightly to be read, which make the exercise unnecessarily cumbersome, but Shukla is working on a fix. For now, it is a slight price to pay for the novel experience of seeing new mythology being created; indeed, in tone and in spirit, that is exactly what’s happening. The series is titled “Forgotten tales,” and with very little effort, one could imagine these tender stories being discovered by future generations as additions to the anthologies. One critic even calls Shukla a modern-day Valmiki. “I get so many letters thanking me for keeping our culture alive,” says Shukla. “Let’s hope they keep liking what I do.”