Arts, Culture & Media

Disney animator tackles Indian epic 'Ramayana' in new book

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Cover of "Ramayana: Divine Loophole"

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Animator Sanjay Patel, an artist at Pixar Studios, has worked on "The Simpsons," "A Bugs Life" and "The Incredibles."

He's put out an illustrated book called "Ramayana: Divine Loophole," which brings a modern look to an ancient Hindu story. With more than 100 stunning illustrations, the book tells a tale filled with powerful deities, love-struck monsters and a flying monkey god.

The original "Ramayana" is one of the great epics of Hindu literature. It's more than 2,500 years old and very long -- 24,000 verses in Sanskrit. 

Patel summarizes the saga this way: "At one point evil gets unchecked power in the form of a ten-headed demon named Ravanna. And because his power is unchecked, Vishnu, this great Hindu god, creates an avatar named Rama on earth. This avatar is exiled from his kingdom and sent to the jungle for about 13 years, at which point his wife, Sita, gets kidnapped by Ravanna, the ten-headed demon, which sends Rama on a quest to find her and destroy Ravanna."

Patel, who grew up in California, says images from Hindu mythology, like a flying monkey named Hanuman, were like part of the wallpaper in his home.

"Those images were burned in my mind," he says, "the framed illustrations and devotional photos from my parents."

As an adult, he wanted to see them in a more modern light. "And so I really looked at the mythology, I had to really understand the characters and stories. Once I began to understand what the characters were symbolizing, it was really easy then to redesign the imagery to make it fitting for my world and my contemporary lifestyle."

Patel's book is full of lavish, colorful and dynamic illustrations, at times reflective of some of the explosive, dramatic artwork from Disney. Not surprising, since he learned his craft at Cal Arts in southern California, a school founded by Walt Disney in the 1950s to train animators.

"So I'm very much steeped in the Disney tradition, and I feel like the artwork [in the book] was very much informed by mid-century design, animation design, and I paired that with other modernists that I admired. Then I really looked at the Hindu imagery that was all around me as I grew up, and somehow I threw it all in the soup and I think what came out was this bizarre, contemporary, modern and ancient looking book called 'Ramayana.'"

The Animator says he has two favorite illustrations in the book. One is of Hanaman, the monkey god, setting fire to Ravanna's demon kingdom with his tail. The other involves Rama meeting the monkey and bear tribes.

"I was so excited because it was just such a neat idea that this mortal has to work with these divine animals to restore harmony in his world. I just thought that was such a beautiful metaphor for things that are missing in our modern day life, the sort of disconnect from nature."

"Ramayana" is Patel's second book with Hindu themes. His first is entitled "The Little Book of Hindu Deities." He admits incorporating religious Indian themes and icons into the books was a way for him to balance his Indian and American identities.

"It wasn't something that I even was aiming toward, this idea of using my art as a tool to sort of explore my identity. But as I've done more and more of this artwork, I've realized that it's actually very personal to me and yet completely in the realm of what I do professionally. So it's been really exciting to have something that's personal and at the same time can be very relatable to both Indians Americans and animation students, and just people in general who can appreciate the graphics of the stories."

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More "The World."

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