Drawing the Ramayana

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Animator Sanjay Patel worked on The Simpsons, A Bugs Life and The Incredibles. As a child, his home was filled with Hindu icons and stories ? including one Hindu tale filled with powerful deities, love-struck monsters and a flying monkey god. His new book, Ramayana: Divine Loophole, brings a modern look to this ancient Hindu story. Marco Werman speaks with Sanjay Patel.

MARCO WERMAN: The Ramayana is one of the great epics of Hindu literature. The story is more than 2,500 years old and its long, 24,000 verses in Sanskrit. Artist Sanjay Patel summarizes the saga this way.

SANJAY PATEL: At one point evil get 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 and 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 and sends Rama on a quest to find her and destroy Ravanna.

WERMAN: Sanjay Patel is an artist at Pixar Studios. He's worked on animated films like Monster, Inc. and on TV's the Simpsons, but in his spare time he's put together a book that brings the Ramayana to life with more than 100 stunning illustrations. Sanjay Patel grew up in California and he says image from Hindu mythology, like a flying monkey named Hanuman were like part of the wallpaper when he was a kid.

PATEL: There was a lot of vivid Hindu ichnography all around the house, but since you grew up with it, it felt actually very normal in a way that you just never really paid any attention to it actually. You know, every morning my father would conduct a puja or artee which was a sort of a prayer ceremony where he would sing and chant the deities names and I would sing the songs, but I wouldn't really understand what the songs meant, but there would be all these things to look at which was the idols of the gods or the illustrations of the gods and you know it's something that I didn't really question but it sort of burned a big impression in my mind.

WERMAN: So with your book, "Ramayana Divine Loophole" are you kind of taking all of these myths and legends from that wallpaper and giving them greater spirituality?

PATEL: I think what I did was, those images were burned in my mind, the framed illustrations and devotional photos from my parents. And then I think what I wanted to do was to see them in a light that was much more exciting and modern and contemporary. And so I really looked at the mythology, I had to really understand that characters and stories and 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.

WERMAN: Let's talk about the illustrations. This book is full of lavish, colorful, really fun illustrations and I'm reminded at times of some of the explosive dramatic artwork from Disney like in the film Snow White when the evil stepmother appears. It's just this explosion. Should I not be surprised by that since you've been working at Pixar for 13 years?

PATEL: No, it's no surprise. I am very much cut from the Disney cloth. I went to a school called Cal Arts which is in southern California. It was actually a school set up by Walt Disney in the '50's to train his animators and so I'm very much steeped in the Disney tradition and I feel like the artwork was very much informed by mid-century design, animation design and I paired that with other modernists that I admired and then I really looked at 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.

WERMAN: Do you have a favorite illustration from Ramayana?

PATEL: I have two actually. I really love the illustration of where Hanaman goes to Lunta, that's where Ravanna the ten-headed demon lives. The demon actually tries to set Hanaman's tail on fire and the demon doesn't know that Hanaman has magical powers and so the monkey extends his tail and ends up setting fire to the entire kingdom. It's just such a vivid image of all these demons in panic and this one little monkey somehow upsets all the demons and I just thought it was such a vivid, iconic image and I really was excited to illustrate it.

WERMAN: You said that there were two illustrations that you really liked. What was the other illustration?

PATEL: You know I was really excited to illustrate when Rama first meets the monkeys and bears. The monkey tribe that Hanaman comes from and the bear tribe, 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 and it was just so exciting as a visual artist to have this blue warrior meet these divine monkeys and bears, it just was really, really, really fun to illustrate and I couldn't wait to tackle him.

WERMAN: This is a second book you've done Sanjay, on Hindu themes. The first book was "The Little Book of Hindu Deities". How has taking these religious themes into art from India allowed you to balance your Indian and American identities?

PATEL: That's a great question. So 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 and so it's been really exciting to have something that's personal and at the same time can be very relatable to both Indian Americans, and animation students and just people in general who can appreciate the graphics of the stories.

WERMAN: Its kind of mid-century modern as you say, meets Hinduism. The book is "Ramayana Divine Loophole". Sanjay Patel, we've got illustrations from your book on our website, the world dot org. Very nice to speak with you Sanjay.

PATEL: Thank you so much Marco.