When Pixar animator Sanjay Patel was a child, his house was filled with images of mysterious deities—an eight-armed goddess, an elephant-headed god, and a divine couple called Rama and Sita. But it was only years later, after working on films like A Bug's Life and The Incredibles, that he became intrigued by the stories that had surrounded him as a little boy.
Patel's new book, Ramayana: Divine Loophole, is a picture-book version of an ancient Indian epic. The story has all the elements of a classic fairytale: a noble hero, a wicked stepmother, a beautiful princess in distress, and a host of friendly animals who save the day. But there's a twist. Rama is an avatar, the seventh incarnation of Vishnu. His purpose on earth is to slay a ten-headed demon who can't be destroyed by any of the gods—only by a god in the form of a man.
In Patel's illustrations, the characters of The Ramayana are doe-eyed and childlike. He creates his images on the computer, building them out of restrained, meticulous shapes and lines. But he holds nothing back when it comes to color. On one page, a demon shakes his trident against a background of hot pink; on the next, a friendly monkey flies through a lemon-yellow sky. The effect is as ancient as it is modern—an homage to a culture where colors are bold, stories are fantastical, and divine beings are constantly taking new forms.
When you sat down to illustrate The Ramayana, were you influenced by what you learned when you were storyboarding movies like A Bug's Life or Monsters, Inc.?
Of course. In particular, I was influenced by something that happened when I was working with Brad Bird on The Incredibles. I was storyboarding a scene where the family is finally reunited in the jungle after being separated. It's a really neat moment because throughout the movie, they never all get to use their superpowers together as a family, and it's something you're just dying to see. Brad Bird told me, "Play around and see what kinds of visual ideas you can come up with."
And so I did—it turned into this long, sprawling thing. So Brad looked at all the material I presented him, and he sat me down and said, "Sanjay, these are great ideas. But the problem is that if we do all of them, we slow down the movie to give the audience a big meal. What I'm trying to do is to make each one of these scenes feel like an appetizer. We need to make this feel light and leave the audience wanting more."
That's the way I approached telling this immense epic, probably one of the longest stories put to page. I took it as my job to create a small appetizer in each moment: he meets the monkey king, he confronts the demon. If you research it, there's so much depth in each of these moments. But in each case, I had to choose one thing I could give to the audience. The hardest part was paring it down without losing the essence.
And since this book isn't an animation, each image has to convey so much. For instance, there's the moment when Rama's stepmother sends him into exile. There's so much going on in that picture: the queen's finger pointing and the bracelets on her arms and the soldiers holding their spears and Rama bowing at her feet.
Those are all things I was definitely trying to convey. I start out with a title—the title, in that case, was "Exile." From there, I think of a storytelling image. I don't think of multiple images—I just think about one iconic image. When you think about Titanic, for instance, you think of the two of them on the bow of the ship. There's one image so potent that it burns into your memory.
Once I think of that image, I try to think the way we think when we're creating an animated sequence—we ask ourselves, "If the sound was turned off in that scene, would the audience still get what we're trying to convey?" Pictures are the fastest way to convey information. They're way faster than words. So if someone was just flipping through my book in a cursory way, I wanted them to be able to say, "Things are good now, things are not so good now, the colors are bright, the colors are stripped down and he's just using blues." And if they found that engaging, they might want read my little paragraph. I thought that in that way, maybe I could get the audience interested in this ancient story.
All of those bright colors you mentioned feel quintessentially Indian to me. Everything in India is bold. The sweet foods are really sweet and the spicy foods are really spicy and the facial expressions in the movies and dances are really expressive.
Maybe that's something that's been in my psyche. Maybe I was drawn to this idea of cartoon and caricature because it makes you reduce some things and exaggerate others. Just growing up and seeing that imagery, so full of color and spectacle, I must have absorbed it into my aesthetic. I really did want the color in this book to be as punchy as possible. The story is such a grand, over-the-top epic—I think even Tolkien was a fan of these mythologies and used them as inspiration for Lord of the Rings.
Did you look at older Indian art when you were deciding how to represent characters like Rama and Sita?
Oh, yeah! I hunted high and low for miniatures, paintings, sculptures—I really wanted to get to the heart of the way Indians would tell the story. I wanted to honor what was done centuries ago. People have been doing this forever. It's so legit!
I realized after doing some research that centuries and centuries ago, The Ramayana wasn't actually illustrated. It was sung and performed, and the actors would bring it to life with masks and costumes. Then later, there were these amazing sculptures. So I was looking at that for sure. But artists only really depicted certain episodes in the Ramayana. I wanted to show all those other scenes, like the part where they meet Jambavan the bear! If I were a kid, I'd want to see cool icons and badass graphics.
That's what's so great about this story. If you want to get into the dogma you can. But on a raw level, these stories are amazing conduits for really deep philosophy. I think that's uniquely Indian in many ways. It's this profound stuff but told through stories that common people can completely engage with—avatars and man-gods.
Rama and Sita do seem pretty unique. Jesus is a little bit like an avatar, but there's something different about a couple that is both human and divine. It's easy to identify with Rama and Sita even as you're worshipping them.
Totally. I really appreciate that in the Hindu tradition, there's reverence for both the masculine and the feminine. The masculine can't do anything until the feminine comes along and activates him. Shiva is just a lone ascetic—it takes Parvati to activate him. There's also this cool myth about how all these masculine gods can't kick this demon's butt, so they all come together and create this warrior goddess called Durga. I want chicks to kick ass all over the place!
Have you always been fascinated by these stories?
I grew up in a house where there was no explanation—there was just practice. It was like eating for me: "Okay, I've got to eat. I've got to sit down and pray and stare at these wild illustrations of Hindu gods." My parents completely subscribe to these stories as philosophy, of course, but it's also very much a religion to them, and they do see these beings as gods. I would ask my father, "Dad, do you really think there's a blue guy out there?" I couldn't really narrow him down on that. But he seems to believe it.
So the Ramayana was always something my parents would study and worship, but it had no meaning to me until I read the story. Then I was like, "Wow, the characters are so cool. The plot is so cool. What they symbolize is so cool. This totally needs to be told!" I wanted to use all the skills and the knowledge I'd gained at Pixar to put these ancient stories in a package that's relatable and entertaining. If I have children, I want them to know something about their cultural mythology in a way that's fresh and dynamic.
Tell me about your method for creating the images. You drew each picture by hand and then scanned it into the computer and drew it all over again.
You know, I love hand drawing more than anything on the planet. It's an incredibly tactile experience—the lead touching the surface and the air going up through the paper. It's really soothing for me, and I can just lose myself. That really hasn't changed since I was a little boy. But then there's this disconnected medium of the computer and the mouse and these mathematical points in space—because that's what a vector point is, just a coordinate. It's a strange, disassociated way of working.
The neat thing about starting out with drawings is that I can go into muscle memory and really feel my way through it. And then I take the best of that no-brain feeling into the computer, where it becomes a calculated, conscious process of making iconic and graphic shapes. There's a humanness to the drawing that gets messy and textury. But when it gets to the computer, there's this artificial freshness and cleanness to it.
I guess it really is very modern. Artisans have recreated the Ramayana in different media—they've painted it, they've sculpted it, they've performed it. But not many people have taken a modern approach to it where it's been built out of vector shapes that are really sort of artificial.
In your illustrations, just like in the ancient depictions, Rama is blue. Why is that? Does it have something to do with infinity taking a human form—the endlessness of the ocean or the sky becoming all bound up in one person?
I wondered about that for a long time. It turns out that blue is the color associated with the god Vishnu. And Visnhu has 10 avatars. Rama was the seventh avatar of Vishnu. Krishna is the eighth avatar, and he's blue as well. So it's a way of signaling that they're both really different forms of the same god.
But there's something neat about Rama and Krishna coming after one another. Rama is this great example of dharma—the sort of sacred duty that everybody has. A bee has a sacred duty to fly around and pollinate. A fish has a certain sacred duty as well. I imagine that every being on this planet has a sacred duty. If that duty is ignored, things fall apart quickly. And so Rama has this duty—he's a king and a slayer of injustice, which is something Ravana symbolizes.
My grandmother explained it to me one day in this really pretty way. She said, "Sanjay, the beauty is that Rama was Vishnu's seventh avatar. But in his eighth avatar, he comes back as Krishna and wins all this devotion by breaking all the rules, by not doing anything that Rama did—by being a rascal, being as rambunctious and playful as possible."
I like it that both messages are relevant—that at times we need to do our duty and be responsible, and at other times we need to be playful and live life to its fullest. So I want to say that as loudly as possible: Follow the rules and then break them as well.