Old forms, new contexts

There is an uneven, erratic quality to Promised Land, which tells the story of Martin Luther King through prose and Bengali scroll art.

Tara Books' I See the Promised Land, the life of Martin Luther King re-told in musical prose and Patua art in a collaboration between Manu Chitrakar, Arthur Flowers and Guglielmo Rossi, has a Special Mention in the White Ravens Catalogue of Best International Books for Young People, 2011. I See the Promised Land is part of Tara Books' new line ‘Patua Graphics', an enterprise to ‘nudge' traditional Bengali scroll art towards a ‘distinctive form of the modern graphic novel'. Over the years Tara has successfully made this kind of nudge with story-telling, illustrating and page design; indeed such nudges are part of universal attempts to re-work and re-order traditional art and performance modes to suit contemporary aesthetic requirements. Quite often these adaptations have been able to engage with the fluid and sometimes confusing aesthetic of our times to wrest a good deal of success, and, not always by resorting to that old staple of postmodern design: digital media!

New frameworks

The question with such adaptations is always what the new has to do in order to replicate the energy of the old, which came in part with context: the role that the particular art/ performance form played in the culture, including the solid affirmation brought by patronage. Two recent, successful adaptations of this kind come to mind — one is the 9/11 scrolls of Manu Chitrakar himself; the other is the ‘political mujra' from Anurag Kashyap's “Gulaal”. In both, the “appearance” of the old remains, but new images and metaphors, recognizable from daily life, urge the viewer-listener to create a new context and a new framework of appreciation. In I See the Promised Land, the scroll and the oral narrative are both infused with newness by their coming together to tell the same story.

Subtle tension

Using Patua work to re-tell the life of Martin Luther King does make it more universal, and more interesting, since this is a very familiar story, and in this sense, it certainly evokes the mythical quality that Flowers says he attempted to bring to the telling. Flowers' prose and Manu Chitrakar's scroll work accommodate and dialogue with each other and there is a subtle, though un-sustained tension between the graphic and the verbal, creating interesting nuances for the reader-viewer. For example, casting King in the appearance of what seems like a Baul in the passage where he refers to himself as a ‘ drummajor' sparks off thoughts about the nature of human attempts to understand destiny and fate and of the inspired nature of articulation that comes from such understanding.

The scrollwork is often quite stunning, with the colours and placing of characters in their boxes drawing the reader in, but is not able to prevent some looseness and monotony from creeping in. Flower's prose, similarly, swings between a rather clumsy and token nod to the black preachers' tone and cadence and a more intelligent yoking of these elements with strong metaphors to evoke a way of seeing and telling, rather than to replicate surface appearance through the dropping of articles and random rules of grammar.

There is this same erratic quality to the partnership between verbal and graphic element — they don't seem to have a working relationship for the page. The problem is not that the characters don't look African-American but are Indian, dressed in Indian clothes, carrying Indian-language placards and banners etc.

The problem is a lack of energy, a lack of movement in the pages: as you go page-by-page through the story, you're conscious of something missing, and this is the kinesis of a live performance, whether it be Bengali Patua or English performance poetry. The designer hasn't been able to create a parallel for the unfolding, the movement of a live performance: The narrator's voice as it travels, bounces and resounds; the unscrolling of the picture-story. There is a good deal of static, literally and metaphorically; the fonts are static and rather unwieldy and seem to weigh both the graphic and verbal text down to tangle up the much-needed momentum. This momentum does appear individually in the pictures and words, and also in Flowers' performance (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MWLfYDQ7Uq4).

Considering Tara's (www.tarabooks.com) long and interesting history of page design and book production, one remains a little surprised at the unevenness and the rather uncompromising design of I See the Promised Land, but also looks on these as part of the starting trouble associated with a new venture. And looks forward to what else is going to come out of ‘ Patua Graphics'.

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