PRIYA’S SHAKTI: Comics, Justice and the Indian Way, Part I

By Suna Dasi

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The brutal Delhi gang rape and subsequent death of the victim in December 2012 shocked the world. More importantly, it rocked India to its core, with outraged people taking to the streets, demanding better urban safety and an improved judicial system for rape victims everywhere in India. This is an ongoing issue that has yet to see full success, but slow progress is afoot.
It is not easy to nudge a certain mode of cultural thinking that results in women drawing the shortest legal and social straw, into different channels.

I have personal experience with this kind of crime. So have almost all of my female friends and loved ones, one way or another. I have on occasion used the resources of my work in support of organisations who work tirelessly towards making a difference. (On a purely voluntary basis, Art Attack Films has created corporate films for Rape Crisis Centres and local police instruction in Scotland, to further better understanding and approach towards rape victims when they come forward to report their experience. The films were shot with both English and Polish actors; several organisations use them in their work with Romany travellers. One of Edinburgh’s largest universities used the films to encourage debate on the subject among their students.)

In the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape, which I had followed with horror and grief, the Priya’s Shakti campaign gained global traction in 2014. This unusual, multifaceted and passionate initiative to create awareness moved and intrigued me.
As a voracious reader, I know what a great platform for social commentary and political satire comics and graphic novels can be. I know firsthand how solace can be found in them if one feels different, alien and lonely outside the expected cultural norm. Many of Chris Claremont’s X-Men narratives saved my own teenage sanity for this exact reason. Pat Mill’s Charlie’s War and Marshall Law, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta and lesser known comics like 2000AD serials Bratz Bizarre and Finn also instantly spring to mind as examples of either political commentary or biting, in-your-face satire, or both.

Those not into comics would and do not particularly associate them with addressing societal wrongs. While comics are becoming more and more part of the cultural mainstream as a way to create our modern day mythologies, it is still one of the last bastions where one can get away with truly subversive and status quo challenging subject matter, where other fictional genres are beginning to creak under the increasing weight of politically correct sanitation.
It’s less dangerous when it’s drawn, right?

PRIYA'S SHAKTI Cover, art by Dan Goldman. (Image courtesy of www.priyasshakti.com)
PRIYA’S SHAKTI Cover, art by Dan Goldman. (Image courtesy of www.priyasshakti.com)

Priya’s Shakti is a multimedia platform comic about an Indian woman, Priya, who gets raped and brutalised by a gang of men. No one heeds her cries for help and support, those around her blame and shame her. The Goddess Parvati is enraged and saddened by Priya’s predicament. She appears to Priya in her hour of need. Together, “they fight against gender-based sexual violence in India and around the world in this layered storytelling project and augmented reality comic book, supporting the movement against patriarchy, misogyny and indifference through love, creativity and solidarity.” (Quote from www.priyasshakti.com)

The comic is the brainchild of Ram Devineni. As a publisher and founder of Rattapallax films, he was perfectly placed to initiate a narrative that used several media in order to engage the largest possible audience, including people in more illiterate areas of India itself.
To this end they also engaged a group of former Bollywood movie poster painters. They created “murals from the comic book on the walls of Dharavi, Mumbai, New Delhi and eventually all over India. All of the paintings have augmented reality features only seen through the free Blippar App.”(Quote:www.priyasshakti.com)

Priya’s Shakti swept the world in a way the creators had never dared hope: highly publicised, made officially part of UNWomen’s HeforShe campaign, art exhibitions and festival appearances across the globe. Not only that, but comic readers embraced Priya, praising the narrative and the artwork for their effectiveness. Celebrities and politicians around the world were seen to acknowledge the project.

Actress Mindy Kaling (right) with Priya's Shakti voice actress Shubhra Prakash. (Image ©Shubhra Prakash. Follow her @Durkhaima)
Actress Mindy Kaling (right) with Priya’s Shakti voice actress Shubhra Prakash. (Image ©Shubhra Prakash. Follow her @Durkhaima)

Last year, Ram Devineni kindly agreed to answer some questions for the SFFN about bringing Priya to life.

SD: Firstly, where were you when you heard about the Delhi gang rape?

RD: I was in Delhi when the horrible gang rape happened on the bus in 2012, and was involved in the protest that soon followed. Like many people, I was horrified by what had happened and angered by the indifference exhibited by government authorities at every level. There was an enormous outcry in particular from young adults and teenagers — both women and men. At one of the protests, my colleague and I spoke to a Delhi police officer and asked him for his opinion on what had happened on the bus. Basically the officer’s response was that “no good girl walks home at night.” Implying that she probably deserved it, or at least provoked the attack. I knew then that the problem of sexual violence in India was not a legal issue; rather it was a cultural problem. A cultural shift had to happen; especially views towards the role of women in modern society. Deep-rooted patriarchal views needed to be challenged.

Priya is targeted in the marketplace. (Image courtesy of www.priyasshakti.com)
Priya is targeted in the marketplace. (Image courtesy of www.priyasshakti.com)

What happed to “Braveheart” (Nirbhaya, the name given to the victim by the people after she died. Ed.) opened my eyes and opened many people’s eyes. Talking with several rape survivors, I realized how difficult it was for them to seek justice and how much their lives were constantly under threat after they reported the crime. Their family, local community, and even the police discouraged them from pursuing criminal action against their attackers. The burden of shame was placed on the victim and not the perpetrators. This created a level of impunity among men to commit more rapes.

Priya's family reject her when she seeks their help and support. (Image courtesy of www.priyasshakti.com)
Priya’s family reject her when she seeks their help and support. (Image courtesy of www.priyasshakti.com)

SD: A comic may not seem a logical first choice to some: how did these events culminate in your specific expression of raising awareness?

RD: I selected the comic book format because I grew up reading Amar Chitra Katha comic books and was hugely influenced by them. I think millions of children have read the series, and they’ve entered the collective consciousness of contemporary Indian culture. Often, I first learned about Hindu mythology through their comic book series. Also, comics are an important part of our culture, and hugely popular with teenagers and young adults. Now, comic books have entered the commerical mainstream. Every summer, Hollywood releases huge budget blockbuster films based on comic book characters to enormous box office returns. Comic books characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman have become modern mythological icons, and other comic book stories such as Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” address important historical events. We are using existing constructs that are familiar to everyone in India, but presenting them in a fresh and original way.

On a parallel journey of understanding, I began researching Hindu mythology and discovered the many rich stories involving regular people and the gods. Often a favorite disciple would call on the gods for help during dire situations. So, I began formulating a new mythological tale where a mortal woman and rape survivor would seek help from the Goddess Parvati — only after she had nowhere else to turn. Although Lord Shiva and other gods get involved, eventually it is up to her to challenge people’s perceptions. I wanted to create a new Indian “superhero” – Priya, who is a rape survivor and through the power of persuasion she is able to motivate people to change.

SD: What has the response in India itself been like so far? The project gained huge international media attention; what is the impact of the comic in India?

RD: The comic book went viral immediately, which we never expected. It is still early in the release, so I have not experienced any negative backlash. Overall, the comic book and entire project was received really well worldwide and in India. The comic book started a national debate in India about patriarchal views and how they are affecting rape survivors’ pursuit of justice. We released the comic book at the Mumbai Film and Comic Convention in December 2014 and many people came to our booth saying they read about it in the news or were told by their friends on social media.
Apne Aap is our main partner and has lots of experience dealing with gender-based violence in India for a long time. Our primary goal is to get the comic book into schools, which Apne Aap is ideally placed to handle. Also, they will help us paint murals all over India and the world of “Priya on the Tiger.”

Mural in progress in Mumbai. (Image: http://imaginingequality.imow.org/content/priyas-shakti)
Mural in progress in Mumbai. (Image: http://imaginingequality.imow.org/content/priyas-shakti)

Priya’s Creators

SD: How did you involve your fellow collaborators? How did Lina Srivastava come on board?

RD: Although, I am the creator of this project; I really consider this a team effort. Everyone played a valuable part in the creation of the comic book and project. I met Dan Goldman at a StoryCode Meet-up in New York City, and literarily hit it off on the spot. I think he signed on the next day. Dan is a remarkable artist and philosopher – he has brought a new perspective and look to the Hindu gods. His design is based on deep respect and affection for Hindu mythology, and the power of the image. Each page is a stand-alone painting that can be mounted in a gallery. Lina has vast experience creating social impact strategies for documentary films and art projects. She has been instrumental in developing partnerships with major NGOs. She recently setup a partnership between the project and Apne Aap Women Worldwide – one of India’s leading NGOs supporting at-risk girls and women by ensuring them access to their rights, and to deter the purchase of sex through policy and social change. (Read Lina Srivastava’s guest article ‘An Interactive Fight Against Gender-Based Violence’ in the Huffington Post

(Image courtesy of www.priyasshakti.com)
(Image courtesy of www.priyasshakti.com)

SD: What about the writing process: you co-wrote with poet Vikas K. Menon. Did you come to him with the story formed in your mind? How did you pour the story into comic panels in which everything has to be conveyed to the utmost with minimal wording?

RD: Vikas and I worked closely on the comic book story before Dan created the artwork. We scripted the comic book before we gave it to Dan, but it went through several revisions as Dan was working on it. For Vikas K. Menon and I, this is our first comic book, so we had to reduce a lot of language and allow the images to tell more of the story. Also, Joan Hilty played a big part in helping to edit it.

SD: Besides continuing the comic, do you have any other plans of expanding the world of Priya’s Shakti? You have a film background, is there hope for a movie adaptation of the comic? If so, is there a role for actress and activist Shubhra Prakash, who did the audio narration?

RD: We will work on the next chapter this summer 2015. Our goal is to expand Priya’s universe and develop her as a character. Also, add an arch-villain. The stories will continue to focus on gender-violence and gender equality.
I am working on a new re-mix film using dozens of “god epic” films from the 1970s as source material. The original popular Bollywood-style films were meant as both entertainment & morality tales for a wide Indian audience. The new re-mix film follows closely the storyline of the comic dealing with sexual violence and presents a new construct and interpretation for older Indian and diaspora audiences who grew-up watching these films. The film was inspired by DJ Spooky’s remixing of D.W. Griffiths’ “Birth of a Nation,” which compelled audiences to examine race in America. Shubhra is doing the voice over.

Screenshot of "Parvati Saves the World", now available on the Rattapallax Vimeo channel.
Screenshot of “Parvati Saves the World”, now available on the Rattapallax Vimeo channel.

SD: Please tell the SFFN readers how to get involved through Blippar: what is it and what made you realise it was a good tool for Priya’s Shakti? The Augmented Reality aspect makes the project incredibly sci-fi.

RD: Augmented reality is a major part of our comic book, and by scanning the comic book with the popular augmented reality APP – Blippar, you can view animation, real-life stories, and other interactive elements pop-out of the pages.
On a technological level, we believe the use of augmented reality will have a significant impact on readers in India who are not as familiar with this approach. There is a huge “WOW” factor when readers first experience augmented reality. Our comic book will be one of the first publications to use augmented reality in India, and can help define the new frontiers of integrating books, exhibitions, and public art with augmented reality. Blippar is our augmented reality partner and recently opened offices in India. They hope to make augmented reality as popular as Facebook, and believe it can quickly take hold in India – which has a high concentration of users with smart devices.

A critical element of the Blippar APP and also our social media campaign is to allow readers to put themselves into the comic book. You can take a photo of yourselves with the iconic image of Priya sitting on her tiger. Then post it on your favorite social media sites or email it to your friends. We want people to tell their friends: “I stand with Priya” and in return support women’s equality and the struggles of rape survivors to seek justice. Of course Priya has a double meaning – the name also means beloved, so you are also “standing with love.”

SD: Like so!

© Steampunk India.
© Steampunk India.

SD: Priya’s Shakti was recently named a Champion for Gender Equality by UN Women and made an official part of the HeforShe campaign. Congratulations! You must be extremely proud of the enormous response the comic has received. Did you expect it and what would you still like to achieve?

RD: We were surprised by the response and the how people have taken to the character and story. This has escalated our goals to get the comic book into schools by September.
Apne Aap is our main partner and has lots of experience dealing with gender-based violence in India for a long time.

SD: Have you encountered any opposition or actual attempts at sabotage to do with your activism?
I could imagine a certain amount in India itself… If so, what do you do? Do you have a strategy for facing threats/negative press/trolls?

RD: Overall we have not faced any opposition or anyone trying to sabotage the effort. It’s been positive and easy so far. People have been critical and mostly on the fact we did not go further with the story. Of course, there will be new challenges when we try to get the comic book into schools. No trolls – just hobbits.

SD: What are you proud of in regards to the effects the comic has had so far?

RD: I think the comic book shifted the debate to the role of society in supporting rape survivors, so they can come forward and pursue justice. This was not being discussed in India and elsewhere. I think this is at the heart of the problem.

DOWNLOAD THE COMIC FOR FREE http://www.priyashakti.com/comic/

Come back next week, on Monday 5th October at 7PM, to read the interview with comic artist Dan Goldman. Dan will discuss his involvement in Priya’s Shakti and the future of the project.


Suna Dasi
Suna Dasi

Suna Dasi is a passionate geek with a pen. Her profession as a singer has taken her all over the world. She currently records and performs with Texan artist Erin Bennett. Being a woman in the creative industries led her to co-found female film and music production company Art Attack Films/Attack Agency. Two of her short stories are due to appear in anthologies in 2016.

www.steampunkindia.com                       www.twitter.com/SteampunkIndia                       www.erinbennettmusic.com                                    www.artattackfilms.com