Monday, January 11, 2016

Shakti

Priya’s Shakti, India’s first sensitized issue-centric comic followed closely at the heels of the 2012 gang-rape incident in New Delhi. A culture of insensitivity and character assassination was exposed like a can of worms, as the callous attitude of people in asserting that the “woman asks for it” if “she dresses a certain way” or “stays out late” seemed to distract from the underlying patriarchy that augments the occurrence of gender-based violence. Priya’s Shakti, was brought forth to use the medium of comics to help change attitudes. Here’s an interview with the team behind Priya’s Shakti.

What inspired Priya's Shakti? What was the genesis of it?
Ram Devineni: I was in Delhi when the horrible gang rape happened on the bus in 2012, and was involved the protests 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.
For about a year, I traveled around India and Southeast Asia learning from poets, philosophers, activists, and sociologists working for NGOs focused on gender-based violence. 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.
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.
Ram Devineni 
How did the conceptualization go? Was there an automatic consensus on Priya, and the way the storyline would go?
Ram Devineni: I originally wanted to do a documentary about what happened on the bus and the public reaction. After interviewing many people, I felt I could not tell a “narrative” story. I am not a journalist, so my interesting is telling narrative nonfiction stories. Also, the issue was too emotional at that time, and felt if a documentary were to be made, it would have to happen much later. Originally, the focus was the Goddesses Parvati, but through the process of writing it with Vikas, it become clear the shift should be on Priya. We needed to ground the problem and solution in a human being and rape survivor.
How did your team come about? Did you guys have a prior inclination towards cause-driven art?
We are all active in various cause driven art projects, and all of us are writer, poets or filmmakers.  But, this is the first time we all worked together. I met Dan Goldman for the first time at a StoryCode Meetup in New York City. For both of us it was our first Meetup we attended and he was walking out and I was walking in, and we bumped into each other – literally it was fate.

You did the art with such an authentic Indian touch. What went into it? What were your challenges, if any?
Dan Goldman (who did the art): "I spent a lot of time looking at Indian motifs in comics, films, ancient and modern art while the rest of the team was discussing the storyline for Priya’s Shakti. In a way, I was preparing the stew before adding the vegetables: by the time the script was ready to draw, I knew what the look and feel of the comic would be and it was just a matter of telling the story in that style. The look I was working towards was not a radical reinvention, but a slick spin on the classic Amar Chitra Katha designs, done with a colorful palette appeals to young people whose minds are blown by tablets and 3D films. It was important for me to transport the reader up to the gods in a manner simultaneously grounded and fantastical."

Dan Goldman at work
 There's a huge chance to lapse into "stereotyping" or "mansplaining" or even "feminism that depicts hatred for men". And then there's this whole issue of caricaturizing characters. Priya's Shakti did none of it - it hit home hard and created a role model in print. How did you achieve that? What were your thoughts while doing this?
Vikas (who co-wrote): They key issue from the beginning was keeping the focus on Priya as a human being, not a superhero.  We consulted with Shikha Bhatnagar and social impact strategist Lina Srivastava and other scholars who have experience in working against gender-based violence in India; Ram also conducted interviews with survivors.  What became clear was that ultimately what was needed was for an authentic, human woman transforming the world.  While she is divinely inspired, Priya, like all of us, has no supernormal powers.  By speaking up and breaking the cycle of silence and shame, change begins.  She inspires others.  We bandied about numerous endings, and early scenarios where she had a “superpower” but ultimately, what won out was valorizing all the brave women who have spoken truth to power.

What were some of your challenges as a team? How did you overcome it?
Overall, the creation of Priya’s Shakti was a team effort. Everyone played an important part in the story, characters, images, and social impact. I guess the biggest challenge for the men working on the project is to make sure Priya was genuine and honest. So, having Lina, Shikha and Shubhra Prakash involved was very important. Also, interviewing gang rape survivors and working with our NGO partner Apne Aap helped make what we were doing authentic and real. All of us were deeply moved by their accounts and knew we had to create an honest story.

What are your future plans for Priya's Shakti? How has the response been so far?
We had over 500,000 downloads of the comic book worldwide and in India. The comic book is free to everyone. We also have printed comics, who we distribute through our NGO partners and reaches rural and communities who do not have access to technology.  Apne Aap has been distributing the comic from Delhi to Bihar and many other places in India. Also, this is the first of a series and we are working on the next chapter about acid attacks. The story is being written by Paromita Vohra, an Indian writer and feminist scholar living in Mumbai.




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