A quick glance at the animation content produced within the mainstream Indian animation industry[i] in the past two decades shows significant use of Hindu mythological characters and themes[ii]. That is if we consider as a starting point the first major commercial animated feature Pandavas: The Five Warriors (2000), which was completely conceived and produced within India. This is the story of the five Pandava brothers from one of the major epics of India, the Mahabharata. Studies of live-action Indian cinema, television, and print media that reference Hindu mythology have shown a relation to the practices of Hinduism[iii] in the way they are produced and received by audiences. This essay attempts to situate animation within a historic and contemporary context of mythological media content being produced and consumed in India. The intent is to offer an overview of the continuities in Indian mythological media and locate animated works in the “extratextual religious practices” that accompany the circulation of such media in India (Vardhan 119). The essay introduces areas for future research, foregrounding the need to understand culturally situated audiences in the complex ecosystem of media consumption today. It does this by drawing on scholarly articles, newspaper and online news articles, textual analysis, fieldwork and interviews from an ethnographic study, and comments of viewers on online viewing platforms.
My ethnographic study of the sacred geographies of a particular locality in the city of Bengaluru[iv] showed that in many households, animated content referencing Hindu mythology played a role in the ways that sacredness is constructed and maintained to child audiences. In India, myths are living[v] through everyday practice (see Ashwath). The key trait of the “living” context is that the characters featured in mythological media texts are also actively worshiped as deities in several forms in contemporary religious practices. Socio-anthropological studies about the reception of Indian mythological images in prints, as well as in comics, film, and television have looked at situated modes of reception deeply embedded within the religious, class, caste, gender identities, and socio-economic and political realities of the devotee and spectator (Das; Mankekar 1999; Fuller; Ram; Bhrugubanda; Pinney 2020). There are some studies about the reception of mythological animation looking at it in the context of migration and the diaspora (see Juluri; Swamy and Nugteren). Although the contexts of the people addressed in these studies are different from mine, I draw comparisons based on a set of commonalities in the receiving of religious images, represented by the three indigenous notions of darshan, bhaav, and bhakti.
The essay has five sections. In section one, I consider mythological animation in relation to the genre of the mythological film. Section two addresses a significant aspect of this genre: its relation to religion. Section three elaborates on this relationship by considering animation reception within a culture of practices related to the sacred, in the lives of people of a particular locality in Bengaluru. In section four, I address the inevitable links between referencing Hindu mythology and the politicized aspects of Hinduism, before closing with some concluding remarks.
The Animated Mythological
Historically, mythological characters and stories have helped in introducing and/or popularizing new forms of image and media technologies in India, like printing, cinema, comics, and television. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the pictorial printing process of the chromolithograph gained immense popularity by depicting images of deities and mythological scenes[vi]. India’s first live-action film Raja Harishchandra (1913) was based on a mythological story and the filmmaker D. G. Phalke created several more films with such stories, making the “mythological” the founding genre of Indian cinema. Owing to the Indian people’s familiarity with the content and a continuation of form from the already popular printed images and theatre traditions, mythology became a clear choice to ensure the success of the new medium of cinema. It was also seen as a safe bet by Anant Pai, who launched the vastly popular Amar Chitra Katha comics in 1960, marketing it as educational entertainment that taught “Indian culture” to children of middle-class Indians (Madan 2020 164). Doordarshan, India’s state-run television network, which became a national broadcaster in 1982, reached unprecedented popularity with the telecast of the televised epics Ramayan (1987) and Mahabharat (1988). Ramayan’s audience was exponentially larger than the audience for any previously telecast content and India saw a steep rise in the sale of television sets during this time (Lutgendorf 1995 224). With this kind of background in media culture, it is not surprising that mythology was seen as the right content to launch and ensure the success of animation in India.
In the non-comprehensive list of 130 ‘Hindu-mythological’ films on IMDb, the animated films Return of Hanuman (2007) and Arjun the Warrior Prince (2012) appear at no 3 and 7 rated according to popularity[vii]. Rachel Dwyer (2006a) defines the mythological as “one which depicts tales of gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines mostly from the large repository of Hindu myths…found in the Sanskrit Puranas, and the Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana”[viii] (15). She also talks about the related genre of the “devotional,” which tells hagiographical stories of spiritual devotees (bhaktas and sants) from India’s rich premodern bhakti traditions (63). I will return to bhakti later, but first, going by Dwyer’s definition of the “mythological,” animation films that reference Hindu myths are clearly part of the “mythological” genre. These films are about deities and god heroes and their content mainly comes from the epics and Puranas. Madan (2020) refers to them as “mythological animation films” recognizing the mythological of Indian cinema as their antecedent. Lent (2009) uses the term “mytho-cartoons” for this breed of animated myths. Bhrugubanda (2018) notes that the mythological and the devotional as a cinematic genre may have reduced significantly in the past two decades, but they “continue with unabated popularity” on television (223). Even “channels meant for children like Pogo and Cartoon network are replete with serials featuring Hindu mythological characters like Hanuman, Ganesha, Krishna and Bheema…” (ibid.). She confirms that the mythological genre is “far from disappeared from the modern world,” clearly seeing the animated works as a continuation of and belonging to the genre of the mythological (ibid.).
Although the live-action mythological is a distinct genre in Indian cinema with a particular history, and animation is a specific form with its own language and conventions, like Bhrugubanda, I would see these animated works as a natural extension of the mythological genre. I have seen this kind of continuation expressed several times in responses from interviewees who refer to mythological films of a particular deity without differentiating between the live-action and the animated film. For the sake of clarity, I will refer to this group of animated works from the last two decades as the “animated mythologicals.” A key difference is that, unlike their live-action antecedents, these are targeted toward a child audience from the very beginning. The majority of the films and TV series “have featured child manifestations of male heroes and gods[ix], and these figures have often been cast as superheroes” (Madan 165). If mythologicals, in general, owe their origins to religious art, forms of theatre, and religious performance traditions related to myths, the animated mythologicals are also deeply influenced by comics and animated “cartoons”[x]. Looking at what animation as a medium brings to the genre of the mythological would deserve an essay of its own. Paul Wells (2002) notes that a genre can be understood as a discrete category of films that share visual, technical, thematic, or subject-oriented consistencies; it can have a set of codes and conventions that determine particular expectations and outcomes (43). I am interested here mainly in identifying continuities of codes and conventions in the animated mythologicals from a particular history of production and reception of mythological media in India. One of the key conventions of this kind of media is the inseparable connection between myths and religion.
Mythologicals and the religious
Dwyer notes about mythologicals that “central to them is a clear religious presence, whether in terms of theology, ideology or culture…readily identifiable by the industry and the audiences” (2006a 7). However, in her own argument, she shows that religion and especially Hindu religious themes and practices are not exclusive to this genre, but appear frequently in other genres of Indian cinema, like the “romantic” and the “social” genres (Vardhan). Noting a lack of clear boundaries within a larger culture of everyday life in India, Hinduism is seen as “a way of life rather than a religion” and expressed similarly in Indian cinema across genres (Dwyer 2014 119). So can religion be considered a special theme or code that defines the mythological genre? I would say yes, and reiterate Dwyer’s definition that having gods and goddesses as the main characters is central to a mythological – these are films about the lives of deities, unlike films about ordinary people which reference mythology through their narratives.
We might consider religion as key to the mythological genre, but Vardhan argues that audiences may not recognize in these films a religiosity that matches the practices and contexts outside of cinema. He quotes Madhava Prasad pointing out that “epic characters and Hindu gods in a film are one thing, its appeal to Hindu religious sentiments, its propagation of religious ideology, another” (121). So, is the religiosity embedded in cinema different in quality from that of everyday life? To answer this we turn to Durkheim who says that in everyday practice, a rite (or ritual) can have a sacred character, and in fact “no rite exists that does not have it to some degree” (Pickering 36). This idea of there being “degrees” of sacredness is important to understand the complex overlaps of the religious and the secular, and the sacred and the ordinary in contemporary Indian society. The religious efficacy attributed to a deity installed in the sanctum sanctorum of a temple is different from that of a printed image of the deity in one’s home as well as from the deity portrayed in a film by an actor.
In studies about Indian mythologicals, the general understanding of audience reception is owed to reviews and reports during their exhibition and telecast. Barnouw and Krishnaswamy (1980, as cited in Lutgendorf 1995) have noted that in the screening of Phalke’s films “the figures of long-told stories took flesh and blood. The impact was overwhelming. When Rama appeared on the screen in ‘Lanka Dahan,’ and when in ‘Krishna Janma’ Lord Krishna himself at last appeared, men and women in the audience prostrated themselves before the screen” (219). For the 1975 super hit devotional film Jai Santoshi Maa, audiences were seen to be showering coins, flower petals and rice at the screen in appreciation of the film[xi]. Similar modes of reception were reported during the nationwide telecast of Ramayan (1987), pointing to a “ritualized” viewing of the series, where television sets were garlanded and decorated with sandalwood paste and vermilion (Lutgendorf 1995 224). This form of reception of the impermanent image on the screen is an extension of the general practice of receiving the more permanent physical and material religious images by devotees, described by Christopher Pinney (2020) as the “corpothetics”[xii]. In an interview that he cites, we can see that the printed image of a deity in the market, although created to be perceived as sacred, will have a low degree or no sacred quality (or energy – shakti) – “it’s just paper” (167). It gains efficacy through vision and the embodied actions of the devotee towards the image. Corpothetics renders the image sacred and maintains it that way.
This disposition of a devotee and an audience can be understood through the three interrelated and indigenous concepts of darshan, bhaav, and bhakti. Darshan is a way of seeing, where “beholding the image is an act of worship, and through the eyes one gains the blessings of the divine” (Eck 3). Darshan is not only the devotee looking at the deity but also the deity looking back at the devotee (ibid.). Purnima Mankekar (1993) describes the notion of bhaav[xiii]in her ethnography of television viewers in Delhi. One of her respondents when asked what she thought of her favorite serial, the Mahabharat, said: “When you read the Gita[xiv], you should read it with a certain bhaav in your heart. It’s the same thing when you watch something on television” (554). The deeply individual bhaav, a mode of surrendering to the “mood of what is being watched” (ibid.) is closely related to a more widely recognized “way of being” in bhakti, which means “devotion”. Bhakti gained prominence as a tradition of “devotionalism” through the Bhakti movement of medieval India. This movement (14th – 17th century) of devotional cults developing around the worship of specific deities implied “a direct link between the individual and the divine…whoever that individual might be”[xv] (Hirst and Zavos 90). This kind of devotion is central to epic-puranic literature, the source of the mythologicals. If darshan is a way of seeing, bhaav and bhakti describe a way of being, embodying a particular “sensitivity” or “sentiment” in the recognition and reception of the sacred. Bhrugubanda (2018) notes that the English word “sentiment” has occupied a prominent position in the discourse on Indian cinema since the 1970s. Producers and filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s would refer to their films as being dominated and driven by one kind of sentiment, a “mother-sentiment,” “father-sentiment”, and so on, and the devotional films were seen to be exploiting the sentiment of bhakti among the common people (163). This kind of “religious” sentiment has a clear currency in Indian popular culture and often becomes a point of contention, with media content being produced consciously to evoke a religious sentiment and/or being interpreted and received by audiences as such.
Leveraging the religious sentiment of audiences in different ways has always been evident with mythologicals. Hughes (2011) notes that Phalke’s film Krishna Janma was released in Madras (now Chennai) in 1919 on the Hindu holiday of Vaikunta Ekadesi[xvi], during the auspicious month of Pongal. Indian cinema exhibitors and distributors said in advertisements that the “viewing of mythological films was an act of religious duty and merit” (304). It is interesting to see similar tactics being used a century later during the release of the animated mythological, Hanuman Da Damdaar in 2017. Salman Khan[xvii], a leading Bollywood actor dubbing the movie, released the poster of the film on Hanuman Jayanti, a Hindu religious festival day celebrating the birth of the simian deity Hanuman. News 18 reported that “the actor shared the link to the poster on Facebook, captioning it: ‘This summer will be action-packed, have a look at the motion poster of Hanuman Da Damdaar on the occasion of Hanuman Jayanti'”[xviii]. In the film, the titles roll over a contemporary musical rendition of the Hanuman Chalisa, a forty-verse religious prayer “regularly recited by millions of Hindus across the world” and believed to be highly efficacious (Lutgendorf 2007 92).
The animated television series The New Adventures of Hanuman (2007), which aired on POGo TV and Cartoon Network India, is a story of deity Hanuman being born as a human boy named Maruti in a town called Bajrangpur. Every episode has an impediment befalling the town and his friends, and Maruti turns into (superhero) Bal Hanuman to save the day. Madan (2017) notes that the Hanuman Chalisa is played on the soundtrack whenever (the ordinary) Maruti transforms into (the sacred) Bal Hanuman (276). Madan says that in the series and in the feature film Return of Hanuman (2007), Hanuman is not a secular superhero but is quite deliberately showcased as Hanuman the god. A 3D animated short film called Shri Hanuman Chalisa (2013), produced by Charuvi Design Labs in Delhi, visually interprets what is being said in the prayer. This short film is part of a series of projects from the Lab about Hanuman, involving among others AR/VR technology, interactive installations, and sculptures, along with a 13-episode series called The Legend of Hanuman that premiered on the OTT platform Disney Hotstar in January 2021. In marketing it, the Lab has consciously used the words “divinity” and “faith” to contextualize the projects and invite audiences. Shivam, a compositor, in a promotional video says that the working hours on the project were long and hectic, but he enjoyed the challenge. Since it was about Hanuman Ji –a suffix used in Hindi to show respect–, he felt closer to (this) god while working[xix].
This closeness to god, a feeling or bhaav is key to the pre-existing familiarity that audiences share with these animated mythological characters. As mentioned earlier, this feeling is an attribute of bhakti, a devotional disposition directly linking any individual to the divine. Using a religious prayer like the Hanuman Chalisa on the soundtrack is a way of embedding religious sentiment into the animated text and enhancing the attribute of bhakti for the audience.
Another key convention for evoking bhakti through cinematic texts, especially in the act of seeing/viewing (darshan) is that of the “frontality” of deities, a “visual vocabulary firmly established through a century of mass-produced religious art” (Lutgendorf 1995 229).
In cinema this occurs as a long pause or slow zoom-in over a close-up of the divine character and in turn the devotee, allowing the mutual gaze between deity and devotee that occurs through darshan to also take place in front of a television or cinema screen (Plate 130). One popular form of the darshanic exchange occurs “within the film’s diegetic world through a shot-reverse-shot structure” (ibid.) (see Figures 1 and 2). The other occurs when the deity simply looks out at the camera, allowing darshan to the audience, usually along with a group of people within the diegetic world (e.g., see Figure 3).
In a sample of animated mythologicals from feature films, television, and web series[xx], there were many instances of the convention of frontality and “zooming in” over a deity. These were mostly at points in the animation where the deity “revealed their form” or appeared and became manifest (e.g., see Figures 4, 5, and 6).
Can we then say that a religious sentiment embedded in the culture of production and reception of animation is a key code or convention of the animated mythological? For a more nuanced answer, there needs to be further research that takes into account the views regarding content creators and stakeholders in the production process, deeper textual analysis of the tropes and conventions in use, and a closer study of audience reception of animated mythological texts in particular. In the following section, I set up a broad framework of situated practices within which audience reception needs to be considered.
Animated stories, situated practice
This section uses material from an ethnographic study of the life of myths in Basavanagudi, one of the older localities in the city of Bengaluru, India[xxi]. The name of the locality Basavana-gudi comes from the 16th century Bull-Temple in this area – basava means bull and gudi means temple. This bull is the mythological deity Nandi, the disciple of lord Shiva. Around 200 feet away is another temple for the elephant-headed god Ganesha (son of Shiva). Both Ganesha and Nandi are prominent characters in the animated mythological Bal Ganesh (2007). This locality, one of the planned extensions of the city in 1898[xxii], was developed over an area that already had several temples[xxiii]. For the study, I interviewed 74 respondents from 21 middle and lower-middle-class households that mostly had members from at least three representative generations[xxiv]. This section and the next use excerpts from interviews of members from four households of the Hindu Brahmin sub-caste categories of the Madhva and the Iyengar. In this site-specific study, I looked at the diverse references to myths and their relation to sacredness and everyday practice. Stories and images from popular cinema and animation were seen as part of the references in the everyday practice of the residents, along with references from the sacred geography of the place and physical/material images that surrounded them. The research focused on understanding the ways in which residents view aspects of their locality, their own preconceptions and “culturally constituted understandings of their action” (Fuller 8)[xxv]. These “preconceptions” with which residents interpret mythological images basically point to a broad repository of knowledge about myths acquired through inheritance and devolution, from multiple surrounding sources, and from practice. The terms “visual theology” and “visual scripture” used by Diana L. Eck (1998) help understand this common knowledge. This section shows how myths are “living” in everyday practice and how animated stories contribute to ensuring the continuity of visual theology and visual scripture. Furthermore, it shows the religious sentiment to be fluid and relative, emerging from deep subjective positions of devotees in practice, in place, and time.
Eck suggests that images [sculptural (murti, reliefs, carvings), paintings, prints, photographs] serve both theological and narrative functions. As “visual theology” an image engages the eye and “extends one’s vision of the nature of this god, using simple, subtle, and commonly understood gestures and emblems” (Eck 41)[xxvi]. Along with being able to recognize/read the (visual) attributes of a deity, I would add that the image also conjures in one’s mind a “biography”, the deity’s origin and place in the mythical realm. Eck notes that images are also “visual scriptures” wherein the myths of the tradition are narrated in stone through unfolding sculptural/pictorial narratives and friezes. When I asked respondents to speak about the images we encountered, they would know who the deity was, their qualities, attributes and power relation to other deities, when they were born (visual theology), etc., and/or narrate one or two episodes from the deity’s life, a particular story or event (visual scripture). Although there are distinct examples of pictorial narratives and the way they are viewed[xxvii] in Hindu practice, in my study, theology and scripture seemed to come together in ways that people see a single image.
Let’s take the example of a recently built Krishna temple in this locality, Sri Govardhana Kshetra[xxviii], which is modeled on the story of ‘Govardhana giri’. While speaking to Vanitha [xxix](aged 46) and Karthik (aged 10) in their home, Vanitha mentioned this temple and said, “everyone knows that story”. Karthik enthusiastically adds that he had seen this story in Little Krishna (animated series telecast on Nickelodeon in May 2009). He relates the story to us:
Brindavan people are preparing a Yagna for Indra. Krishna, wants to tease Indra, so tells everyone that they should not pray to Indra but to the Govardhan hill near the village. Indra gets very angry. He sends his gang to destroy Brindavan with rain and tsunami. Krishna simply lifts up the whole Govardhan hill with his finger (Karthik gestures, lifting up his right hand above his head with the little finger sticking out), and asks people to come under it like an umbrella. Indra’s gang complains to Indra and he gets even angrier. He comes down to throw the hill away. But he can’t. Krishna is playing the flute in one hand and Indra’s gang gets sucked into it. Not Indra, he is still sitting on his elephant, but he stops the storm and says sorry to Krishna. That’s all.[xxx]
I could see Vanitha smiling, pleased with her son’s telling of the story. Upon hearing her son, she said that she had forgotten about Krishna being so clever in the story, that it was he who designed this trick on Indra. This aspect in Karthik’s story, his overall telling, and that of the episode “Govardhana-Lila” of Little Krishna are true to the original version in the text of Srimad Bhagavatham (see Subramaniam 457-465). The temple is a theme-park-like reconstruction of this story, where the façade of the temple, made of fiberglass, looks like the rocky surface of a hill. Inside, there is the murti (figurine) of a small Krishna with his left arm held above his head, and the ceiling curving down to rest on his little finger (see Figure 7).
This image of Krishna is visual theology showing the prowess of Bala Krishna (child Krishna), and at the same time, the entire temple is an architectural depiction (visual scripture) of the Govardhan story. For Karthik, it was the animated series that made him see the visual scripture for this image of the temple.
While there are significant deities in the public temple complexes of the locality, the domestic spaces are full of images, especially in the designated sacred place of the home, the puja room (the ‘worship’ room). Most often, this is a small room (about 3’ by 5’) with special decorative doors (e.g., see Figure 8). It has enough space for one person to sit and perform rituals in front of a platform where several images (figurines and pictures) are placed.
I will now discuss the domestic practice of Suma (aged 51) in relation to the deity Hanuman (who is a popular animated character). Suma’s puja room is filled with articles that are more than 100 years old. Amongst these are five different images of the deity Hanuman. Suma has been a great devotee of Hanuman from her childhood. She explained:
This is now may be some 30 to 35 years ago? I have been an ardent devotee. And I feel that personally I can talk to him. Right from the beginning, I do not ask for anything, I just get satisfaction from praying. When I sleep also I think of him. So it is something within me. I do not know how to explain it. And even to this day, every day I recite the Hanuman Chalisa.
Suma here is describing her personal connection to Hanuman, and the indescribable bhaav and bhakti that she feels towards him. She works as a teacher in a local school and she follows a daily worship routine in the puja room in the morning and evening. She wakes up around 6 a.m., takes a bath, and goes into the kitchen to start cooking. While the rice cooks, she has her coffee and wakes up her children. She then goes into the puja room, lights the oil lamps, and performs puja to the deities. She places turmeric, vermilion, and flowers on the idols and does a similar puja to the holy basil plant in the front yard. She then goes back into the kitchen to continue cooking. All through these activities, Suma is reciting shlokas[xxxi](devotional hymns),
Shloka starts as soon as I finish my bath. I will keep on saying, I do not say I am a good singer or anything but I enjoy telling shlokas. In the puja room only I light the lamp, place flowers. There is no time only, but shlokas I don’t stop. It also helps me concentrate and finish things faster. And my children know. They don’t talk to me until I have stopped reciting. My puja is over only when I do the final namaskara (salutations) in the puja room (see Figure 9)
Suma’s morning rituals begin and end in the puja room, but in between, she manages to do several chores in the home while reciting her shlokas. One of the recitations is the hymn Hanuman Chalisa, believed to have full efficacy in the act of reciting (with bhakti), without having to be in front of an image of Hanuman[xxxii]. By asking not to be disturbed while reciting her prayers, Suma inhabits a demarcated sacred time in the morning, etching out a sacred space through her movement and actions in different parts of the home[xxxiii]. Although the puja room has qualified sacrality, here is a temporary sacred space inscribed in the home through movement, recitation, and most importantly, a way of being in bhakti during this activity. This shows in practice the sacred currency of the Hanuman Chalisa and its significance for a devotee in her home. This is the same hymn that is used on the soundtrack of the animated Hanuman films.
One of the five images of Hanuman found in Suma’s puja room is a photograph[xxxiv] cut from a magazine, framed, and hung on the wall. It is an unclear image of a monkey sitting with a book on his lap. He is dressed as a seer, with a saffron cloth draped over his torso and a rudraksh[xxxv] rosary around his neck. This, says Suma, is believed to be the saakshaath (actually present)[xxxvi] Hanuman who lives in the Himalayas even to this day. Her husband gave it to her and it is believed to be a photograph taken in 1998. It is also believed that the photographer went blind after taking it. While I was discussing this photograph with Suma, his son Vivek (aged 13) was also present. I asked him if he knew anything about this image, and he recalled watching a Hanuman film in the theatre:
This is the one in which he (Hanuman) forgets who he is and becomes a normal monkey for a while. I don’t remember much of this film, but we had a good time, as we were four of us cousins, my uncle had taken us to see this film.
Vivek was talking about the animated mythological Hanuman (2005) where the child Hanuman is transformed into an ordinary monkey by lord Shiva, much like the ordinariness of the monkey in this photograph believed to inhabit our present world. When I asked if Suma had seen the Hanuman film, she said no, but added that she had seen parts of it when Vivek was “watching it on the computer in the room once”. Vivek quickly cut-in to say that that was not the same film, to which Suma replied:
Anyway, good that somehow he is also hearing the Hanuman Chalisa, I have told him to learn it, but he has not. You know I was watching this old film Srinivasa Kalyana with my mother-in-law on YouTube. This film is all about the sthalapurana (place specific-legend) of the Tirupati temple. I was telling him how we had all been there when he was so young. But this film was so boring for him. He only sat for a while.
In response to a question about the animated mythological, Suma spoke of the live-action Kannada[xxxvii] mythological Sri Srinivasa Kalyana (1974), indicating a continuation in the way she categorizes these films. She also said that this was boring for her son, perhaps indicating a comparison to the animation films that he watches. In Juluri’s study, the father of a young girl who is a fan of the film Hanuman (2005) says that, for him, “(a)nimated versions are more like fiction, whereas the old Telugu[xxxviii] mythologicals are more real, and make (one) feel that yes, Rama and Krishna existed” (66). These responses reinforce the belief that live-action mythologicals are appealing to adults while animated ones are more effective at addressing children.
Stories emplace and ‘animate’ the physical and material images in one’s surroundings. Visual theology and scripture are characterized by an awareness in the reading of images that may be located anywhere on a spectrum of degrees of sacredness, from the ordinary (secular) cityscapes and living rooms to the sacred sanctums of temples and domestic puja rooms. There was no evidence in my study of animated images becoming part of puja rooms, or spaces and practices related to the sacred, but the animated works contributed to the reading of images that were part of these spaces and practices, especially to the children in the homes. The chromolithographs, other printed images, and even a page from a magazine (as seen in Suma’s home) are included in the puja room, but not images from animated mythologicals.
We have seen that apart from the puja room, temporary sacred spaces are carved into places through the movement and actions of individuals. This makes the individual’s interpretation of the sacred or her religious sentiment more elusive, deeply attached to the subjective, personal moments of darshan, bhaav, and bhakti that could be expressed in any part of her everyday life. Sheila Nayar (2013) recalls the reaction of her grandmother, being so different from her own response while watching as a child the live-action mythological film Hanuman Vijay (1974). She said that, despite the garish aesthetic and “Méliès like special effects” of the film that throughout the movie, her grandmother “mumbled her devotions and did namaste (greetings) whenever that monkey god appeared on screen” (22). Both were viewing the film together but with a different bhaav towards what was being seen. Hence in this section, we are left with more questions than answers. Are animated mythologicals viewed with a religious sentiment? Do animated images, while clearly recognized as images of respective deities, have any sacred currency? For example, Suma was happy that her son Vivek was listening to the Hanuman Chalisa through the animated film, she keeps an image in her puja room from a magazine claiming to be of the deity Hanuman, but what does she think of the animated image of Hanuman? How does she negotiate the assigning of sacred currency to images, and where does she place the animated image on that spectrum?
Slippery borders – mythology and the State
Any discussion about sacred practices, Hindu religious traditions, or “Hinduism” requires addressing its relation to the politicized aspects of these traditions. This is unavoidable, especially due to a history of conflict in India between religious groups and the current climate of heightened nationalism and religious tension in the country. The past seven years have seen an atmosphere of heightened religiosity in popular media, with the growth of content that imposes and propagates a majoritarian religious sentiment as well as rising intolerance and official action against content that is perceived as ‘hurting’ Hindu sentiments. This section addresses the connection between the idea of the nation-state and Hindu culture, a notion strongly supported by the geographies of mythical stories.
The very first animated feature based on Hindu mythology, the Indo-Japanese co-creation Ramayana-The Legend of Price Rama (1992), could not be released in India due to the response by members of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), a Hindu nationalist organization. When Japanese director Yugo Sako proposed to make an animated Ramayana, the VHP said that a foreigner couldn’t be allowed to make a film about an important story of Indian heritage[xxxix]. The government said that the Ramayana is a sensitive subject and cannot be portrayed as a “cartoon.” Hence the film was entirely produced in Japan, with creative inputs from the legendary Indian animator Ram Mohan. The making of this film coincided with the growing Ram Janmabhoomi movement in India, which was a nationwide symbolic act of reclaiming the birthplace of the mythological king Rama in the city of Ayodhya in northern India. It culminated in the destruction of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 by hoards of Hindu devotees, who wanted to raze this mosque, believed to be built over the shrine marking Rama’s birthplace. Ramayana-The Legend of Prince Rama was released in Japan the same year, but never had a release in India. The first phase of the construction of a Ram Temple at this site started in March 2020.
The topography of India is peppered with sites that mark and situate episodes from the epic Ramayana (among other myths) and these are sites of great emotional and sacred value to devotees. For example, the Ram Setu (Ram’s bridge) at the southern tip of the Indian peninsula has been an important place of pilgrimage for many of the respondents I interviewed in Basavanagudi. This is where Lord Rama is supposed to have built a bridge between Bharata (India) and Lanka (Sri Lanka) to rescue his wife Sita, who was held captive by the demon king Ravana. When asked about this bridge, Mrs. Sridhar (aged 41) said,
That there was a bridge, that’s true. When we were children and our parents took us to Rameshwaram, they had shown us. This was built by lord Rama, see it and take its blessings. Close your eyes, think of Rama and ask for anything. When you go on the train you can see it. The bridge is there and Rama has lived and walked on this land of the south.
However, this site has been embroiled in a controversy regarding a project (Sethusamudram shipping canal project) proposing a deep-water channel in the sea between India and Sri Lanka. Conceived as early as 1860 under the British, the project has been through various iterations and remains permanently stalled today, one of the key reasons being pressure from Hindu groups to save the Ram Setu. The Central government has now decided that the bridge will not be touched, and one of the key members of the ruling party wants to see this become a site of national heritage[xlv]. These kinds of disputes are part of a larger attempt to connect the genealogy of the nation to an ancient, supposedly “original” Hindu culture, which knew how Rama, Krishna, Hanuman, and other deities had lived and walked on this land. Every episode of the animated series Little Krishna opens with a disclaimer that says,
The stories and the treatment expressed herein are well and thoroughly researched and are based on 5,000 years old fables from India’s rich cultural heritage. The Serial is presented here in good faith for viewer’s enjoyment and entertainment.
Mitra notes that many of the positive reviews of successful animated mythologicals praise the ability of these works to aid the preservation of Indian culture (6). This conflation of “Indian” culture with a homogenous “Hindu” culture and history in the discourses of nationalism is the primary feature of the Hindutva[xlvi] ideology.
Studies of the relation between televisual mythologicals, religious sentiment and Hindu nationalism (Mankekar 1999, Rajagopal), Hanuman and Hindutva (Lutgendorf 2007; Mitra), South Indian cinema/mythologicals, and regional politics (e.g. see Bhrugubanda) show amongst other things, the complex nexus of political ideology, the strategies employed by creators and producers of media and the subjective negotiations of audiences. Dwyer (2006b) cautions against confusing a larger Hindu imagination of Indian cinema with the mere Hindu-ness of Hindutva (166). This is a crucial distinction, and there need to be focused studies on the reception of animated mythologicals and Hindu religious sentiment to understand the extent and nature of overlaps and differences between the two notions. Upon a quick glance, however, at the comments left by veiwers for the trailer and fan-made compilations on YouTube of the new Disney Hotstar animated series The Legend of Hanuman (2021), the reactions may show some overlaps. Many comments are ecstatic praises like “Jai Shri Ram”, “Shri Hanuman Ki Jai” and “Jai Bajrangbali”, punctuated with exclamations, hearts, and namaste emojis. As Dwyer points out, these reactions can be seen as a generic cultural response of a Hindu devotee, but they are also politically charged slogans of the Hindu Nationalist Parties. Which of the two meanings is the viewer tending towards? Here is a sample of the other comments under one of these YouTube videos:
Ooh.. My god that dialogue from shri ram.. 0:13 … Touched my heart (smiley emoji)
While all other OTT is degrading Hindus, hotstar makes us proud. Good luck Disney Hotstar
Nothing can match that hanuman ji movie of 2005
Hanuman ji is a powerful god in the world
Who needs Avengers, Who needs Superman when we have our very own Lord Hanuman
BHAI HINDUISM IS THE WORLD’S OLDEST RELIGION WHEN THERE WAS NOTHING IN EUROPEAN COUNTRIES VEDAS AND UPANISHADS WERE WRITTEN IN INDIA. WE SHOULD RESPECT OUR RELIGION MAKING FUN OF OUR RELIGION SHOULD NOT BE TOLERATED (5 clenched fist emojis)[xlii]
Most animated mythologicals are careful not to challenge or offend the sentiment of the viewers, but the media genres of the cartoon, comics, and superhero narratives aimed at a child audience do give the animated mythologicals expressive liberties that are different from the live-action films or religious calendar art (like the Hanuman who skateboards and plays soccer in Return of Hanuman 2007). Perhaps non-Indian filmmakers making films outside India enjoy further liberties, like the dethroning of the deity Nataraja in Konstantin Bronzit’s humorous short film The God (2003), or the seduction of the same deity in Michael Huber’s The Offering (2010). Nina Paley’s animated musical Sita Sings the Blues (2008)[xliii] has to be mentioned here for its bold retelling of the Ramayana for an adult audience. Told from a sympathetic approach to Rama’s wife Sita, it critiques Rama’s actions in the story. The film has faced some backlash from the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, a Goa-based organization that has also protested the “improper” depiction of deities in other media and art. Three shadow puppets tell the Rama story in a humorous conversational flow, dipping into things like the NASA images of the Ram Setu and Ravana playing the Veena (a type of string instrument) with his intestines. One of them, on miss-pronouncing a character’s name says, “I am messing up her name, god, they are going to be after me…”[xliv], with “they” clearly referring to any of the mobilized Hindu groups who might raise an objection. There is also a moment when Rama’s scheming stepmother (Kaikeyi) morphs into a lady in a seductive nurse costume, aptly caricaturing her actions in that episode of the story. It is indeed refreshing to see animation used this way in the telling of myths, keeping with the interpretive fluidity and humor of the oral traditions of storytelling and the larger Hindu imagination that thrives in opposing points of view, diversity, and tolerance.
Animated mythologicals must be considered as part of a complex environment of living mythology in India. The excerpts of interviews used in this essay are from residents of an older, upper-caste Hindu-dominated locality in Bengaluru. The key discussions in the essay would benefit greatly from perspectives that may arise from studies of other highly diverse and richly complex spaces in the country. This essay has shown that it is important to understand the reception of mythological media in relation to situated practices of audiences, especially now, in a scenario of rapidly evolving practices of viewing. Much of the literature I refer to is speaking about viewing practices prior to the explosion of online and mobile phone screens. The private and individual viewing opportunities allowed by these screens add a new layer of complexity to understanding the sacred, and the religious sentiment of viewers, in their personal moments of darshan, bhaav, and bhakti, being expressed in any part of their everyday life. While people are known to carry images of deities in their pockets, wallets, or handbags, it is now possible to do so with moving images. Although images from animated mythologicals, and the films themselves, did not seem to find a place in the demarcated sacred spaces of the temple and the puja room, they definitely find a place on a broad spectrum of peripheral, tangential, or selective associations with the sacred. These animated characters cannot be fully dissociated from their deity counterparts who occupy a significant place in one’s physical and material surroundings and the religious (Hindu) practice of the people. Animated mythologicals, like their predecessors in cinema, comics, prints, and so on, do participate in the idea of Indian-Hindu culture for the local and diasporic audiences.
One of the objections of the Hindu organization VHP against the Indo-Japanese animated feature Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama (1992) was that they did not want our gods and goddesses to be depicted as cartoon characters[xlv]. This echoes the popular view of animation as being a “not so serious” medium, mainly catering to children’s entertainment. But in reality, many of the stories and characters of the animated mythologicals are deeply embedded in the lives and practices of people beyond just children. This liminality of animation in fact is a great opportunity for fluid retellings of myths; it can be used to offer critique, push expressive possibilities and embrace diverse storytelling traditions, including the bolder folk renditions of Hindu myths. The guise of perceived frivolity, lightness, and humor, something the medium shares with the language of political cartoons, might shield it from harsher objections.
The animated mythologicals as feature films, apart from Hanuman (2005), have not performed well at the box office in India. Producers who have suffered the frustrations of the “feature bubble” (Jones 53) have seen moderate success in subsequent TV shows and YouTube/TV releases of feature-length films. Madan (2020) notes that “though there are some exceptions, the quality of many mythological animated films and TV shows is poor” and suffers from weak scripts and unoriginal storytelling, as well as from being “overtly didactic”, which causes a lack of appeal to audiences (168). However, if we view the last two decades of Indian animation within a historical frame, the animated mythological has been triumphant in putting animation on the map of mainstream media in India, moving it from a cottage industry[xlvi] toward large-scale animation production models for cinema, television and other platforms.
Sandeep Ashwath has completed an M.A. in animation from the Royal College of Art – London and a Ph.D. in social anthropology from the University of Surrey, UK. His research interests are in animation reception, mythology, and construction of sacredness and animation education. He is one of the Deans for the Media, Arts and Sciences programs at Srishti Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bangalore, India.
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[i] John Lent assigns 1915 as the beginning of animation in India with the three short films from the father of Indian cinema D.G. Phalke. Subsequently, animation flourished as a cottage industry nurtured by the post-Independence Indian government. The period of animation addressed here is post the economic liberalization policies of the country in 1991, which led to the emergence of the mainstream ‘animation industry’ of today. See Lent (2009) for a comprehensive history of Indian animation.
[ii] The list of Indian animated films on Wikipedia includes 74 titles from 2000 to 2020 of which 32 films have contexts from Hindu mythology. Out of 116 animated television series, 15 based on myths and mythological characters, like Chota Bheem, Roll no 21, Little Krishna, and Krishna Balram, are hugely popular.
[iii] The term “Hinduism” coined by the British, does not translate to “any pre-modern Indian word without serious semantic distortions” (Fuller 10). The right approach would be to use “Hindu religious traditions” instead (Hirst and Zavos 2011), but I will continue using ‘Hinduism’ to maintain continuity with the studies I cite.
[iv] The name of the city ‘Bangalore’ was changed to ‘Bengaluru’ in 2014 as part of the decolonizing initiatives of the state and central governments in India. Bengaluru and Bangalore are used interchangeably in print and common usage.
[v] Williams (2003) emphasizes the “living” nature of Hindu mythology as opposed to Greek mythology, which is seen as dead. Hindu mythology is “living”, though its source is classical and archaic, it is very much part of a contemporary living tradition.
[vi] These prints are ubiquitous in personal spaces of the home to this day, both in the ordinary and the demarcated sacred spaces. See Pinney (2002, 2004, and 2020) for their history and relevance to practice.
[vii] This is not accurate as Hanuman 2005 has been the most popular animated feature film in India going by its success at the box office.
[viii] The Sanskrit epics (Ramayana and Mahabharata) and the (18 major) Puranas (300 BCE – 1500 CE) are part of the smriti scriptures which denotes “that which is remembered” as opposed to the shruti category (Vedas and Upanishads) denoting “that which is heard”. Smriti is more fluid and open to re-appropriation in every re-telling. It is mainly the smriti scriptures that are most relevant to popular (Hindu) practice.
[ix] There is a significant tradition of the ‘goddess films’ in live-action mythologicals, and devotionals. Amman films in the South Indian Telugu and Tamil film industries are part of this tradition and are still popular. See Ram (2008). Animated works based on female mythological characters are close to none.
[x] A popular view of the cartoon genre, emerging from American television is that ‘if it’s animated, it’s a cartoon’ (Mittell 60). Most respondents in my study addressed the animated shows as ‘cartoons’.
[xi] Lutgendorf (2003 19) quotes Anita Guha, the actress who played the goddess Santoshi Maa, sourced from Nasreen Munni Kabir’s book, Bollywood, The Indian Cinema Story (2001).
[xii]Pinney (2002 356) explains corpothetics as a sensory, corporeal aesthetics in the local Indian practice of viewing images, which is different to ‘dominant-class Western practices that privilege a disembodied, unidirectional and disinterested vision.
[xiii] This would be bhaavanae in Kannada, the regional language of my respondents, but I will use the Hindi word bhaav across the paper for continuity.
[xiv] The Bhagavad ‘Gita’ is the ‘song of the Bhagavan’- a synthesis of the concept of dharma explained in a significant episode of the epic Mahabharata.
[xv] This destabilized the place of the ritually superior upper-caste Brahmin community. Bhakti was an important movement of social critique and reformation.
[xvi] This is an important festival for the Vaishnavas of South India for whom the god Vishnu (and his avatars as Krishna, Rama, etc.) is the main deity. In the Mahabharata, the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna, written as the Bhagavad Gita is said to have occurred on this day.
[xvii] It is important to note that this is a Muslim actor giving voice to Hanuman, problematizing some of the points made in section 4 of this paper.
[xviii] Accessed on 2nd June 2021- https://www.news18.com/news/movies/on-hanuman-jayanti-salman-khan-unveils-the-poster-of-hanuman-da-damdaar-1371007.html. The caption was in Hindi, but I have cited only the translation from the report in News18.
[xix] Seen in a video interview posted by the Lab on YouTube. Accessed on June 2nd 2021 – https://youtu.be/KjrCjbSKBrw.
[xx] I looked at Pandavas – The Five Warriors (2000), Omkar – Mega Movie (2020), Popular Indian Mythological Stories – MocomiKids (2017), Mahabharat (2013), Return of Hanuman (2007), and Little Krishna (2009).
[xxi] The main fieldwork for the study was done in three parts between 2007 and 2008 and a follow-up in 2010. While Ashwath (2013) uses material from the former, this essay also uses material from the follow-up fieldwork.
[xxii] This extension was developed under the joint administration of the Wodeyars of Mysore and the British. It is located in the south of the city, now recognizable as ward no 154 under the city municipality.
[xxiii] The locality currently has 34 temples, religious institutions and shrines in an approximate total area of 3.9 square kilometers. Some of these temples date back to the 16th century.
[xxiv] The overall sample had representation from three religious communities (Hindu, Jain and Christian), three caste categories (Brahmin, Lingayath, Vaishyas) and four Brahmin sub-caste categories (Madhva, Smarta, Iyer, Iyengar).
[xxv] This study is informed by the symbolic interactionist approach primarily developed by Herbert Blumer (1969) that allows for understanding the preconceptions with which ‘social actors interpret their circumstances’ (Davies 1999: 43) in everyday life, especially in interactions with each other and with the researcher during the study.
[xxvi] For an explanation of the visual symbols (of the deity Natarja) see Eck 41.
[xxvii] Pictorial narratives can be seen as sculpted or painted on temple walls. This could also be cloth paintings and printed images illustrating aspects of a scripture. People view this while walking (circumambulating) around the temple.
[xxviii] This temple was built in 2004 by the Puthige Matha (Bengaluru branch). The Brahminical Mathas (or Mutts) are religious institutions originally set-up by medieval spiritual scholars. They always have a temple of the representative deity on their premises.
[xxix] Pseudonyms have been used for all respondents.
[xxx] All interviewees (except Vimala) cited in this paper spoke mainly in English. The transcript is true to their spoken English. They used the regional language of Kannada in some instances, and I have translated those lines to English. Kannada was mainly used when they spoke to each other during the interview.
[xxxi] Shloka is a poetic form used in Sanskrit. Suma might be referring to some of the Sanskrit shlokas that she recites, but the Hanuman Chalisa is not a shloka, it is a stotra, a devotional hymn originally composed in the Awadhi language.
[xxxii] See Swamy and Nugteren (2020) who discuss the importance of the “portable” nature of the Hanuman Chalisa in reference to the Surinamese Hindu community in the Netherlands.
[xxxiii] This is understood through the notion of the “mobile spatial field” theorized by Nancy De Munn (2003 94), which is a spatial field extending from the actor, a ‘culturally defined, corporeal-sensual field of significant distances stretching out from the body in a particular stance or action at a given locale or as it moves through locales’.
[xxxiv] You can find the image here https://www.indiaforums.com/forum/topic/971546 or search for ‘Hanuman in the Himalayas’.
[xxxv] Rudraksha (Rudra’s tear) is the seed borne by the tree E. ganitrus
[xxxvi] Also means “direct-witness” according to Hess (2006 128).
[xxxvii] Kannada is the regional language of the state of Karnataka in South India, of which Bengaluru is the capital city.
[xxxviii] Telugu is one of the regional languages of the south Indian film industry that has produced a big majority of mythologicals.
[xlii] Accessed on 2nd June 2021, https://scroll.in/reel/832996/protests-by-vhp-activists-meant-that-this-gorgeous-animated-ramayana-never-got-an-indian-release
[xl] Accessed on 26th December 2021, https://scroll.in/latest/872230/ram-setu-wont-be-touched-well-find-other-ways-to-build-shipping-canal-centre-tells-sc
[xli] Hindutva is the ideology of the Hindu right, emerging from the cultural body, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) founded in 1925.
[xlii] Accessed on 2nd June 2021, https://youtu.be/Af49v6rUXmQ
[xliii] This cannot be categorized as an animated mythological, as it is mainly the story of the filmmaker as a character in the film, whose marriage breaks up. It juxtaposes this with the plight of Sita in the Ramayana, in turn raising important questions about both characters.
[xliv] Accessed on 28th December, https://youtu.be/RzTg7YXuy34.
[xlv] Accessed on 1st January 2022, https://scroll.in/reel/832996/protests-by-vhp-activists-meant-that-this-gorgeous-animated-ramayana-never-got-an-indian-release
[xlvi] See Jones (2014) for the Indian animation production culture in the last two decades, moving away from its previous status as a cottage industry nurtured by the post-Independence Indian government.