Batman fought The Joker. Captain America battled Nazis and The Red Skull. Priya, a rural village girl from India, enters the comic book ring with perhaps the biggest nemesis yet to tackle: violence and sexual abuse against women.
Creator Ram Devineni collaborated with artist Dan Goldman to bring his augmented reality comic book Priya’s Shakti to life. Mr. Devineni wrote what he saw, and in this case he witnessed the 2012 Delhi bus gang rape and the flurry of political, cultural, and social division in the aftermath.
Using the Hindu Goddess Parvati, a ferocious tiger companion, and Priya’s will to change the archaic mindset on the treatment of rape victims, Mr. Devineni has created a new superhero for the masses.
The comic book is online and for free and can be found on Mr. Devineni’s literary and film-publishing company’s site Rattapallax.
Laura Cerrone: We will start with the basics on how and when did you come up with the premise for Pryia’s Shakti?
Ram Devineni: I was in Delhi when the horrible gang rape happened on the bus in 2012, and was involved [in] 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.
LC: How did you meet and collaborate with artist Dan Goldman? What was it that made you want to work with him on this project?
RD: 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. I especially like Dan’s vibrant colors, which fits perfectly with earlier interpretations of the Hindu gods.
LC: From my knowledge, this has been released worldwide, but I’ve only really been able to see Western reaction to it. What has the reaction you’ve received from India been like?
RD: 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.
LC: I find the juxtaposition of placing the characters in seemingly realistic background settings really impactful. Was this a conscious decision? How do you feel it adds to the storytelling?
RD: This is actually Dan’s style. All of his books mix comic art with realistic images and background, which I think is ideal for Priya’s Shakti. Since we are tackling sexual violence and rape, I felt it was important to place the characters in realistic settings so that readers can relate with them. Also, the Hindu gods can seem distant from contemporary audiences, which is not the case in India where Hinduism is integrated into everyday life. So, placing the gods in realistic settings makes them closer to humanity.
LC: The idea of tackling rape in comics feels new for the medium, what did you expect to face upon releasing it?
RD: We knew we had a compelling narrative and well thought-out project, but we are completely surprised by the amount of attention and press coverage we have gotten for it. I think the comic book and especially Priya resonates with readers.
I think the most important thing we want to emphasize with the comic book is that change is possible. Trying to create a cultural shift is incredibly difficult, but not impossible. India is going through some remarkable and monumental changes in a short period of time. People’s views have not caught up with the speed in which things are changing in India. But, what was clear to me from the massive protests that happened all over India after the horrible rape on the bus is that we want things to change in our country. There were so many teenagers and young adults at those protests, and they will be the future catalyst and leaders who will define India, which is a hopeful sign.
Also, I want to make it clear that gender-based violence is not just a problem in India. Audiences around the world respond really well to Priya’s story and message, so I know she can have a global appeal.
LC: What has been the most surprising reaction?
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. Of course, we are concerned by a “fundamentalist” reaction, but the entire team is committed to the project and what it is trying to achieve.
LC: How was the decision to release the comic as a free book made?
RD: This was a very easy decision because of our motivation and goal of supporting the movement against patriarchy, misogyny and indifference. Also, the entire project was covered through grants and foundations, so there was no pressure to cover costs.
LC: Does Priya’s Shakti tie in to any other projects you are working on? Would you like it to?
RD: I am very interested in doing more interactive storytelling projects and breaking traditional approaches. Even doing more augmented reality books. 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.
LC: Will Priya’s Shakti be a one-time issue, or do you hope to continue it as a series?
LC: I find the augmented reality you are doing with the comic very interesting. Can you elaborate on how you found out about implementing and its impact?
RD: From the beginning, I wanted the comic book to have an interactive component that is accessible and reach wide audiences in India and around the world. It was when I traveled to Italy and spent time in the Sistine Chapel did the idea of augmented reality fully come to me. I was captivated by the splendor of Michelangelo’s achievement. Each fresco panel told a distinct story, and together illuminated a greater and divine experience. I wanted to go deeper into each painting, but was limited by the periphery of my senses. That’s when the idea of using augmented reality technology came to me as a way to experience the real world without being removed from it. Augmented reality compels you to interact with your surroundings, and gives you additional information and a new perspective on what you see around you.
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. Than 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.”
We hope to create hundreds of augmented reality murals all over India and in major cities around the world. In the spring 2015, we have a major exhibition for three months at City Lore gallery in New York City. We plan to turn the entire gallery into the Sistine Chapel and plaster the comic book all over its wall. Audiences can then scan the artwork with the Blippar APP and experience augmented reality all around them.
LC: You recently attended Mumbai Film and Comic Convention, what kind of reception did you expect, if any, and what reception did you receive?
RD: 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.
Priya’s Shakti is TM & © 2014 Ram Devineni and Dan Goldman.
All rights resevered.
This article is © 2014 Laura Cerrone. All rights reserved.