“Assume the form of a golden deer and lure Rama away. Meanwhile I will run away with Sita,” commands Ravana, the ten-headed King of Lanka, to one of his demon slaves in the ancient Indian epic poem, the Ramayana. Ravana’s plan is to entice Sita, the beautiful goddess, and steal her away from Prince Rama. While the golden deer distracts the prince, Ravana disguises himself as a holy man begging for money; and when Sita reaches out to offer him food, he catches her and carries her away to his kingdom.
This scene marks a pivotal point in the Ramayana, a story believed to have been written over 2000 years ago by Valmiki, a celebrated poet in Sanskrit literature. It is the narrative that Vasantha Yogananthan is following in his ambitious seven-part photographic project, A Myth of Two Souls, which is now on its fourth chapter, Dandaka.
He’s found a different way to convey the story in each chapter, and for this one, wanted to push himself further out of his comfort zone. For previous books he worked with different Indian writers to help narrate the story, but this time, he decided to use illustrations from a 1970s comic book series by Pratap Mullick.
The comics were originally published in Amar Chitra Katha, one of India’s largest-selling comic book series, which retells stories of Indian folklore. According to Yogananthan, this interpretation of the Ramayana is the first version of the story that Indian children read, and it was his first encounter with it too. In his version, the excerpts are printed onto smaller sheets of brown paper and weaved in between his vast shots of Indian jungle, candy floss skies, and cinematic portraits.
Yogananthan grew up in France, but his Sri Lankan father raised him on stories from the Ramayana. He started his project in 2013, when he visited India for the first time as an adult, aged 25. “When you grow up in the West you have preconceptions,” he says. “It was difficult to find a way to shoot India that wouldn’t feel exotic or expected.”
Yogananthan didn’t originally plan to make seven separate books, “it just developed organically”. “It does seem a bit crazy, but the more I was researching the Ramayana, the more clear it became that I should do it in seven parts,” he says.
Dandaka is the book where the story is at the height of its drama, and in it, Yogananthan has collaborated more than ever before. The images are a combination of colour photography, illustrations, and most intriguingly, black-and-white photographs hand-tinted by an Indian painter. “It was a complete carte-a-blanche,” says Yogananthan, “it was completely up to his imagination and sensitivity over my black and white photographs.” This chapter marks a pivotal point in the narrative, he explained, so he wanted to use staged and hand-coloured images to give it a theatrical, Bollywood feel.
The places Yogananthan travelled to for the project are also all significant to the Ramayana. At the back of Dandaka, there is a long index that refers to each image with credits and footnotes. Some are factual, revealing the significance of the setting or the characters, while others point to academic arguments about the Ramayana, and excerpts from newspaper articles and tripadvisor reviews.
Some of these footnotes and reviews are comic, one online review of the town of Sitamarhi reading: “Folklore aside, we did not see any ancient temples or structures that validate the story… In fact, many of the young tourists were more particular in taking selfies”. But regardless of what the comments say, they all highlight how important the Ramayana is to India and its population.
As such, Yogananthan decided to create a free version of his books, as he knew the printed versions would be out of reach for many of those who might like to see it. The official website for the project, a-myth-of-two-souls.com, presents a smaller, more digestible selection of images, in a layout that works digitally, but still remains coherent with the story. It’s a space, says Yogananthan, “where anyone could see the work”.
Vasantha Yogananthan: A Myth of Two Souls is on show at The Print Room, The Photographers’ Gallery, 16 – 18 Ramillies Street London W1F 7LW until 14 January https://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/whats-on/display/vasantha-yogananthan-myth-two-souls