When Vasantha Yogananthan came across a comic book version of the ancient Indian Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana, in his father’s home as a child, he couldn’t have known that it would later take him on a seven-year photographic journey across India. “I was really just looking at the pictures,” the Paris-based photographer remembers. “I wasn’t even reading English at the time, but it stuck with me. You never know what the subconscious will keep.” The Ramayana lodged itself firmly in Vasantha’s imagination, eventually emerging in 2013 as the impetus for his own epic narrative: A Myth of Two Souls.
To condense the vast poetic work’s seven kandas, each containing 24,000 verses, into a brief summary, the Ramayana tells the story of Prince Rama of Ayodhya, who is banished from his father’s kingdom at the hands of his stepmother and forced to spend 14 years in exile, accompanied by his wife, Sita, and brother, Lakshmana. During their time in the forest, Sita is kidnapped by Ravana, the ten-headed ruler of Lanka. Enlisting an army of monkeys to help him retrieve Sita, Rama travels to Lanka where a huge battle ensues, resulting in the loss of many lives. He eventually manages to slay Ravana and liberate Sita, ultimately returning to Ayodhya, where he is crowned king.
As is conventional in any good story, the Ramayana has been retold time and time again, by different writers, in translation and across literary forms. Today, the Ramayana remains deeply entrenched in the collective consciousness of India, with the story finding its way into dance, festivals, television series, animated cartoons, comic books, paintings, and even commercial advertising. The epic originates in Hindu tradition but, Vasantha says, “even if you’re not into religion and don’t go to the temple every week, you know the story – Muslim people know the story, Christian people know the story.” So, too, the story has spread beyond its native India to permeate wider South Asian culture – finding its way, indeed, to Vasantha’s Sri Lankan father. With the images of Rama’s journey imprinted on his own consciousness, when Vasantha decided to embark on a photographic project in India, it was not the narrative itself, but the presence of the epic story in the cultural subconscious that he wanted to explore.
Vasantha’s initial understanding of the project was that it would exist at a remove from traditional photographic documentation, yet remain firmly planted in everyday realities. “I didn’t want it to take the form of documentary or classic journalism,” he says. “I was not looking to pick a societal issue and delve into it. The idea was rather to take a fiction and see how that fiction is still rolling through everyday life – and how that fiction remains very important for people today.” And so began A Myth of Two Souls. Echoing the form and structure of the epic itself, A Myth of Two Souls is a monumental exercise in constructing a mythic reality, or, more accurately, using reality to construct a myth. Seven kandas, seven years, seven books.
Currently in its fifth chapter, A Myth of Two Souls unfolds as a series of digital and physical publications, with the final chapter due to become available in July 2020. The text, written by Indian women writers, tells the story of the Ramayana from the point of view of Sita. In this sense, the project is a broadly collaborative one, weaving together different methods of storytelling, visual and verbal, to direct the interpretation of the viewer or the reader.
The title comes, Vasantha tells us, from “interviews that I don’t use directly in the publications, but which are just for me – to dig into the project and ideas.” A woman he interviewed in 2013 told him that the relationship between Rama and Sita is exemplary of the notion that “in India, when you fall in love with someone and you decide to spend this life together, you don’t marry for one life, you marry for seven lives. She told me it’s not a marriage between two bodies, it’s a ‘myth of two souls’. Even when you die, the two souls are still together, travelling into the next life.”
The photographer’s vision for his photographic narrative has evolved dramatically from its initial conception. “It started as a project that would be very grounded in reality, and then from chapter to chapter it became more and more fictional,” he explains. “If you look at book one and book five, even though there is a continuous thread and you can recognise a photographic style, the books are very much different.” While they form a cohesive narrative, each chapter of the project has a particular theme and visual identity. The first book, Early Times, for example, focuses on childhood, while the most recent publication, Howling Winds focuses exclusively on animals, which are, Vasantha says, “very important in the story, because they have all kinds of powers. When the animals enter the narrative, it signals going through reality to an imaginary world.”
This passage from reality into fantasy is evident even in the first chapter. Although many of the shots have the spontaneity of documentary photography, the scenery is shrouded in a perpetual mist, creating an aura of unreality. Enveloped in a kind of mystic fog, it is as though the environments in the photographs become untethered from the real and float beyond time and place. “It’s a very short period just before sunrise – thirty to forty-five minutes – when the light is already here, but not yet bright,” says Vasantha. “The fog gives the landscape this very surreal effect. When I started the project, I shot at all times of day and after I got back from my first trip to India and looked at the contact sheet, I realised it looked too real, too much like documentary, too grounded in everyday life. Shooting early in the morning with that fog and that particular light, the landscape entered another zone.”
Across the project, the ancient technique of hand-painting black and white photographic prints is employed as a way of further distancing the images from their real-life contexts and placing them in a timeless, fictional reality. Speaking of his collaboration with skilled Indian painter, Jaykumar Shankar, Vasantha says: “The idea was to give him the black and white print and then leave him completely free. I really stepped back from the process – I wanted his own artistic vision, the way he sees colours and light and contrast, to overlay my photograph. I think the space has allowed him to experiment a lot over time. It’s very interesting to see that, for example, when he started, he was using a very realistic palette. Everything would feel slightly off but still very real. Now he’s experimenting with colours much more.”
In the most recent chapter, Vasantha has taken on the job of painting the prints himself, using acrylics to pattern the animals with new markings that signify their transformation into fantastical creatures. “When I was painting on the prints,” he says, “it was a way of taking the picture as a first step towards something else – and not knowing what that something else was going to be.”
Speaking of his multidisciplinary visual references, Vasantha tells us: “In terms of framing and composition and light, I definitely look more at cinema and painting than at photography.” This much is clear from the ways in which he constructs his shots as a photographer. Shooting in large format, Vasantha pays great attention to his framing and to the arrangement of shapes and figures. There is a certain compositional symmetry within the images, each element balanced with another. The scenes tend to converge around a central point of focus – a fisherman crouching in the shallows, a drinking fountain, a telephone pole spewing out long wires, an archer pulling his bow taut, a pair of fighting dogs, a doorway, a couple holding hands under a tree, a passageway between two walls. Otherwise they are composed according to formal resonances – an alignment of poles, buildings or trees, a harmony of postures and levels among human figures. Scattered among these are portraits that, augmented by Jaykumar’s overpainting, draw heavily on the conventions of traditional portraiture in painting.
Vasantha’s inclusion of pages from the Ramayana comic strip further enhances the link between his photography and the tradition of storytelling created by the epic. But it is the affiliation of his work with the fictional worlds created by cinema that most powerfully sustains Vasantha’s act of myth-making. “I watch a lot of movies,” he admits. “I used to get quite depressed about photography’s abilities being weak compared to what a movie can do – the sound and everything coming together to tell a story. But then what photography lacks is also its greatest strength. With each image, even when you put them together in a book or an exhibition, you will never achieve narration as in a movie. Your mind has more space to travel into each picture. There are many different ways of using these blanks that photography leaves in a story. It opens up a lot of space for the imagination.”
Guptar Ghat. Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, India, 2013 ©Vasantha Yogananthan / Chose Commune
The influence of cinematic narrative construction is clear in the peopled shots that Vasantha deliberately sets up as photographic renditions of scenes from the poem. Working in this way is, he reflects, “more like working as a movie director”. With regard to the fourth chapter, Dandaka, the comic strip chapter, for example, Vasantha tells us: “I was looking for couples – real couples – and asking them to play out the story of the prince and the princess. Doing that with real couples was very interesting, because you’re obviously photographing two people who are almost actors. They act for the camera – it’s not like something you’ve captured in reality. But then they are also giving something to you, the photographer. They are still a couple and they have a particular relationship.”
This decision to use non-professional actors, simply recruiting people who happened to pass by the chosen locations, situates A Myth of Two Souls firmly at the crossroads of fiction and reality. The actors in Vasantha’s photographic retelling of the Ramayana are simultaneously playing themselves and the characters that they have connected with via the myth and its cultural offshoots. In a sense, the characters that the people are playing are already intimately known to them, as pervasive in their consciousnesses as in Vasantha’s own from the moment he came across his dad’s comic book.
And yet of all Vasantha’s carefully planned, framed and staged compositions, it is a more spontaneous shot that holds particular value for him. “There is one that is still my favourite,” he says. “It’s a picture titled Longing for Love, of a fisherwoman pulling nets from the sea. I stayed in this village for one week and every morning we would go to the beach and see the fishermen doing the very physical job of pulling the nets from the sea. One morning, a young woman of maybe 16 or 17 was helping. She was always moving, so I couldn’t shoot with the large format and I obviously couldn’t ask her to replay it for me. So I just spent about an hour with her, taking fifty or sixty pictures with the medium format. Out of those pictures, one is there.” For Vasantha, Longing for Love tells him that spontaneously captured moments of life can be just as miraculous as mythic creations. “Sometimes the best pictures are not the staged ones,” he admits. “You don’t make many pictures that will last – even on this huge project, maybe ten will last. In 20 or so years, when I’m looking back, I think that will be one of the pictures I’m still very happy with.”
All this – the structure and epic scale of the project, the incorporation of text and comic strip, the painted overlays, the constructed scenes and street-cast actors – works towards conveying the blurriness of the line between fiction and reality that Vasantha sees around cultural and personal understandings of the Ramayana in India. “India has become a very modern country – everyone is on cellphones, everyone is on the internet, people have the same aspirations and want the same things that people want in the west,” he says. And yet, “there is that link to spirituality and mysticism that is greater than in the west.”
As such, the locations through which Rama journeys in the original story are imbued, in real life, with the mythic significance bestowed upon them by the Ramayana. “All the locations I visited were mentioned in the original epic,” Vasantha notes. “The locations are very important – the beach where Rama and Sita crossed from India to go to Sri Lanka, or the famous city in the north that is believed to be their kingdom. People take family trips or travel great distances – 30 to 40 hours in a train – to be in a place where the Ramayana happened. The beach is at the southern tip of India, you can’t go further, and thousands of people go there every year just to be where Rama and Sita were. I wanted to see, when people were physically in these locations, what it meant to them, and how could we make a picture together based on that.”
This collaborative aspect of A Myth of Two Souls is hugely important. Although Vasantha’s role when making staged photographs is often comparable to that of a film director, what he ultimately aims to capture is each subject’s own individual interpretation and embodiment of the story, according to their personal connection with the narrative and characters of the Ramayana. “The actors in my series are very free,” he says. “It was part of the process to let them experiment and be comfortable in their bodies – just to let them be, and see what happened.”
Vasantha is not seeking to impose a single, fixed vision of the ancient epic’s mythic and real-world importance onto a people and culture. A Myth of Two Souls is, rather, a collaboration between different forms of storytelling and different visions of that story, as well as a dialogue between people who have connected with the Ramayana – painters, writers, artists, photographers and actors. “I have strived not to make the project exotic,” he says. “No-one is wearing costumes or carrying props and there are almost no women wearing saris – it’s not the Steve McCurry India which, 40 years later, seems very problematic to a lot of Indian people, and to me as well.”
Remaining open to being guided in his photographic journey by the people he meets and the specific nature of the places he visits, Vasantha weaves a myth that is as much an exploration of the Ramayana’s pervasive presence and cultural importance as it is a retelling of the ancient tale. His use of a medium that relies on the real world for its images makes for an intriguing paradox, where reality becomes a device for myth-making. “Almost every artistic field in India has retold the epic – painting, cinema, TV, comics, books – and there are hundreds of different versions – feminist takes on the epic, for example. Very strangely, no-one has done it before with photography. No-one has had the idea of doing it in the real world, in the real locations, with real people.”
Perhaps the assumption previously has been that photography is too closely aligned with the real, too preoccupied with documentation to convey the mystical. But as Vasantha says: “That tension between fiction and reality is what makes the project what it is.” Indeed, for a fiction that is as present in everyday life as the Ramayana, photography seems like an oddly appropriate method of representation. “What I love most about photography,” Vasantha says, “is that you have the ability to shoot everyday life, to shoot reality, but somehow in the editing and sequencing process, you make that reality into a fiction.” What a A Myth of Two Souls ultimately delivers to the viewer is reality, made myth.
Party Field. Janakpur, Nepal, 2016 ©Vasantha Yogananthan / Chose Commune