Pallavi Aiyar’s article in The Wire, “A Graphic Reminder of an Intertwined History”, looks at a new graphic novel recently put out depicting the long relationship between India and Indonesia, Travels Through Time: The Story of India and Indonesia.
For an Indian, visiting Indonesia can feel like looking into a distorting mirror. Much looks and feels familiar, albeit in an off-kilter manner. On the island of Java, home to the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, references to the Hindu epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata are embedded in the language, on street signs, in political commentary and even on bus advertisements. An enormous statue of Krishna leading Arjuna into battle dominates the roundabout in front of Monas, Jakarta’s main nationalist monument. Billboards for an energy drink, Kuku Bima, promise imbibers Bhima-like strength.
Amongst the country’s favourite forms of mass entertainment is wayang kulit, a form of shadow puppet theatre that features tales from the Hindu epics. Only the way in which characters are spelled differs: Bhima becomes Bima, Sita is Sinta, and Hanuman morphs into Hanoman. The physical form of wayang puppets is also highly stylised and distinctive of Java.
But the resonance is loud. That India and Indonesia are civilisational cousins is not a fact that is gently suggested by the environment. Rather, it whacks you on the head like a sledgehammer. Indonesians pepper ordinary conversation with words like manushya (man) and karena (because). When I was unable to find a taxi driver who knew where the national museum in Jakarta was, a local friend advised me to ask for “Museum Gajah” instead. The national museum has a statue of an elephant in the garden and it is by its nickname, elephant or gajah museum, that most citizens know the building. A large percentage of the vocabulary of Bahasa Indonesia, a standardized form of Malay, derives from Indian languages like Sanskrit, Tamil and Urdu. Indonesian has 750 loan words from Sanskrit alone.
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Given this relationship to History, it is unsurprising that mythology has a significant place in both Indian and Indonesian societies. I was therefore immediately intrigued when I heard about a new Amar Chitra Katha comic book that detailed the India-Indonesia relationship through the ages. Amar Chitra Katha’s luridly illustrated comics featuring an assorted cast of demons, gods and cursing sages had been an integral part of my childhood in Delhi. By the age of eight I’d been able, thanks to them, to use “verily” in daily conversation. To have one of these comic books step out of the realm of the Gods and into that of Asian history was somehow apposite, given how much the Gods had shaped this history.
Titled, Travels Through Time: The Story of India and Indonesia, the comic is an initiative of the entrepreneurial Indian ambassador in Jakarta, Gurjit Singh. Put together by him, with the assistance of Indonesian historian and Indophile Tamalia Alisjahbana, the comic was released in Jakarta as part of a 6-month long festival of India in Indonesia, earlier this year.