Tales of Indian gods told with European art-inspired illustrations erase the Indian feel from this otherwise beautiful and magnificent production, says Elen Turner.
In his dedication, author John Jackson writes: “This book is dedicated to all those who enjoy the beliefs and dreams of their fellow beings.” This intention runs throughout this book, a re-telling and re-illustration of the tales of Hinduism’s great gods, the Mahadevas. Described as an “illustrated novel for sophisticated readers of all ages”, Brahma Dreaming is a large hardback, around half text and half illustration. Its production is extremely high quality and classy: all black-and-white, save for a little subtle red, with thick, high quality paper and exquisite illustrations.
Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini’s copious illustrations are luxurious, detailed and sweeping, delightful to savour. They would look good on the wall of a gallery, and clearly draw on a variety of sources: Art Nouveau motifs, Pre-Raphaelite figures, and even May Gibbs and other Victorian-era children’s book illustrators are evoked on the first page, with tiny babies strewn around an open fruit and the words: “Tales of Creation.”
As beautiful as Terrazzini’s illustrations are, my problem with them as accompaniments to a book called Brahma Dreaming is that they entirely eliminated the Indian feel of the stories. It may have been too easy to fall into Orientalist traps and over-do the exotic Arabesques and flourishes, and therefore Terrazzini should be commended for bringing an entirely different feel to the illustrations. However, I felt it was a shame to completely erase the Indian-ness of the tales from the visual narrative. Making a story more widely accessible is one thing, but in the end these stories ended up looking and feeling far too European. In an illustration of Sati and Shiva, for instance, Sati looks rather like an English-rose Rapunzel, adorned with a floral headpiece and a Medieval-esque gown. Granted, Shiva is wearing a tiger skin, which rears up roaring over his head, but even this doesn’t take away from the overwhelming strawberries-and-cream appearance of Sati. Rather than avoiding Indian visual clichés altogether, it perhaps would have been smarter for Terrazini to incorporate a feeling of the location in unexpected ways. Even those motifs that could be construed as ‘Oriental’ have more of an Art Nouveau feel than a South Asian one.
Mythological tales, parables, and so on are genres completely different from the short story or the novel, so one should not expect a book such as Brahma Dreaming to read like these other genres. However, I felt that Jackson’s narrative style was rather stale, again far too reminiscent of the European manner of telling these types of tale. It wasn’t the content that disappointed me, but rather the flat, telling-not-showing manner in which everything happened. In the end it was the pictures that propelled one through the book, rather than the stories. As with the illustrations, the storytelling technique demonstrates a missed opportunity to do something more innovative.
Overall, however, this is a beautiful and creative book, one that would make an excellent gift for the book lover who already has everything. It is not so much a book to read, but rather peruse.
Elen Turner is an editor, writer and reader currently based in Kathmandu. She has a PhD in Literature and Gender Studies from the Australian National University, and writes a blog on South Asian literature.