They veer away from the mythical ruler’s popular image as a portly man in garish clothes and crown
A swashbuckling Mahabali playing football and skateboarding, the benevolent king of the epics tucking into a sadya and resembling your friendly neighbourhood uncle are just some of the myriad ways illustrators are re-imagining the mythical king. Legend has it that Onam is celebrated when the King comes for an annual visit to his former kingdom after he was banished to the nether world by Vamana, an avatar of Lord Vishnu.
Reworking the idea
As long as Remya Rajeev could remember, every Onam, in pop culture, Mahabali was pictured as this portly, moustachioed man with a pot belly, mostly clad in garish clothes and a crown. When Remya, a student of animation, got the chance to reimagine the Asura king, she picturised him as this very Malayali uncle sans crown or gaudy clothes.
“I always wondered how and why the Asura king was shown as the fair, plump king wearing a sacred thread? Was it a kind of cultural appropriation that transformed him into this image from the warrior and scholar that he was supposed to be in our epics? So I was glad when designer Sabari Venu invited people to rework the king’s image,” she says.
Sabari, working from home in Thiruvananthapuram, says that he was always puzzled how a Dravidian king could be fair. Last year, just before Onam, he challenged followers of his Insta handle (@meancurry) to reinterpret the King’s image. “The entries were amazing and people of all age groups participated in it. One had Mahabali as a woman while there was a child who had given Mahabali a skull cap. Many had tried to show him as an ordinary Malayali devoid of crown, silks and gold,” he recalls.
Graphic artist Rohit Bhasi feels that this idea of the King’s colourful garments must have come from Tamil and Telugu films that depicted Asuras in a certain fashion. “Films influence us greatly and that might be why hoardings and ads began to picturise him as a plump man,” says Rohit.
Recently, Rohit came up with two illustrations of Mahabali that veered away from the usual. “This is an Onam during a pandemic. I drew a Parashurama, Mahabali and Vamana, all wearing masks, spending time by the riverside, perhaps trying to figure out how Ganesha would wear a mask,” he says. Moreover, Mahabali is portrayed as this ruler who was extremely fond of his people. So Rohit wondered how it would be if he were to interact with some present-day Keralites. In that illustration the benevolent monarch is hanging out with some guys and a girl.
Artist-academic Manoj Vyloor, Principal of the College of Fine Arts, Thiruvananthapuram, has a different explanation: “Every one has his/her version of Mahabali in his head and heart. There is a folk song that goes ‘Onathappa, kudavayara…(Onathappa with a potbelly.)’ Probably someone may have been inspired by that to create a Mahabali in that image as a plump person. This depiction has more to do with the commercialisation of Onam,” While welcoming the efforts of graphic artists to re-imagine the popular visualisation Mahabali, he feels it has to be done carefully and with due emphasis on what the king has come to represent for Malayalis all over the world.
Keeping in with those ideas of a just ruler, visual artist Unnikrishna Menon Damodaran has depicted a series of Mahabali as part of a set he created for ‘Meanwhile in Kerala’ on his Instagram handle (@unnikrishna), focussing on issues and happenings in Kerala. His Mahabali, all masked and covered, in line with COVID-19 protocol, is greeting KK Shyalaja, Health Minister of Kerala.
Says Unnikrishna: “My Mahabali is young and wearing a yellow PPEkit. He is on a yearly performance appraisal tour, meeting key personnel of the Kerala Government and leaders. Onam is different in the time of the pandemic and, obviously, the image of Mahabali too is impacted. But the values of that icon are intact and gives Malayalis hope in these days of Onam — the unbeatable spirit of equality and justice for all. He is still around in Kerala, probably meeting a few “popular” newsmakers!”