The Illustrated Mahabharata – coffee table book for the ages

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NEW YORK – The Illustrated Mahabharata – The Definitive Guide to India’s Greatest Epic (hardcover; 512 pages; $50; DK) is the hefty coffee table book which you’ll really read, and re-read, will be cherished by generations. Fair warning: if you’re not of generous disposition, don’t place it as a centerpiece when guests descend; the engaging book makes it worthwhile to ignore blasé conversations, instill desire to borrow, take home, perhaps make it a keepsake.

With more than 500 stunning color images drawn from various sources showcasing India’s varied art forms, the lavishly produced book encapsulates the complete stories from all the 18 chapters of India’s greatest epic which by popular consensus was first authored by the Sage Vyasa, as well as shlokas and their translation from the Bhagavad Gita and the Harivamsha.

The images in the book, wrapped in a textured jacket with gold foil, includes selection of bas relief, sculptures, lithographs, apart from paintings in different styles, including Rajasthani and Moghul miniatures, as well as illustrations from the Razmnama, the Persian retelling of the epic commissioned by Emperor Akbar; Chitrakathi, a folk painting style from the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh; Kalighat from West Bengal, and Madhubani, a folk art from Bihar and Nepal, and Kerala mural style with frescoes inspired from mythology, among others.

What’s really unique about the book, however, is the readability factor. Visually compelling, the book breaks down rich narratives heavy with mythology and intricately woven stories-within-stories, into easily assimilated form; it’s highly entertaining reading for adults, and children as well.

One is hooked after reading the first few pages. It’s hard to put it down, unless the arms start to get tired holding it up.

The publishers, DK (Dorling Kindersley), a division of Penguin Random House, have in the past brought out Illustrated Bible as well. This edition of the Mahabharata is a notable achievement, considering the painstaking compilation and production took 11 months, with as many as 15 people working on it.

The book has been guided mainly by Bibek Debroy’s 10 volumes of the Mahabharata, and popular Indian author and mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik’s adaptation ‘Jaya’. Debroy, an eminent economist, is currently one of three members of the Niti Aayog, a policy think tank of the Indian government.

The Illustrated Mahabharata does a great job of making uninitiated readers familiar with the main characters in the humungous epic which has nearly 100,000 shlokas, by detailed family trees.

Debroy notes in his foreword: “Despite several retellings floating around, there is nothing quite like the present illustrated retelling of the epic. This one is captivating and different because it draws on all those cultural strands, past and contemporary, to enrich the story.”

It’s time to move on from those Amar Chitra Katha comics you bought for your child, traveling to India. The Illustrated Mahabharata is worth every penny of its $50 price.

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