Sexual violence in India has become a fierce topic of discussion in recent years, and a new ‘augmented reality’ comic book aims to shed even more light on the issue. Priya's Shakti tells the story of Priya, a gang-rape survivor, and the Goddess Parvati as they struggle against sexual assault. The comic can be downloaded for free, while paintings enhanced for augmented reality have been set up in Mumbai and exhibitions worldwide, allowing smartphone users to see animations ‘pop up’ out of the artwork. Indian-American filmmaker Ram Devineni decided to make the comic after public outcry in the aftermath of gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old student on a Delhi bus in 2012. Metro spoke with Devineni to learn more about his project.
Rape is a very challenging topic to discuss. How did you manage it with a comic book?
— Like many people, I was horrified by what had happened in 2012 and angered by the indifference exhibited by government authorities at every level. So, for about a year I traveled around India and southeast Asia learning from poets and activists working for NGOs focused on gender-based violence. Talking with several rape survivors, I realized how difficult it was for them to seek justice and how much their lives were constantly under threat after they reported the crime. On a parallel journey of understanding, I began researching Hindu mythology and discovered the many rich stories involving regular people and the gods. So, I began formulating a new mythological tale where a mortal woman and rape survivor would seek help from the Goddess Parvati — only after she had nowhere else to turn.
Why do you think misogyny in India is a big problem?
— Rape is about power and control. And this is a huge problem in societies that are overtly masculine or patriarchal. India is going through some extraordinary changes, and women are moving into the workforce and urban areas in large numbers; many men feel threatened by this and could contribute to the unusual graphic nature of these gang rapes.
The comic book format certainly makes the issue more accessible to discuss…
— Indeed. Although the subject matter - rape - is a heavy topic, we believe the comic book is very accessible and readable especially for pre-teens (8-14 years old), who are at a pivotal age where there are learning of sexuality and gender roles. As for the title, Priya is the name of the character but also means “love” and Shakti means “power” or “empowerment”.
India’s population is very young. Nearly half the population is under 25 years old – and they are the main audience for our comic book. Although our goal is to eventually reach wider audiences, we have chosen to initially focus on a huge demographic who we believe will be very receptive to both the message and the format of the comic.
Were you a big comic book fan when you were younger?
— Yes! I grew up reading Amar Chitra Katha [popular comic book series in India – Ed.] and was hugely influenced by them. I think millions of children have read the series, and they’ve entered the collective consciousness of contemporary Indian culture. Often, I first learned about Hindu mythology through their comic book series.
What are you expecting from readers of your own comic book?
— We had over 500,000 downloads/reads worldwide with 50% in India and the rest in other countries including Brazil, which has a big readership of the comic book. I think this was a big surprise because the comic book was made by Indians about India for Indians, meaning we thought it was a very “Indian” project. But Priya has become a global icon. The United Nations recognized her as a “global equality champion”. We are working with Apne Aap [women’s rights NGO in India – Ed.] to get it into schools.
And can we expect more adventures with Priya?
— Yes! The comic book has been universally received all over the world with over 300 feature news stories. Only criticism we had was that we did not go far enough – but there will be more chapters.