An illustrated novel explores Hinduism’s colourful mythology in monochrome
John Jackson, the author of the recently released Brahma Dreaming, prefers to call his stories legends or folk tales than to classify them as mythology.“Mythology cannot be dismissed as something trivial. Myths have their roots in what Jung called ‘the collective unconscious’. They are part of the human heritage and can teach us much about human behaviour.”
On a trek in the Himalayas, in 1978, Jackson encountered Hindus near the Indian border, at the foot of the Annapurna range, and Buddhists in the middle areas. “High up, in the final layer, there are animists, who see spirit in everything,” says Jackson, now 84, and a keen student of world religion.
“Mountain people are excellent storytellers. I was fascinated by their legends and myths, passed on by itinerant storytellers who told them for a bowl of soup and a crust of bread in the villages they travelled to.” After the trek, the London-based polymath writer, lawyer, campaigner and founder of JJ Books, Jackson, spent 35 years researching Indian and Nepalese mythology, including the Mahabharata.
His encounters with wandering storytellers, and extensive research on ancient Mesopotamia, the breeding ground of many of the world’s religions, culminated in the creation of Brahma Dreaming. The 248-page illustrated book re-imagines some of Hinduism’s foundational myths using rich yet simple storytelling paired with black and white artwork by Italian illustrator Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini.
The story opens with Brahma, who, in the Tales of Creation, dreams the world into being. The focus later shifts to Vishnu and Shiva in the Tales of Preservation and Tales of Destruction. Jackson’s take is not a significant departure from Hindu mythology as we know it. Yet, it does not glorify characters to godly proportions. “The idea was to create a book that would use words and imagery to draw the reader into these timeless stories. It can well be seen as a successor of the mountain storytellers’ of erstwhile times.”
Terrazzini has taken some creative liberties with the imagery, depicting mythological figures in ways one may not be used to. There’s a lanky Shiva with a roaring tiger on his back and a lovelorn goddess Sati in a sweeping gown and floral head wreath. Another chapter depicts Ganesha effortlessly balancing a ridiculously large head on a human body while he rides atop a gigantic rat.
“Using pure black and white, and, in a sense, being limited by such a choice, helped me to be expressive and free in my imagery,” says Terrazzini, who usually works with watercolours. “These stories, with their dark and surreal nature, served to benefit from this.” Not always adhering to traditional iconography, her versions of Hindu deities personify the characters, if not make them more approachable.
The hardcover, cloth-bound Brahma Dreaming is, as much as anything, an exploration of the imagination. “I hope the book will appeal to the imaginative and intuitive child that lives in all of us, whether we are 10 or 110,” says Jackson.
Published in Man’s World (MW) in October 2013