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Priya's Shakti:
Addressing Gender Imbalance through Religious Art

by Sutra Journal November, 2015

Priya's Shakti

Editor’s note:

An innovative social impact multimedia project that helps illuminate attitudes towards gender-based violence (GBV), Priya’s Shakti arose in the aftermath of a highly-publicized gang rape on a bus in New Delhi in December 2012 that outraged India and the world. The project centers on the Goddess Parvati and Priya, a mortal woman devotee and survivor of rape and is rooted in ancient matriarchal traditions that have been displaced in modern representations of Hindu culture. They fight against gender-based sexual violence in India and around the world in this layered storytelling project and augmented reality comic book, supporting the movement against patriarchy, misogyny and indifference through love, creativity and solidarity.

Priya’s Shakti creates an alternative narrative and voice against GBV in popular culture through the Hindu mythological canon. Through its message, this project reaches wide audiences in India and around the world - anywhere GBV is an issue.

Sutra Journal: Can you tell us who you are and how Priya’s Shakti came about?

Ram Devineni: I am a documentary filmmaker and a poet. I was in Delhi when the horrible gang rape happened on the bus in 2012, and was involved in the protests that soon followed. Like many people, I was horrified by what had happened and angered by the indifference exhibited by the government authorities at every level. There was an enormous outcry, in particular from young adults and teenagers - both women and men. At one of the protests, my colleague and I spoke to a Delhi police officer and asked him for his opinion on what had happened on the bus. Basically the officer’s response was that “no good girl walks home at night”. Implying that she probably deserved it, or at least provoked the attack.

I knew then that the problem of sexual violence in India was not a legal issue; rather it was a cultural problem.

A cultural shift had to happen especially in the views towards the role of women in modern society. Deep-rooted patriarchal views needed to be challenged.

For about a year, I traveled around India and Southeast Asia learning from poets, philosophers, activists, and sociologists 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. Their family, local community, and even the police discouraged them from pursuing criminal action against their attackers. The burden of shame was placed on the victim and not the perpetrators. This created a level of impunity among men to commit more rapes. This comic book creates empathy and identification with rape survivors so they can pursue justice without shame.

Priya Shakti mural in Delhi

Sutra Journal: Can you tell us a little bit about your background, early experiences? What attracted you to this?

Ram Devineni: I was born in southern India near Hyderabad, and moved to the USA when I was 6 years old, but went to India most summers with my family. While in India I discovered the great mythological stories. I selected the comic book format because I grew up reading Amar Chitra Katha comic books 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. Also, comics are an important part of our culture, and hugely popular with teenagers and young adults.

Priya’s Shakti was drawn by Dan Goldman and co-written by Vikas K. Menon.

Priya Shakti - Shiva and Paravati

Sutra Journal: How did the iconography of Priya's Shakti based on Durgā come about?

Ram Devineni: In India, Hinduism and its iconography are ever-present. The image of the Goddess Durga astride a tiger can be found in homes, businesses and places of worship across the nation. Our project references and transforms this image through our iconic image of Priya sitting on a tiger - Priya conquering her fears. Priya is a survivor of rape and is the catalyst for change in our comic book. Our goal is to make the image of Priya on the tiger a powerful symbol for fighting gender-based violence: Priya (Beloved) Shakti (Power)! In my opinion, the core essence of Hinduism is about conquering your fears. In the story, Priya confronts the tiger that has been stalking her. She turns her fear, the tiger, in to her power - her Shakti. Also mythology is the story of us all.

In Hindu mythology, Parvati (an incarnation of Durga) is the goddess that challenges Shiva, the other gods and humans to open their eyes to sensitivity and struggles of others. For her, wisdom is meaningless if it does not enable the liberation of those who are trapped in fear. So, her role is to challenge Priya to conquer her fears, but it is up to Priya to motivate and challenge other humans. Also, in Hindu philosophy, Shiva’s eyes are shut because he has distanced himself from the fears of others. For Shiva, the easiest solution is the most direct one - stop the humans from procreating. But, Parvati will not allow that. In Devdutt Pattanaik’s book, The Seven Secrets of Shiva he writes:

“That is why the goddess stands in opposition of Shiva as both the radiant Gauri (producing light), and as the dark Kali (consuming light). She hopes to change Shiva the insensitive angry god into Shankara, the god who empathizes and is patient.”

Priya Shakti mural in Delhi

Sutra Journal: Where do you see the concept going from here?

Ram Devineni: In future chapters we plan to use Durga and other goddesses from Hinduism and other world religions and mythologies. Currently we are working on the next chapter, which focuses on acid attacks. Exactly how, we have not yet determined.

Sutra Journal: How has Priya’s Shakti changed something in you, or allowed you to see the world in a different way, perhaps?

Ram Devineni: I never realized that gender-based violence was a problem in India, until then when I was in Delhi and the gang rape happened. For many, that incident opened our eyes to the problem and the inequality that existed between the genders - not only in India, but also all around the world.

I think the most important thing that we want to emphasize with the comic book is that change is possible. Trying to create a cultural shift is incredibly difficult, but not impossible.

India is going through some remarkable and monumental changes at the moment, and they are happening in a short period of time. People’s views have not caught up with the speed in which things are changing in India. But, what was clear to me from the massive protests that happened all over India after the horrible rape on the bus, is that we want things to change in our country.

There were so many teenagers and young adults at those protests, and they will be the future catalyst and leaders who will define India, which is a hopeful sign.

Priya's Shakti riding Tiger

Sutra Journal: What are your observations on the response to Priya’s Shakti? What gives you the greatest satisfaction?

Ram Devineni: We were surprised that the comic book became a huge hit with over 500,000 downloads worldwide and nearly 400 news stories. Recently UN Women honored it with a ‘gender equality’ champion label. I think Priya resonates with audiences all over the world, and is a powerful symbol to support the movement to fight gender-based violence. We are working with our main NGO partner Apne Aap Women Worldwide to get the comic book into schools. Apne Aap Women Worldwide is one of India’s leading NGOs, supporting at-risk girls and women by assuring them the access to their rights, as well as working to deter the purchase of sex through impacting the change in policies and social change.

Watch a Video Trailer of Priya's Shakti

Website and Download

Priya's Shakti riding Tiger

Go to website to download comic for free,
or you can download it as a free ebook from amazon.

Ram Devineni

by Ram Devineni

November, 2015

About Ram Devineni

Ram Devineni is a filmmaker, publisher and founder of Rattapallax films and magazine. He produced, edited and directed the feature documentary The Human Tower, which was shot in India, Chile, and Spain. Recently, he produced The Russian Woodpecker, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. He is the co-creator of the augmented reality comic book, Priya’s Shakti, which received the 2015 Tribeca Film Institute New Media Fund from the Ford Foundation.

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