On the streets of Mumbai, the walls have a story to tell. Priya, a rape survivor turned comic book heroine, is depicted in a mural, sitting motionless on a tiger—a symbol of her shakti or divine power. With the use of a smartphone, her story comes to life through augmented reality. Aided by Hindu gods and goddesses, Priya finds inner strength and combats the social stigma of sexual assault.
“Speak without shame,” Priya says, “and bring about the change you want to see.”
In India, survivors of rape cannot be portrayed in media. The law is intended to protect survivors, but actually prevents them from speaking out. “It’s against the law, even if they want to tell their stories,” artist Ram Devineni says.
After participating in a protest following the gang rape of a young girl named Jyoti Singh in 2012, Devineni, a documentary filmmaker, decided to tell these women’s stories for them. He began to cut parts of old Bollywood films to create the storyline of what is now Priya’s Shakti. A friend noticed the similarity the makeshift film had to a comic book and he decided to switch mediums. The story began as augmented reality comic book and evolved into street installations in Mumbai.
In the fall, Santa Clara University students were able to experience Priya’s Shakti thanks to an installation of the comic’s panels in the University Library. Using an app on their phones, students could see one image with their naked eyes, then scan the same image with their phone and see another dimension.
The display came to SCU thanks to Sharmila Lodhia, associate professor of women’s and gender studies. Lodhia had researched and written about cases involving sexual violence in India, specifically, the social and political ruptures that followed the attack on Singh. During her research, Devineni’s project stood out as especially innovative and Lodhia wanted to bring his work to SCU. She organized the installation and a visit to campus, where he spoke and was interviewed on the Ignatian Center’s Bannan Institute podcast, INTEGRAL.
On the podcast, Devineni said one of his goals with Priya’s Shakti was to change the focal point of discussions about sexual assault from the act itself to the impact society’s reaction has on the survivor.
“Most advocates focus on the victim or the perpetrator,” Devineni says. “What we decided to do with Priya’s Shakti was to focus on how society perceives gender violence and how society perceives rape survivors. Because this perception really defines the healing process, legal issues and laws, and also more importantly how to make concise and long-lasting change.”
Lodhia says the use of comics as a medium for Priya’s Shakti was a powerful choice. Comics are a readily available form of visual culture in India. The Amar Chitra Katha comic series, for example, serve as an entry point to Hindu mythology, history, and culture for children.
“These comics serve as transmitters of a larger archive of religious and cultural knowledge and also as purveyors of the broader moral/cultural values embedded in their tales of triumph of good over evil and in the human cost of displeasing the gods,” Lodhia says. “Priya’s Shakti in its form echoes this more traditional use of comics as a pedagogical tool, but at the same time transgresses these boundaries. Disrupting what scholars have identified as the more patriarchal and nationalist framework of more traditional Indian comics, Priya’s Shakti offers a counter-hegemonic narrative that elevates a new type of female protagonist.”