Priya’s Shakti Comics Co-creator Ram Devineni and his tryst with social awareness

The brutal and barbaric rape case of Nirbhaya on 21 December 2012 has left an indelible mark on our country. Not only did it bring the safety of women into dire question, but also caused a national outrage that culminated into wide-spread protests. Priya’s Shakti comics co-creator Ram Devineni was one of the many to partake in those protests, simmering with anger and resentment at what had transpired and what responses garnered from the political lobby. But amid all the chaos, Devineni, the producer of The Russian Woodpecker, came up with the idea of turning the issue into comics; not only to vent out the frustrations, but also provoke a change in the antediluvian mindset that exists in certain section of the masses.
Priya’s Shakti co-creator and producer Ram Devineni
To quote Devineni himself, “I was in Delhi when the horrible gang rape happened in 2012, and was involved in the protests that followed. Like many people, I was horrified by what had happened and angered by the indifference exhibited by government authorities at every level. There was an enormous outcry, particularly from young adults and teenagers. At one of the protests, my colleague and I spoke to a Delhi police officer and asked him for his opinion on the incident. His response was as scandalous as ‘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.” Cultural problem it is, and in an attempt to overcome the same he started Priya’s Shakti, an ode to all the women in the country, that chronicles around the life of Priya, a rape survivor-turned superhero who inspires people to change. The rave reviews of the comics paved way for a second instalment titled Priya’s Mirror, this time shifting the attention to the acid-attack victims from New York, Bogota and New Delhi, and how the protagonist tackles such gender problems. And now, Devineni and his talented team are working on the third chapter of Priya’s life. The topic? Well, another compelling and equally relevant issue of sex trafficking! Titled Priya and the Lost Girls, Priya’s Shakti has collaborated with the non-governmental organisation Apne Aap Women Worldwide to develop the story, with Vikas Menon and Parasmita Vohra the co-writers. Legendary American artist Dan Goldman is the co-creator, alongside whom he interviewed some exploited women in Kolkata in 2016 for the story.
(From left) Ram Devineni with Benjamin Dix and Dan Goldman
Critically acclaimed for his web comics Shooting War, Goldman met Devineni in New York and the two would go on to create the popular AR comic series. Upon the experience of working with him as well as with the founder of PositiveNegatives Benjamin Dix, he beams, “Working with Dan Goldman on the comic has been an immense pleasure. Both of us have gone on this journey together and he is a major talent who has created a powerful symbol and character in the global movement to fight sexual violence – Priya.” “Both Ben and Dan are not only talented creators and artists, but also social activists. And they have both used comics to address social issues. I had the privilege to travel with them and attend universities in Bangalore and Chennai on using comics for social good in Jan. The students gave an amazing response to their presentations,” he further states. Augmented reality is an instrumental part of Priya’s Shakti comics. In fact, they go hand in hand. Both the Priya Shakti comics are AR enabled, whilst the third one will be one too. “I always wanted the comic book to have an interactive component that is accessible and reach wide audiences in India and around the world. It was when I travelled to Italy and spent time in the Sistine Chapel did the idea of augmented reality fully come to me. I was captivated by the splendor of Michelangelo’s achievement. Each fresco panel told a distinct story, and together illuminated a greater and divine experience. I wanted to go deeper into each painting, but was limited by the periphery of my senses. That’s when the idea of using augmented reality technology came to me as a way to experience the real world without being removed from it” Devineni recalls. But how does this all work, you may wonder. Here’s what he has to explain – “Augmented reality compels you to interact with your surroundings, and gives you additional information and a new perspective on what you see around you.” And in case you didn’t know – “By scanning the comic book with the popular augmented reality app Blippar, you can view animation, real-life stories, and other interactive elements pop-out of the pages!” How’s that for a comic experience? Devineni also shares his insights about the influence of AR on its readers, and also exudes pride in being one of the torch-bearers of AR implementations in comics. “We believe the use of augmented reality will have a significant impact on readers in India who are not as familiar with this approach. There is a huge wow factor when readers first experience augmented reality. Our comic book will be one of the first publications to use augmented reality in India, and can help define the new frontiers of integrating books, exhibitions, and public art with augmented reality.” Priya’s Shakti is also known for AR exhibitions around the world, and if you wish to gain the experience, fly off to Santa Clara University in California this year end! On organising one here in India, he says, “Hopefully next year!”
Priya’s Shakti augmented reality art exhibition
There are also plans of touching upon the mixed reality concept too. “Currently we are learning how to do it since it is very new and cutting edge. But I am only interested in continuing the Priya series and haven’t thought of branching into other series.” Devineni and co.’s efforts for social causes extend far beyond the illustrations in the comics. They’re a part of the World Bank’s WEvolve global initiative too! Here’s the whys and wherefores – “The World Bank saw how successful the first comic was and the amount of press coverage we got, so they approached us in creating the second chapter, Priya’s Mirror. The goal of the comic series and our partnership with the World Bank’s WEvolve program is to reach teenagers. The comic format and use of AR technology through Blippar is perfectly designed and popular with teenagers. We hope to distribute the comics in schools for free in future.”
Ram Devineni (second from left) with his creative team
Now that isn’t just a great movement, but also a testament to Priya’s Shakti’s popularity. It’s something even the creators themselves didn’t anticipated. Devineni says, “Our team was surprised by the reaction to the series and it continues to grow. We knew we had a great project and cause, but none of us expected it to go viral.” So what’s the secret to its success? “I think the power of the comic book series is that we are presenting very difficult topics – gang rape and acid attacks – in a very approachable and empathetic way. Readers can relate with the characters and the story, especially the main character Priya and understand these problems without being turned off by them. Creating a female superhero and using the genre of superheroes provides readers with a familiarity and accessibility to the comic book and these problems.”