Writer. Painter. Outsider.

In her groundbreaking graphic novels, SMFA at Tufts graduate Amruta Patil defies easy categorization

Amruta Patil is always looking for herself in stories—and when she doesn’t find anything, she writes a new one.

That’s not to say her work is autobiographical, exactly. Running the gamut from sharp-edged, modern narratives to lush epics rooted in tradition, Patil’s graphic novels defy easy categorization. But she has a knack for inserting a perspective that’s been missing, whether it’s that of a feminist, a queer woman, or a small-town Indian who grew up somewhat disconnected from her culture until a life abroad drew her back.

Since graduating from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts, Patil, AG04 (MFA), has built a reputation for herself as an ambitious, surprising writer with an ever-evolving art style. Her publishing debut was 2008’s Kari, a wry, urban story centered on a queer woman living in a fictional metropolis called Smog City. The graphic novel’s black-and-white illustrations recall Frida Kahlo, among other influences.

For her next two books, Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean and Sauptik: Blood and Flowers, Patil turned her attention to ancient Sanskrit texts. Her retelling of the Mahabharata, a sprawling Indian epic full of philosophy and familial conflict, takes the perspective of unlikely narrators to turn the old tales on their heads. The effect is augmented by her bright, colorful drawings and collages constructed with pages from modern magazines.

A collaboration with writer-illustrator Devdutt Pattanaik followed in 2019: Aranyaka: Book of the Forest, which channels Indian folklore into a meditation on hunger, love, and the natural world. Though all four books touch on ideas and characters that are deeply personal to her, clearly no two Amruta Patil graphic novels are quite the same.

“I would say she’s a warrior,” comic book historian Jean-Pierre Mercier observed. “She’s someone who is always trying to break through limits and possibilities.”

Catching Up on Cultures

The first 20 years of Patil’s life were spent in India. She grew up in Goa, in a town scarce on graphic novels and art museums. After finishing her undergraduate education, Patil took what she calls “a typical lower middle-class Indian cop-out” and landed a job in advertising, but the financial security that came with agency work couldn’t sate her.

“I didn't like the [advertising] world and I felt very stifled,” she said. “I found the whole thing of trying to con people into buying plastic chairs and underwear was not really my thing... So I wanted to run away somewhere and study more of what made sense to me personally.”

That impulse led her to SMFA and her first experiences out of the country. Patil recalls that time as one of newness, of catching up on culture she had never encountered—or at least not up close. At the Museum of Fine Arts, she spent time with the Matisse and Degas paintings she had seen only in textbooks—when she wasn’t keeping a watchful eye as a security guard, a job she took to pay her Boston rent.

Feeling homesick, she also immersed herself in India’s oldest stories, like the Mahabharata, epics she had barely touched in her secular childhood. And she wrote, whenever she had a spare moment, producing comics (which are typically serialized) and some of the SMFA program’s first graphic novels (self-contained stories).

“She’s been on a trajectory of her artistic style,” said Bonnie Donohue, professor of the practice at SMFA and Patil’s graduate program advisor. “She’s rooting her work now more in traditional Indian stories, with a hard feminist turn… but she was working with sort of sharper images in the beginning, very contemporary-looking.”

Even 18 years later, Patil stands out to her former advisor, as both an artist and personality.

“She's got a very strong presence, like she's really in charge of her being,” Donohue said. “And also very, very kind. She's in charge of her being, but she's not bossy.”

‘A Diehard Foolish Person’

Patil used her past life in advertising to shape the protagonist of Kari, a disaffected copywriter in a fraught relationship with another woman. It was a story that took place at the same time as Section 377, the Indian law that criminalized homosexuality until 2018. But as the debut of an unknown author in a country that was, at the time, somewhat wary of graphic novels, at least as a respectable art form, Kari did not generate much controversy. The impressive reputation it currently enjoys came later, after years of word of mouth.

The book did make Patil India’s first female graphic novelist, as nearly every profile of her is quick to note. She regards the label with some amusement.

“Somebody’s got to be the first to do something,” she said. “I can't claim much credit. I can claim credit for being a diehard foolish person who has done impractical work when I didn't make money off it, out of love. This I'll take credit for.”

After Kari, Patil spent the next decade in Angoulême, France, known as the capital of comic books, as an artist in residence at the comics and multimedia program La Maison des Auteurs. It was there that she met and befriended Mercier, a 30-year veteran of the nearby comics museum. Initially, he remembers, they could converse only in English but “a year and a half later on, she was speaking French, which is to me exactly the way she is,” he recalled with a laugh. “She decided that she would have to deal with this, so she learned French and she's a good French speaker.”

In 2019, Patil moved back to India. During the pandemic, she has been discovering a “more spontaneous, childlike” side of herself through large-format painting, and working on a collaborative project that will pair international artists and writers on journalistic, graphic narratives. Soon, she hopes to dive into her fifth book, tentatively titled The Sum of All Colors, which she bills as a return to contemporary stories, with a particular focus on women in their 40s and 50s.

Though she can’t share much of this new work yet, it is sure to embrace Patil’s favorite kind of character and perhaps the most unifying theme of her decades of work: outsiders.

“I think we are all a little bit bizarre and weird in our own fashions,” she said. “That’s been my own experience of never neatly fitting into any category, never being Indian enough or feminine enough, or, you know, straight enough or anything enough, really.”

Patil’s art also doesn’t fit neatly into categories, she said, so she finds it natural to offer “voice to characters that don't speak from within the mainstream.” She added, “What’s the point of one more mainstream character anyway?”

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