In the Ramayana, one of the longest epic poems in world literature and a foundational Hindu text, we recount the life of Rama, a legendary prince. The story tracks the prince’s life from birth in the foothills of the Himalayas to his banishment in the south and everything in-between. It speaks to traditional male archetypes narrating universal themes of love, loss, warfare, discrimination, family and infidelity.
Ramayana is not just a story: it presents the teachings of ancient Hindu sages in narrative allegory, interspersing philosophical and ethical elements. Since it was first recorded in 300BC by the Sanskrit poet Valmiki, hundreds of renditions have been created. Its stories are retold and performed in ceremonies and festivals all over India, and it’s been adapted for TV, animation, video games and even social media.
Franco-Tamil photographer Vasantha Yogananthan is following Rama’s mythical journey, travelling the length of India to create ‘A Myth of Two Souls’ an on-going project documenting the omnipresence nature of the text in everyday life. The project is formatted as seven photo books; four published; three forthcoming, one for each chapter of the epic poem.
Yogananthan’s interpretation of the Ramayana is unique as he blends the gaze of a foreigner, looking at India through western eyes, with his family connection to Sri Lanka. “My Dad is Sri Lankan,” he shares “South India and Sri Lanka have an interesting history, and I was drawn to making work in that part of the world. I never felt like this project is an exploration of my heritage. The Ramayana just really resonated with me. I saw it’s legacy manifested everywhere in Indian life. Its pervasiveness was palpable.”
The project is told through a combination of landscapes, portraits and details, a hybrid of documentary and staged moments. He actively blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, leaving the viewer wondering what is real and what is staged. Richness comes from this tension, as you move between dreamy, evocative landscapes and the peculiar energy of the staged portraits. The work manifests as visual poems, enigmatic, mystical layers marked by an otherworldly beauty and the lightness of touch makes every image feel sacred and calm.
To add greater complexity, each chapter is narrated through a new visual vernacular. He explored the ancient tradition of hand painting, collaborating with a local, trained in the technically meticulous art form. Working without colour references, the painter added an extra layer of interpretation to a project already well aware of the opacity of myth. This method, developed in the 19th century before the advent of colour film, adds a temporal dimension to the project, creating a dialogue between eras, a journey through time.
His decision to make A Myth of Two Souls part-publishing project came from a place of intimacy and an ability to heighten the experience of the work. “A photobook can be engaged with over a long period, and that has exciting opportunities in terms of editing and sequencing. It allows you to think in less linear ways and build-hidden relationships between pictures. It feels right for this project.” He continues, “I also love the freedom it gives you, as a photographer you are often compromising when it comes to how your work is seen. With a photo book, you can call the shots and be quite radical in pushing ideas.”