In Pictures: Why We Must Revive And Celebrate The Legacy Of Vaddadi Papaiah ‘VaPa’

Source: Swarajymag (Original :
Credit : Aravindan Neelakandan
  • Vaddadi Papaiah ‘VaPa’ illustrated many covers for the ‘Chandamama’ magazine. These illustrations were supremely attractive while staying honest to the spiritual messages depicted in them.

    VaPa would have turned 100 in 2021. There cannot be a better time to remember, revive, and celebrate the life and works of the great artist.

This Ganesh Chaturthi, I came across a bound volume of Ambulimama– the Tamil language edition of Chandamama. This was a magazine for children that came in many Indian languages, including Sanskrit, and also English before it ceased to print. On the same day, I shared two beautiful cover-art depictions of Ganesha from the magazine, on Twitter. In response, I was informed that the cover art was made by ‘VaPa’, whose centenary year is currently one—2021.

I discovered that Vaddadi Papaiah, known popularly for his artistic sign, ‘VaPa’, does not even have a proper Wikipedia page or a website in his honour.

To my knowledge, for more than three decades, at least, he enriched our childhood; and the childhood of children throughout India, cutting across linguistic barriers, through his cover-art in Chandamama and its various editions. I realised, with shock, that 10 September, the centenary birthday of this artist, had passed almost unnoticed and uncelebrated.

Then there is also a feeling of guilt. We are thankless to a phenomenal personality who brought life and depth to our childhood. Not just once but every month.

So tomorrow, let us not be surprised if Chandamama gets resurrected by a group that stands against the values which the magazine propagated. In fact, let us prepare ourselves for such a take-over.

Regardless, I decided to do the least one can do. I tried to gather as much of the cover-art works made by ‘VaPa’ from my own collection and from the web, as possible. And here I present them to you – both as a remembrance of ‘VaPa’ on his centenary year and also as an article to mark ‘Anant Pai’ day (17 September).

As all auspicious things should start, let us start with Ganesha. Between 1981-82, the Tamil Ambulimama serialized a Puranic series on Ganesha.

The Ambulimama series on our Gods and Goddesses combined both textual as well as oral and popular local traditions. But all these were combined seamlessly and showed a unitary spirit of expansion and realization of the self is the purpose of the series, through the Upasana and devotion to the deity.

There is the famous story of Ganesha and Skanda-Muruga competing for the fruit of wisdom, which would be given to the one who would circumambulate the universe first.

Skanda at once rushes out, while Ganesha simply circumambulates Shiva-Parvati. In a variant of this popular tale, the competition between Skanda and Ganesha is to be decided by who circumambulates the sun first. Skanda rides fast on his peacock but Ganesha calmly sits on Meru, the Puranic axis mundi of the universe, around which all celestial objects, including the sun, revolve. So, instead of he going around the sun, the sun goes around him. VaPa depicts Ganesha on top of Meru with a swastika wheel under Him. The swastika itself is made of pranavas and a pranava also emanates from Ganesha’s hands. In the gems, he wears and in the amrutha kalash, one can also see the national tricolour.

This cover-art conveys not just the Puranic story but also hints at its inner depth and leaves it for the children to decode. This was the genius of VaPa.

At the request of Shiva, Ganesha shows his vishwarupa or the all-containing cosmic form. He not only holds all the divine weapons but also the veena. And Devi Saraswati starts playing the praises of Ganesha in the Raga Hamsadhwani. A remarkable depiction by VaPa – showing how the adorable and lovable form of Ganesha contains in it the mysteries of the Universe – both physical and spiritual.

The Hindu Puranic tradition can make any deity supreme, depending on the given Purana. So, when a child learns the Puranas, he or she understand the inner language and realises that all Gods are the emanations of the supreme Brahman, which is the real purport of the texts.

Coming back to VaPa’s illustrations, Ganesha once wanted to hear the flute of Sri Krishna and approached him in the form of a musician who plays the traditional mridangam and challenged Sri Krishna. But as Sri Krishna started playing the Raga Yamuna Kalyani, Ganesha assumed His real form and started dancing.

The cover-art showing Krishna playing the flute and Ganesha dancing to it brings out a seminal quality of Hindu Deities – that Gods and Goddesses can sing and dance. The Ganesha-Krishna duo is a constant companion of Hindu children through generations. One wishes such paintings form a part and parcel of our school environments.

When Sasta was worshipped in a fierce form with animal sacrifices, Ganesha came there in the form of a child and stopped the worshippers of Sasta from doing such acts and made them understand that the Divine is a benign force. Sasta was happy about this.

We learn social justice as part and parcel of our spirituality. In the above two cover-arts, we see how Ganesha grants grace to two different bhaktas.

In the first, we see the great musician called Gajanana Pandita, who lived in Vatapi and composed kirtanas on Ganesha in various ragas. He is shown accompanied by his grandson, Ganesha Bhatta.

In the next cover-art, there is a depiction of Ganesha with a sugarcane. In a variant of the famous Nandanar story, a landlord asks a farm labourer to eat all the harvested sugarcanes from his estate if he wanted to perform Gansesha puja, as doing puja was considered by him to be the preserve of the ‘higher’ castes alone.

To everyone’s surprise, they saw all the sugarcanes eaten and the pulp alone remaining and witnessed a mysterious elephant doing this.

VaPa also illustrated episodes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Below is a depiction of an iconic episode from the latter:

Sri Krishna making Arjuna arise and fight. The iconic Gitopadesa. Sri Krishna had promised not to lift a weapon during the war. So, notice the VaPa touch of depicting the ever inseparable sudrashana chakra as an-almost invisible rotating circle on his finger.

The next cover-art shows an Arjuna who has arisen, energised by the Bhagavad-Gita. Notice also the flag, with a striking resemblance to the Indian national flag. That was VaPa’s way of removing the artificial barrier between the sacred and the secular in the minds of the children. A gentle hint in depiction, with a profound impact.

VaPa also illustrated scenes from the Ramayana for the serialized form of the epic in Chandamama and also for another serial called Veera Hanuman, which aired for years together and explained all the Puranic episodes – found both in Valmiki Ramayana as well as in other sacred narrations- related to Hanuman.

Here we see some of the cover-arts made for the serial.

As Hanuman goes in search of Sita, the mountain Mainak, which was protected by Vayu, wanted to be a place where Hanuman could rest and refresh himself. But Hanuman, with all his concern only for Mother Sita, refused.

In the second image above, Hanuman knocks down Lankini, the giant guard of Lanka. Beaten, Lankini remembers a prophecy, that the day she would be knocked down by a little monkey, the destruction of Lanka would begin.

Notice that VaPa has shown Hanuman using his left hand to strike Lankini. In the katha-kalakshepas of Ramayana this point gets stressed that as Lankini was a woman, Hanuman did not use his right hand lest his full force harm her badly.

Hanuman sees how Ravana harasses Sita and then how the rakshasis torture her. Sita is depressed and suicidal thoughts start crossing her mind. Hanuman realises this and sings the praise of Sri Rama, which makes Sita abandon her negative thoughts.

As Hanuman introduces himself, Sita is doubtful. What if this was another asuric trick? So, Hanuman removes her doubts. He shows none other than Sri Rama in his heart. Sita is double-assured and gives her choodamani.

Later, Hanuman destroys Ashoka Vatika and presents himself before Ravana.

Then Hanuman sets fire to Lanka. Notice the different forms Hanuman takes, befitting the context. He becomes tiny and he becomes gigantic. He becomes angry when he sees Sita tormented. He becomes devotion personified in front of Mother Sita. He is serene and composed in front of Ravana when advising Him. Here, as he sets fire to Lanka, he becomes playful and child-like.

That is the genius of VaPa.

Hanuman returns to Sri Rama and presents him the choodamaniMission accomplished!

Sethu bandhana begins. Here, we see a very creative depiction with Neelan, the chief-architect, directing the Vanara Sena to build the bridge to Lanka. Note the modern-looking instrument with Neelan. VaPa really knew how to fire a child’s imagination.

And here’s Maha Hanuman carrying the Sanjeevini Parvat. An iconic image etched in the minds of billions of Hindus, from time immemorial and it gets retold and repainted and re-sculptured again and again and again. Here, Hanuman is majestic and yet concerned. Vayu-putra moves through the air and the clouds give way for his Rama seva.

Though not in the Valmiki Ramayana, the story of Ahi Ravana or Mayil Ravana is famous in southern India. This asura, adept in sorcery, abducts Sri Rama and Lakshmana and plans to sacrifice them to Kali. Ahi Ravana’s life actually resides in five bees which should be killed simultaneously to kill him. So, Hanuman reaches the place where these bees are kept in a safe chest and becomes Pancha-mukha Anjaneya.

Apart from his own face, Hanuman assumes the faces of Garuda, Narasimha, Varaha and Hyagriva. This form of Hanuman is considered extremely powerful.

The cover art shows the force with which five-faced Hanuman takes in all the five bees at the same time.

(Yes. The concept of a Horcrux perhaps originated in India before it became famous through Harry Potter).

The Veera Hanuman serial in Ambulimama also showed the very devotional Rama-Anjaneya Yuddha.

Again, even though this episode is not in the Valmiki Ramayana, it is popular through other traditions. Hanuman confronts Sri Rama to save a king whom Rama had promised to slay because Sage Viswamitra complained that the king insulted him.

The king had asked for protection from Anjana, the mother of Hanuman, and she had promised him protection, without knowing it was Sri Rama who was coming to attack the king.

Hanuman, understanding the innocence of the king, and also his duty to stand by his mother’s promise, provides protection to the king, which makes Sri Rama angry.

The power of Rama-nama, the only weapon Hanuman employs against Sri Rama, is pitted against the power of Rama-bana, the arrows of Sri Rama.

The arrows fail and Viswamitra himself intervenes and stops the fight. The cover depiction shows Hanuman in his gigantic form and Sri Rama absorbing in his heart the arrows sent by himself. Again, a depiction that creates a lasting impression on a child and imprints the psyche with the civilizational wisdom of India.

Being a Chiranjeevi, Hanuman acrosses over to the age of the Krishna avatara. Krishna, to teach Balarama, who had grown a bit of an ego, a lesson, makes him confront Hanuman. Balarama get beaten in the fight. Then, feigning anger at his elder brother being beaten, Krishna goes for a wrestling contest with Hanuman.

At the very touch of Sri Krishna, Hanuman feels the ecstasy of being touched by Sri Rama. Notice how VaPa brings out the spirit-of-fighting transforming into the spirit-of-devotion in Hanuman.

Above, we see Mother Sita doing the agni-pravesha – entering the fire. Agni himself comes forth and brings Sita with him and tells Sri Rama of her greatness. VaPa depicts the serene emotions of everyone deftly. Note the emotion of Agni in particular and the celestial flowers falling on Sita.

The second image shows the departure of Sita. She was the daughter of Mother Earth and like Mother Earth, she endured and endured. But at last when Sri Rama demanded an agni-pravesha again (the initial one she volunteered for), she decided to depart.

The ground split open and Mother Earth emerged and took her daughter with her. The Goddess, armed with the trident, and her daughter showing hand of benediction to those who had hurt her. The look of concern on the face of Mother Earth for her daughter and the look of divine serenity on the face of Sita – all these make this cover-art divine.

Sri Rama, having finished his avataric mission, returns to Vaikuntha by entering the Sarayu. Hanuman, the Chiranjeevi, lives on.

The final story in the series was in a time-delocalized context, where Hanuman Himself assumes the role of Brahma and naturally in his creation, all are as noble and virtuous as Sri Rama and Sita.

There’s Mahavishnu reclining on the thousand-headed Adi-Sesha, the primal infinite serpent in the cosmic milk ocean. From his navel arises a lotus, in which, encircled by Pranava, is Hanuman as Brahma. And even as he creates, he is immersed in Rama nama japa. Again, an artistic and spiritual master-piece from the brushes of VaPa.

VaPa also illustrated a Shiva Purana series – which formed the back cover of Ambulimama.

Here, apart from the covers I have in my collection, I have also used the covers from digital archives – though they were in Telugu. But that is what makes the whole thing wonderful in a way. VaPa was from Andhra with Telugu as his mother tongue and his art work resonated with hearts of the children all across India, even if Puranic stories depicted might not have been heard by them.

An important episode in the Shiva Purana is the marriage of Parvati and Shiva. Born to Himavan, the lord of the Himalayas, Parvati grew up in Shiva’s love.

She served the Lord with devotion but devas wanted to catalyse the whole thing by sending Kamadeva, who was eventually burnt by Shiva. Then Parvati immersed herself in vairagya bhakti of a yogini. It is now that Shiva teases and tests her before eventually marrying Parvati.

After the sacred marriage and divine union, of the flame of Shiva was born Skanda- the six headed Murugan.

He would fight the demonic brothers and vanquish them. Later he would also woo and marry Valli – the daughter of a tribal chieftain.

Oh Shiva! He drinks the poison that comes when the devas and asuras churn the ocean of milk for amrit. He saves all existence. And he dances the cosmic dance. At this time Ambulimama serialized both the Mahabharata (front cover) and Shiva Purana (back cover).

Both the images above were created by VaPa for the Shiva Purana series. Here, the cosmic dance is shown in all its Puranic glory while also bringing out its cosmic significance in a way a child can understand. Note the symmetry of the Divine Form hinted at by the six-pointed star.

Shiva tests and protects his devotees. He shows their greatness to the world. The tribal Thinnan-turned-Kannappa, taking an arrow to pluck his eye out for the Lord, while keeping his foot on the bleeding eye of the Shivalinga – gets etched in the minds of children.

Never judge anyone by birth or social status or even the outward forms of worship – devotion to Shiva alone matters. Shiva emerges with radiant anger as Kala Samhara Murthi. He appears from the Shivalinga and punishes Yama for trying to take the life of Markandeya, who had taken refuge in the Lord. Depiction brings out how much Shiva gets enraged when His devotees are tormented.

The Seerala-Chiruthondar episode is well known in Tamil Nadu and is quite popular with variations in other parts of southern India also. In the version presented in Ambulimama, Chriuthondar was a yaksha who was born as a human because of a curse. But he insisted that he be born a Shiva devotee. Shiva came in the form of mendicant who asked for the meat of a child cooked by his parents with the consent and full acceptance of the boy as well as parents. Chiruthondar agreed and did it. Shiva resurrected the boy. In this version, Shiva comes with his consort also.

For Somanatha, a boy who was brought up by his widowed mother, festival times are torturous. When all his friends have relatives visiting their houses or them going to theirs, he and his widowed mother are all alone. At one point after crying his heart out to Shiva, he decides to end his life. Then, Shiva, the principle that permeates and animates all existence, comes along with his Shakti as the brother-in-law and sister of the boy, respectively.

Not only the Shiva Purana but also the Devi Bhagavata was taken to the children by Chandamama. Sri Devi Bhagavata Purana is a puranic text, rich with spiritual treasures and could be considered as a complete Puranic encyclopaedia. Here are some cover-arts illustrating episodes from this great cultural and spiritual work:

During the dissolution of all existence, ultimately in the primal cosmic waters, Mahavishnu in the form of an adorable child, floats on a banyan leaf. This Divine Child sees an enchanting Feminine form. She is the Shakti – the Maha Devi. She does mantra-upadesha for the infant Vishnu, according to Devi Bhagavatam. VaPa has depicted this scene in his cover-art.

Note that her saree carries the national tricolour. One can see this depiction consistently in all the works of VaPa. He gave us, as children, the basic truth that the Indian nation nurtures in her national being the most beautiful forms of the transcendental Divine. The patriotism that arises from that understanding alone is true patriotism in the context of India.

While Mahavishnu was in his yoganidra, from his ears came two asuras, Madhu and Kaitabha. According to the Devi Bhagavatam, Vishnu could not fight with both the danavas simultaneously. So, he meditated upon the Goddess. Maha Devi used her maya to delude the two asuras who were then tricked by Vishnu and slain. The cover art shows this Puranic event.

When the devas wanted to awaken Vishnu to fight against Hyagreevasura, they lure a worm to tamper with a bow string, which in turn leads to a disastrous result of beheading Vishnu. Shocked, they worship the Goddess. The Devi comes and gives them a solution. Then Mahavishnu with a horse head fights against Hyagreevasura and slays him.

In the other image, we Maha Devi in the form well known for her fighting and slaying of the buffalo-headed demon Mahishasura .

As Kamsa without mercy decides to kill the female child by smashing its head, the child flies out of his hand and Devi Maha Maya appears in a fierce form and roars that one who would kill Kamsa was very much alive.

While this is a well known episode, the next image depicts a scene from the Devi-Bhagavata Purana. The prince Sudarshan of Ayodhya was in exile, after he was cheated of his kingdom usurped by his younger half-brother and his step-mother’s grandfather.

He and his mother had taken refuge in the ashrama of Rishi Bharadwaj. He became a devotee of the Goddess and the Goddess appeared in his dream and made him invincible in archery. The prince in exile, Sudarshan, and Sasikala, the daughter of the king of Kashi, were in love. But the king was reluctant to give his daughter in marriage to a prince without a kingdom.

Nevertheless Sudarshan attended the swayamvara, where the princess chose him. As all the powerful kings attack the prince and his bride, the Goddess appears in her glorious warrior form, protecting the lovers in the battlefield.

Now for some miscellaneous depictions:

Tamil tradition has it that Avvai, who was called Sundari, intially did not want to get married. She was an ardent devotee of Ganesha. She prayed to Ganesha that she attain the form of an old woman. And it was granted. The first verse every Tamil child learns to this day is ‘Aathichudi‘, a work on Dharma by Avvai. The picture here shows her transformation.

In its last years, Ambulimama started republishing the cover art of VaPa. This is from that later day of re-publishing.

The depiction of Sri Rama and Lakshmana being received by Sabari the tribal woman. She offers Sri Rama fruits. Though not in the Valmiki Ramayana, in the traditional telling of the episode, the tribal old woman saint made sure that Sri Rama gets the best fruit by first tasting them herself. Sri Rama happily accepted these bitten fruits because of the purity of heart of his devotee.

India is one nation mainly because of these stories – divine, sacred, and profound. Vaddadi Papaiah (1921-1992), who worked every day on cover-art illustrations, thus comes in the tradition of those great souls – punyatmas who kept the tradition alive.

And by forgetting him, we will make ourselves the weakest link in the chain of our heritage.

So let me finish this with an appeal – to whoever it reaches. Honour him. Make an exhibition of his cover arts – let there be a permanent exhibition in his native place and a moving exhibition that visits every village and town. Make memorabilia out of his cover arts. Create painting workshops for children in his name – training children in drawing the sacred forms and Puranic narratives. One needs to look at the drawings of ‘VaPa’, Shankar who passed away recently and Vinu and then look at the present day Amar Chitra Katha depictions of Hindu Gods and Goddesses that look more Greek, to understand what we are losing out.

If we do not honour our great educators, who instilled in us cultural and spiritual literacy, then we will become the weakest link – answerable both to our forefathers and posterity.