Narayan Debnath, the great comic book writer, illustrator and author, who created the iconic Bengali cartoon characters "Bantul the Great", "Handa Bhonda" and "Nonte Phonte", passed away on January 18, after a prolonged illness. He was 96. Debnath’s death marks the end of an era in Bengal’s cultural history.
Debnath was a pioneer in the field of comics in Bengal and his creations have been an integral part of Bengali childhood for the last 60 years, from the time the lovable duo of Handa and Bhonda made their appearance in the children’s magazine Shuktara in 1962. The stories of the mischievous and thin Handa constantly pulling a fast one over the stout and slow Bhonda was an instant hit with children. In fact, "Handa Bhonda" has the distinction of being the longest-running comic strip in Bengal with more than 50 years behind it.
In 1965 another immortal character of Debnath’s burst through the pages of Shuktara – "Bantul the Great". The powerfully built and indestructible Bantul, who apparently was inspired by another Bengali icon, the body builder Manohar Aich, was Bengal’s first very own superhero, whose powers could be compared to none other than Superman’s. But unlike the Superman comics, "Bantul the Great" was funny; and in spite of his great physical powers, the character was clumsy, not at all adept in the use of technology, and often found himself in a bit of a fix due to underestimation of his own great strength. In fact, Bantul was initially portrayed as just a freakishly strong lad, it was during the India-Pakistan war of 1971 that Debnath bestowed Bantul with superhuman powers at the insistence of the editors of the magazine.
Debnath’s third great creation, "Nonte Phonte" first appeared in Kishore Bharati magazine in 1969. While the slapstick humour in "Handa Bhonda" and the superhuman feats of "Bantul the Great" were a huge hit with children, "Nonte Phonte" appealed to slightly older kids. The setting of the stories was a boarding school and the protagonists Nonte and Phonte themselves were in their mid-teens. The series also had two other unforgettable characters – the tall-talking compulsive liar Keltu da, who was a few years older than Nonte and Phonte; and the boarding school superintendent Hatiram Pati.
For generations of kids these characters created by Debnath were a constant source of joy and discussion. Even as technological advancement changed the world all over, the world inside Debnath’s comics remained the same, and never lost their charm or popularity. Creators of the popular socio-political online cartoon strip Crocodile in Water, Tiger on Land (CWTL), which ran successfully from 2010 till 2018, feel Debnath’s works were not only an inseparable part of Bengali childhood, but also portrayed a slice of Bengali life and society in a light-hearted manner.
"Debnath’s works were something that was very unique to Kolkata and Bengal – those comic strips were an integral part of growing up in Bengal. The artwork was not really detailed, but it captured the essence Bengali life in the city and the suburbs. It was very entertaining, and, looking at them now, it makes us nostalgic for a more innocent time. The language was fun and there was a delicious thrill in seeing innocent slang words being given legitimacy in print," one of the creators of CWTL, who chose to remain anonymous, told Frontline .
The well-known novelist and academic Saikat Majumdar said, "Narayan Debnath’s works were our introduction to the world of comics in a very indigenous way. Even those Bengali children growing up outside Bengal, like my kids, read "Bantul the Great" and "Handa Bhonda" in English. What I particularly loved was the evocation of the hostel life in "Nonte Phonte", because having grown up in a boarding school, I know that life very well. There were these incredible descriptions of food – and I know from personal experience how hungry boys in the hostel can get for good food. I also see in his works a continuation of a slightly earlier tradition of comic literature like Narayan Gangopadhyay’s Teni da and Premendra Mitra’s Ghana da. Keltu da in "Nonte Phonte" has a lot of similarities with Teni da."
Born in Shibpur, Howrah, on November 25, 1925, Debnath was interested in visual arts from a very early age. After finishing his schooling, he enrolled to study fine arts in Indian Art College, but did not complete the five-year degree course. He worked as a freelance comic book artist and illustrator and from 1950 onwards worked extensively illustrating children’s books, classics, and adventure stories. In 1962, when he came up with the idea of "Handa Bhonda", the genre of comics was largely unexplored in Bengali popular literature. Before Debnath’s "Handa Bhonda" came into being, Pratul Chandra Lahiri’s "Sheyal Pandit" strip that used to appear in the Bengali newpaper Jugantar was the only Bengali comic strip that the public knew of. Debnath was a prolific writer and illustrator and worked and created right till the end of his life. Some of his other creations include "Potolchand the Magician", "Bahadur Beral", "Danpite Khadu ar tar Chemical Dadu", "Petuk Master Batuklal" and "Shutki-Mutki."
Though his creations were enormously popular, Debnath himself was a shy, reclusive person, choosing to stay far away from the public eye. In 2013 he was the given the Banga Bibhushan Award by the West Bengal government, and the same year he was conferred the Sahitya Akademi Award. In 2021 he was awarded the Padma Shri by the government of India.
In his condolence message, Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted on social media: "Shri Narayan Debnath Ji brightened several lives through his works, cartoons and illustrations. His works reflected his intellectual prowess. The characters he created will remain eternally popular. Pained by his demise. Condolences to his family and admirers…"
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee tweeted: "Extremely sad that the noted litterateur, illustrator, cartoonist, and creator of some immortal characters for children's world, Narayan Debnath is no more. He had created Bantul the Great, Handa- Bhonda, Nonte-Fonte, figures that have been etched in our hearts for decades."
Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar said Debnath’s death was a "huge loss to the world of literary creativity and comics".