In graphic detail

Print edition : February 25, 2011

Graphic novelists delve into political history for their narratives and their works and attracting new readership.

TWO graphic novels with political themes have invited attention towards the growing genre and has given the nascent graphic novel industry in India a big boost. Delhi Calm by Vishwajyoti Ghosh (Harper Collins Publishers India, Noida, 2010; pages 246, Rs.499), is a graphic representation of the Emergency days (between June 26, 1975, and March 21, 1977), and Bhimayana (Navayana Publishing, New Delhi, 2011; pages 106, Rs.395), depicted in vivid colours by award-winning Pradhan-Gond artists, tells the story of Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of India's Constitution. The narration of political stories through the use of graphics has a recent history in India whereas it has a longer tradition in other parts of the world. The form is significant because it breaks away from the traditional technique of visual storytelling through comics. It has generated tremendous interest in the publishing industry and is attracting new readership. Moreover, many of these graphic novels are gaining second lives through filmic adaptations.

Graphic novels are similar to comics in presentation and they would qualify as such if we stretch our definition of what we usually understand by comics. If by comics we understand the graphic representation of a story, then graphic novels would certainly count as comics. On the other hand, if the definition of comics is restricted to something that is clearly children's reading, then graphic novels would not make the cut as readers of graphic novels extends across age groups. For most graphic novel enthusiasts this question is not very important as they see the medium to be a valid form of expression combining narrative with some engagement with the world of ideas or ideology.

Orijit Sen, India's pioneering graphic novelist, told Frontline that, Graphic novels do represent a development or even break from the past in that they are not created specifically for children and often deal with social, political, sexual and other kinds of ideas. Vishwajyoti Ghosh pointed out that while graphic novels had evolved from comics and the form was the same, the content in terms of the narrative in most cases and the page layout in some pushes the form of a comic to the next level where it can also handle serious content like literature and non-fiction.

All the major bookstores across India have dedicated shelf space for graphic novels now and this recognition of the genre comes from the demand for such literature. Graphic novels are also grappling with the identity of comics as a lower form of art and literature. They have gained some respectability among readers who did not take comics seriously.

The history of graphic novels runs parallel with that of comics but it was in the 1970s and the 1980s that longer comic works with more serious themes began to be categorised and marketed as a graphic novels. The dark dystopian tales of Batman, Sandman, Watchmen, V for Vendetta and Sin City set the scene for the emergence of grim, noirish artwork and provided a creative outlet for the provocative minds of people such as Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman. These novels, though heavily political in nature, occur in a surreal dimension. They are hugely popular in metros across the country hooking up the urban youth with a global reader network with all of them soaking up the dystopia that these graphic novels offer. Bangalore even got its first graphic novel caf, dedicated to such fantastic tales, where readers can pay by the hour to sit and wallow in these apocalyptic worlds.

There are also graphic novelists who use the creativity of the medium to write about real stories, incidents and people. The imaginative artwork, more than the words in the speech balloons, is sometimes a more elegant and defining narrative element, lending a personal style to the artist. One of the most famous works in this category is Art Spiegelman's Maus (1986), which is the only graphic/comic work to have won a Pulitzer Prize for literature. It tells the tale of Speigelman's father, a Jew, during the time of the holocaust. Jews are depicted as mice in this work while the Germans are depicted as cats.

Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (2000), which tells the story of a girl living through the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the return of a woman back to her country, was a hit worldwide. Persepolis mixed the elements of the autobiography with a graphic novel. Its simple black and white art infused with a child's point of view and some dark humour provided the perfect introduction to a generation that was ignorant of the Islamic Revolution. Satrapi followed Persepolis with Embroideries (2003), a narrative on the lives of Iranian women.

The use of the graphic novel to present a political theme can be attributed to writers such as Joe Sacco, whose well-known works include Palestine (2001) and The Fixer, A Story from Sarajevo (2003). Sacco's work is grimmer than Satrapi's and is masculine with no humour, establishing him as a strong writer of political graphic novels. Writer/ illustrator Nicolas Wild has chronicled his time in the United States-occupied Kabul in a humorous and realistic way in Kabul Disco (2007).

It was not long before graphic novels made their way into India as well. Orijit Sen's River of Stories (1994) is recognised as India's first graphic novel. Sen's work marked out a different space for itself from comic books.

Bharath Murthy, a researcher on Indian comics in his article, An Art Without a Tradition: A Survey of Indian Comics, published in Marg (December 2009) writes that there is an aesthetic struggle to adopt a Western form (comics) to tell Indian stories, while also competing with the overwhelming influence of other media like film and TV. He also makes a strong distinction between cartoons, especially political cartoons, which he thinks is more respectful than comics for a variety of reasons.

This article traces the history of the newspaper comic strip to the early 1960s with the work of Pran Kumar Sharma who created India's earliest indigenous comic characters through his Diamond Comics. This was followed by Aabid Surti's work in the 1970s, which was an attempt to provide an indigenous substitute for the Western crime/adventure genre of comics that were available in the Indian market at the time. There was also Raj Comics that gave India its own superheroes such as Nagraj, Doga and Super Commando Dhruv.

Amar Chitra Katha was also an important player with its agenda of educating Indian youth about their rich cultural heritage. (It is interesting to note that a recent work, The Classic Popular: Amar Chitra Katha (1967-2007), written by Nandini Chandra, argues that Amar Chitra Katha furthered stereotypes from Hindu mythology and, in the process, ignored the diversity of country while constructing its narratives of history and nationalism. Bharath Murthy's article also discusses comic artists in other languages, such as V.T. Thomas, well known for his work in Malayalam, and Narayan Debnath and Mayukh Choudhury, for their works in Bengali.

India had a rich tradition of comics when the graphic novels came on the scene. Showing a much more serious engagement with their themes and moving beyond the restricting categories of pulp and works for children, graphic novelists have treated their subjects and their art with respect, which seemed to be lacking earlier. In a way, a certain professional approach to comics was adopted, not in the manner of fine-tuning the business end of the product but in treating the medium of comics with the necessary maturity and recognising its immense potential. This approach has worked now.

Orijit Sen's River of Stories was a strong political and social indictment of the Narmada Dam project. It portrayed the lives of the tribal people living along the river banks. Sarnath Banerjee's Corridor (2004) used the phrase graphic novel to describe itself, leading to it often being referred to as India's first graphic novel. Corridor was vastly different from anything that had been published earlier in India. It targeted the smart, well-read reader with a meandering plot and kitschy observations of life in India's large cities. Banerjee took this element further in his second novel, a thicker work called The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers (2007). Again, the plot was tangled in a morass of intelligent explorations of ideas and lives. In an interview to The Hindu Sarnath Banerjee called his reader post-literate, someone like himself a film geek who grew up reading Bahadur comics and (Salman) Rushdie, (Jorge Luis) Borges and (Marcel) Proust.

Other graphic novelists have used their versatile skills of art and prose to tell stories. Parismita Singh's The Hotel at the End of the World (2009) is a fantastic tale of two friends, one legless and the other half blind, who land up at the hotel at the end of the world. Kashmir Pending (2007) by Naseer Ahmed illustrates the problem of the strife in Kashmir. The Believers (2006), a plain and amateur tale without the graphic and ideational flourishes that one has come to associate with the graphic novels in India, dealt with the problem of Islamic extremism in Kerala. Kari (2008) by Amruta Patil is another interesting work that looked at the life of a young woman facing the travails of life after her lover leaves her. Appupen's (pen name of George Matthen) Moonward (2009) is more art than story with the action taking place in Halahala, where the cosmogony of the world is unique to Appupen. It is the weirdest tale to come out of the graphic novel sack in India but the large single panels sometimes tell panoramic tales that no other graphic novelist has managed to do so far.


It is in this context that we have to understand the two new graphic novels that were published in India. Delhi Calm's popularity and the attention Bhimayana is getting even before it has hit the market are partly due to the groundwork laid by the many graphic novelists who have published in India earlier. Delhi Calm is the first graphic novel that engages so strongly with the modern history of India. By dealing with the Emergency period, many facets of which are still debated, Ghosh has bravely announced his presence as a serious comic writer.

Delhi Calm establishes its clear problem with the Emergency when it announces tongue-in-cheek that Nothing like this ever happened. If it did, it doesn't matter anymore, for it was of no interest or relevance even while it was happening. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. This is a work of fiction. Self-censored. That ironic caveat sets the tone for the book where an idealistic band, the Naya Savera Band, is touring the countryside in the mid-1970s with a desire to bring change. Vibhuti Prasad, Parvez Alam and Master, all members of the Naya Savera Band and followers of the Prophet (Jayaprakash Narayan), are dismayed by the Emergency. They react differently to the crisis imposed by Mother Moon (Indira Gandhi) and the story follows the changes in Delhi and the country after the declaration of the Emergency. All the major events that occurred before and through the Emergency are chronicled in the form of irreverent caricature. Ghosh's art work is intended to evoke the fear and claustrophobia of that period.

Vishwajyoti Ghosh told Frontline that a lot of characters were based on real people who lived during the Emergency. In terms of influence, he credits film narratives, radio, old Hindi film music, painting, advertising, the Films Division news reels you name it, it's there.

The relevance of the work is immense as it narrates the story of an event that usually does not figure in contemporary discussions and will be valuable to a generation of readers who were born after the Emergency. Ghosh's art work is attractive, dull rust in colour, and his explanatory notes provide a useful narrative of the events.

Describing the night before the proclamation of the Emergency, Ghosh writes: In the stillness of that summer night, everything froze. In shock, not awe. Even the mosquitoes behaved themselves and restricted their nightly activities to south and west Delhi. All India Radio had finished the day's transmission, there was no point in waking up the announcer. However the announcement was ready and approved by Moon herself. Gearing up for the morning, she sat alone like in the old days and reflected. Her starlit journey. Doubts about democracy. Just like The Prophet, her secret yearning for a revolution. Moon had changed things forever. As the text faded onto the screens, the stars above smiled. A smile of reassurance.


Another graphic novel that engages seriously with an important political and social theme is Bhimayana. The novel begins in the form of a contemporary discussion on discrimination faced by Dalits in India and shifts between depicting vignettes from the life of Ambedkar and the present day. What is different about this novel is the expansive Pradhan-Gond art work freeing Bhimayana from the restricted panels of modern comic art. There is no defined canvas for the Pradhan-Gond art and even the large format of the pages falls short of encompassing the fervour of the form. The work has been illustrated by Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam and the story is by S. Anand and Srividya Natarajan.

In the afterword, S. Anand writes of the process in coming up with this graphic novel. Having been shown an array of graphic books from across the world the Vyams counterposed their own philosophy of art to the visual imagery in these graphic texts (which they described as being by fine art school' types): We'd like to state one thing very clearly at the outset. We shall not force our characters into boxes. It stifles them. We prefer to mount our work in open spaces. Our art is khulla (open) where there's space for all to breathe.'

Bhimayana is dedicated to the memory of Jangarh Singh Shyam (1960 -2001), the well known Pradhan-Gond artist from eastern Madhya Pradesh who committed suicide under mysterious circumstances. The tribal community's marginality has been written about in the past and by using their art for a book on Ambedkar, Navayana has superbly expanded the scope of graphic novels in India to include this subaltern and autochthonous art work. Much of the art work in the novel is metaphorical. As Anand points out in his afterword, the ecology of Pardhan Gond art is such that even when dealing with urban subjects we see freefalling animals, birds and trees in landscapes without a horizon. For those unfamiliar with the art of the Pradhan-Gonds the freeness of the form is weirdly enchanting. It was also fitting that an exploited tribal community engage with the ideas of Ambedkar as their own experiences of humiliation have synthesised with the subject internalising the stories.

The stories, taken from Waiting for a Visa found in Volume 12 of Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches (edited by Vasant Moon), provide some context to understand the life of India's first Law Minister.

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