Monthly Archives: September 2011

Ambedkar? Never heard of him.

An Indian comic book that’s attained instant global fame.

Popular amongst the literati before it reached comic fans.

A story about the worst caste discriminations, but conducting discriminations of its own.

That’s a quick summation of the tribal art-English language biography of one of India’s most important, but least known, giants – ‘Bhimayan’, the story of Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar.

The book is undoubtedly one of the most important works for the comics industry in India. It is a well-produced project that brings together an important story and a great shot-in-the-arm for vernacular art styles. Gushing statements from leading intellectuals adds a veneer of supra-comics respectability to this book.

The reason to remember this book isn’t its subject matter but its art. It imagines narrative graphic storytelling in a hitherto inconceivable way. I am amazed that despite being an art form that is so removed from the comics world it has understood the target medium so succinctly that it does not for a moment seem like an experiment, rather an “always meant to be”. The narrative symbology is inherent, it would seem, in Gond art, and it doesn’t take any great feat for the newbie audience, like me, to understand the communication.

I would go on to add that in fact I would have been harder-pressed to understand the method of Gond art in its native form. A single image, would be naturally constrained by my unaccustomed mind which would be searching for footholds of familiarity, which it would not find. But in the milieu of the comic book I don’t hesitate for a moment.

That is a spectacular moment of universal understanding.

But the book has an underbelly that betrays this universal understanding, which is in the viciousness of the story. As an urban, non-Dalit reader I am made to identify myself with the devil himself. I am, by my non-Dalit status, completely unaware of caste, social inequality, and unable to pronounce the name Ambedkar (though I must be able to say Tendulkar). The book smacks of trying to draw a ‘them’ and ‘us’ divide, ostensibly trying to reverse which is the ‘them’ and which is the ‘us’.

Why take such a pitifully incomplete stand? Why return misinformation about Dalits with misinformation about non-Dalits? Either approach will be incomplete, right?

Though it can be said that such a controversy is only in my mind, and not what the creators intended, or what other readers are feeling, I will point out the striking interpretation tool that is embedded into the speech balloons. At the end of the book we are told how the manner in which the balloons are drawn is anthropomorphic – conveying the speaker’s mood by shaping the balloon like an animal that represents those feelings. One such is a scorpion’s tail that we see repeatedly used, which is explained as: “I am full of words that carry a sting. Characters who love caste, whose words contain poison, whose touch is venomous, speak through me.” Return to the picture above and see who carries the poisonous barb.

Everybody who questions reservation is such a scorpion. Why so? I don’t condone caste-based violence or inequality, but I don’t believe that reservation is taking society closer to eradicating these problems. What can any of us say for the boy whose complaint starts with, “Super-qualified. Stuck in a dead-end job.” If he has worked hard in his life, and he has not perpetuated caste discrimination, can we say he has nothing to complain about? Is his ignorance or awareness of such discrimination a reason for his dead-end job?

These, and much more needed to be considered by the writers and publishers before their cross-eyed polemic was dispersed. If you read the fine print, you will see how much this book has ridden on the approval of Western writers and news media, and the fact that its large market is the urban, English-educated youth of the world and its sponsors are Dutch and British. A picture of inclusivity painting a portrait of exclusivity.

It is unfortunate that the book left me feeling the need to defend myself as a non-Dalit reader, but that’s what its blinkered vision impressed upon me. The book begins and ends with a non-Dalit who refuses to accept caste is a present and important issue. That makes one feel mute. I am willing to concede that that is not what would have been the desired effect. So perhaps a round of editing before the next edition could rectify these, or else by all means charge forth as is.

But, I think a complete picture by the writers is what the artists deserve for their monumentally talented work on the book.

‘Bhimayana’

Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam (Artists)

Srividya Natarajan and S Anand (Writers)

Navayana Publishing, 2011

Rs 395

The Eyes Have It

Would it be too diabolical a choice to words if I were to say, “The All-Star Superman cover is so great, it passes with flying colours”?

Nevertheless, I cannot stop taking a deep breath each time I see the cover of volume 1 of the collected All-Star Superman series by Frank Quitely (penciling) and Jamie Grant (colouring).

It struck me when I saw it first online, and again when I held the copy in my hand. So many reactions in mere moments:

  • The corner of the eye catches the soft sun which you know means the world is feeling benevolent today
  • Zip to Superman whose soft, heavy eyes draw you into a sense of Buddhist calm – yes, Buddha eyes
  • Clouds make you weightless, especially when you realize you are standing on them
  • And the city below, far below, means you’re soaring like an eagle, or a Kryptonian dog

So many ways to lead the reader to one single feeling – meditative bliss, I kid you not.

If I were exaggerating I would not have remembered this image for so many hours as I have. I would not have felt compelled to write about it. It is like the best snapshots you remember from a great holiday, which connect you to the feeling of freedom and being unchained.

I can try and take a more learned stand towards the image – the colours play a major role in initiating these feelings. The first thing to catch your eyes is, of course, the red of the cape. It literally explodes in your eyes, because you know your eyes and pupils grow bigger when you see it first. The next thing to catch you is the sun, as both the vanishing point of the picture and the way the title is composed lead you to this distant and diffused soft yellow sun, covered by a safety net of clouds. They are altogether reassuring, showing you that nothing looms on the horizon. All the while, not exactly foremost on your consciousness, is a beautiful blue. It’s dead centre in the picture, so you will never see any part of the whole image without a bit of beautiful blue in your sights. And yes, these are the three primary colours of printing.

But finally, there’re the eyes, the eyes that communicate safety and control. They look straight at you and hold you. You suddenly see a Superman who isn’t hurling and dashing through the sky to save mankind, but a Superman who is taking a moment to admire the heavens, just as you are.

Who invites you to sit beside him as time slows to a standstill.

Sita’s Gita

I have never bought picture postcards. They look nice, no doubt, but it’s the same packet of 6 postcards everywhere and so it doesn’t seem worth the money. But, picture postcards have value for those who don’t have a camera and have no other memories to carry with them.

Why am I talking about picture postcards? Because, the new book out by the glib name of “Sita’s Ramayana” is nothing more than picture postcards to a camera-less tourist. Buy it if you want to see pictures, and if you have never read, or heard, Ramayan before. Otherwise get your mythology elsewhere.

Just released, “Sita’s Ramayan” is a supposed new perspective to Ramayan by shifting the point of view of the epic. “A powerful meditation on women’s fate” it says. Say what? The only meditation on a woman’s fate in this book is if, like me, you wonder why the woman who painstakingly drew the whole story has been given second billing to the woman who tried to write it.

While the back cover states that Samhita Arni, the writer, “collaborates” with the folk artist Moyna Chitrakar, the afterword to the book starts with “Sita’s Ramayana was painted before it was written”. How, dear writer and publisher, do you make Bat(wo)man the sidekick and Robin the hero(ine)?

The story is exactly the same as that of the original, with just a different speaker. It does not even make the familiar story disjointed by changing the chronology of events to match Sita’s actual understanding of the entire story. Instead, one sees Sita tell the story as flashback, conveniently arranging all events chronologically. When she is abducted by Ravan, we are quickly filled in to what was happening with Ram and Lakshman by power of 20-20 hindsight. It would have been heaps better if we just followed her to Lanka and imprisonment.

One quickly realizes that Sita is just a voicebox in this book because as narrator she only recounts the brothers’ journey to Lanka, their war, Hanuman’s many episodes, Ravan and his brothers and so on and on. In numbers, 86 out of 142 pages is about Ram’s journey towards Lanka and the war, while only 18 pages go before it and 37 pages after it – 60% of “Sita’s Ramayan” is about Ram’s journey as heard by Sita. Nothing of her life before marriage is deemed as important.

The book has three publishing categorisations – Graphic Novel/Epic/Art. Please only pick it up for the last one. The illustrations are very carefree in their use of colours and quite a joy to behold at times. The interpretations of some of the characters, and the mesh of Man and Nature is original in this form. In this form, because as explained, the artist is a Patua artist from Poschim Bangal (yikes!) and must have been quite comfortable with the style that looks new to us.

To me every woman in an epic is a study in quiet indignation. She is always equal in every virtue to a man, but yet she has to willingly stand a step below. It is a choice to be less equal, not a congenital reality. Sita’s story should reside less in the war and more in the marriage and life in the forest and in her relationship with Ravan. As chauvinistic as that sounds, the fact remains that between the two her agency lies not in the war. To see Sita’s story one must see Sita in action, not in prison listening to the radio war broadcast.

A new collection of essays looks at Sita in-depth, and a recent novel tells the story of Mahabharat through Draupadi. With such predecessors can this book be forgiven for not venturing anywhere new? Mythology re-tellings have become very popular now, from Ravanayan to Ramayan 3392 AD, India Authentic to Batu Gaiden. So it is a time when the spirit of competition and discovery should bring new brilliance forward, and not complacency.

‘Sita’s Ramayana’

Moyna Chitrakar (Artist)

Samhita Arni (Writer)

Tara Books, 2011

Rs 550

ViMoh and ViGo’s Fabulous Journey

If you see Vijayendra Mohanty’s autograph, you will be disappointed by its absolute lack of flash (you can spot it on one of the images below). Instead of all the swirls and whirls that a name like his could afford, what you get is an abbreviation of form and content – “ViMoh”, and that too looking almost typeset.

I guess that is a peek into his way of writing as well.

When the project, in partnership with Vivek Goel, ‘Ravanayan’ was announced it promised a lot of insight into Indic lore. After all, it would tell the story of Lankesh! The journey of Ravan! The story of a man who was powerful like none had been before, yet doomed to defeat by destiny. A king who has been reviled by most, but deified by a few. The most powerful underdog ever imagined.

Mohanty has been familiar to me as a comics writer and a Indology crusader, in parallel. He has a ticklish sense of humour when you meet him, often self-effacive. But a different nature is present in his writings, which are incisive and well-researched, and defends his beliefs heartily. Polar oppositions in the same person. Knowing him one feels assured of storytelling that is well-researched and expects to uncover new facets of the characters as the story progresses. And that is what Mohanty does.

The story of Ravanayan (2 out of 10 issues down) is an exploration of destiny and choice. Ravan duels with dichotomies in his personage. He is soft and hard. The story attempts to gently etch out his character as one who is trying to create a choice in his life and the manifestations which lead him towards this choice.

The pace of the narrative is a trifle slow, but the blame for this is to the nature of independent publishing and not to the writer. Bringing out more frequent issues, for obvious practicalities, is a no go. But Mohanty promises a change in pace soon, not as a correction, but as a ripening.

While the story might promise more in the future than the present, the art certainly delivers full body blows right from the start, literally. The covers done by Goel are fantastic. They capture the flux and fury of the demon king on the first issue, and the endless play of worlds on the second one. The second cover particularly embeds itself into my memory, with its peaceful shades of blue and white, and the yin-yang layout of the full page itself. A stunning achievement, and no exaggeration to say that this single cover is worth the price of the entire subscription. Well maybe I exaggerate a little.

But despite, or because of, having two creators who are well-assured of their strengths, the story does suffer the lack of cohesion. The flow seems divided between pages that are the writer’s field and pages that are the artist’s field. One is unable to see this as a unified story since the entire mood gets flipped around in jerks from panel to panel. What is required, one feels, is a more meticulous edit of the text at the final stage when the drawings and words have come together. They do not always complement each other, and this may be because of separate departments working independently. For instance, the scenes of violence go on longer than they should at the start of both issues while at the same time the dislogues seem very out of place for the vivid battlefield. It will also avoid some of the errors one finds in the images, such as on the centerfold of the second issue.

Ravanayan certainly packs its punches, but also falls to a few in turn. It is an explorative start which will be adapting as it goes along. The comics series is attempting an ethic that hasn’t been done too frequently in India before – a fixed issue run, publicized hugely, real-time feedback and interaction, subaltern mythology. Many firsts. The time-honoured system of blessings are due to such an enterprise, so don’t be surprised if you see ViMoh and ViGo on one leg each, praying to the heavens.

‘Ravanayan’

Vivek Goel (Artist)

Vijayendra Mohanty (Writer)

Published by Holy Cow Entertainment, 2011

Rs 50 (Vol. 1) and Rs 40 (Vol. 2)