Tag Archives: indian comics

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

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

Paradise Lost

It’s a mixed blessing to be reading a new Amar Chitra Katha title. I hold ACK in very high regard, freely propounding that they are the best Indian comics, a school within itself, so new titles from them is a positive thing. Their company profile proudly states that they have over 400 titles in print, of which I’m sure 200 are excellent ones, and 200 are good.

Unfortunately this one is awful.

ACK has been releasing new titles since a slew of modernization took place in their organization. A fresh coat of paint is always a future-friendly move. So it is laudable that they are releasing new titles, and not just undertaking umpteen more reprints.

But what they haven’t capitalized upon is their experience in story-telling that has been honed over decades of focused efforts by the veteran creative team. In all possibility this is because the gap between their decline in the early 90’s and their revival now an entire generation has walked through their doors. So the venerable artists and writers have mostly taken their last bows, and now the house is almost starting from scratch. Or, so I feel.

As I read “Tirupati – The Lord of Tirumala” I was appalled by the incoherent story, which I had a hard time following, leave alone a member of their real target age group understanding. The unnecessary peg – trying to centre the story around Tirupati Temple (cashing in on its popularity) is something they hadn’t tried before this, and shouldn’t have either. The temple is just there for its name, while the story is about Lord Vishnu and his avataars, relationship, promises, yada yada – actually I really am not sure what it is about.

The fountainhead of ACK is now gone. Many of the old artists are gone. The sharp writers are gone. And with them the reputation of the house might well be on its way out. If that happens, then my faith in Indian comics will suffer a huge blow. Comics in India are exactly that right now – comics in India. They are not Indian Comics. ACK used to be that for me, an indigenous series, relying on everything original (even if questionable on the facts). But now they are a pale impression of their former self.

Here is my list of suggestions for ACK:

  • Since you aren’t breaking out new titles at warp speed, take time to get the stories right. Train writers, and editors. If you are doing so, then take it up several notches yet.

  • Try and get rid of the glossy colour feel to the art. The classic art was classic for a reason.

  • Expand beyond mythology and heroes to history and non-Hindu culture.
  • And while you are at all this – do something about Tinkle magazine. It is pitifully bad. Get back the folktales, get back the classic art sense, and create interesting, new characters (better than that fly and spider).

Well, all these are just what a devoted reader feels. They might not be the answer to ACK’s problems. But at least the right questions on where they are going so wrong should help. I realize I am asking for the past in the future, but that’s what ACK needs to project. Making it iPad friendly is all well and good, but making it reader-unfriendly is sudden death.

Then they’re just better off reprinting.

I say "Comic Jump", you say "How High?"

I must have come across as a hick when it came to public light that I wasn’t aware of Level 10 Comics. They are all the Rabhas it seems (Rabhas = Rage in Sanskrit, the relevance of the choice of word will only be evident to readers of their magazine).

Level 10 Comics, of Bangalore, have started a comics magazine called “Comic Jump” a few months ago. It is a monthly and has 7 issues so far. They carry 3 serialised stories, all with their own team of creatives and fan followings.

But, “Comic Jump”? What does that even mean? It seems to be a shout back at Weekly Shōnen Jump, which is one of Japan’s favourite comics magazine. But it seems an odd choice of name given that they don’t follow manga sensibilities except on their cover/poster art and some rare pages. It does give them an energetic vibe and a chance for the name to become iconic because of its sheer pseudo-jargon sound.

But it does indeed jump, because it is Indian comics like I have rarely seen. It is a world-class production. The art is like one will see in the newest DC-Marvel titles, and the script is refreshingly capable of sounding Gen-X/Y/Z, whatever it is now.

I was lucky to get introduced to the magazine when I did because I swooped in and bought the collected first 5 issues as a box set, which meant I didn’t have to wait in agony for a new issue every month. The first story arcs of “Shaurya”, “The Rabhas Incident” and “Northern Song” were completed over 2 days, and I am safely hooked to it all (though more to some than the others). I must give credit where it is due to the duo of Shreyas Srinivas – Suhas Sundar who bring out this magazine every month and also write some of the features. Starting and sustaining something so new is never easy.

I do get some vibes, though, that some of the fans of this comics magazine feel that Comic Jump is the only good Indian comics magazine around. Maybe this is because the stories are like the popular ones in the West (zombies, teen superheroes), or because the artwork  is in the mould of the DC-Marvel schools, or because it is in good English (though editing errors abound). One fan wrote in saying that “An Indian comic is pretty good news in itself”, which made me grimace a little. It would seem that comics are not recognized in unfamiliar forms. I agree that it is one of the best I have seen, but it often lacks in originality. And as long as that is there, it will always aspire to stand apart. I cannot offer a solution, originality is something I have been seeking in my own life and every time I feel I have come close it darts out of my reach. So when I haven’t found it in over two decades, I cannot blame someone for not finding it once every month.

The true Jump will come. And it will come after a long run-up. Indian comics readers needed a splatteringly good zombie story, a good-looking bunch of superheroes in Mumbai, and a good medieval hero story. This is the need that has been fulfilled here.

Some glimpses below (photographs, so please excuse the quality)- Shaurya (note the NY-ish Mumbai skyline), Northern Song and The Rabhas Incident

Re'CON'naissance

Comic Con came after a long wait, buzzed non-stop for two days, and went. It left me with half a dozen new comics, two aching legs, and a bunch of comrades in this comics guerilla movement.

Honestly I had never felt attracted to the idea of a Comic Con, you don’t get attracted to things you don’t understand. But the two days when it unfolded before me were like a blurry rewind of the main events in the comics story in India so far, which ended in my going “Aaaaah” and “Ahhhhh” (the difference is slight but important – one is a moment of realization, one is a moment of joy).

I am among the newest members of this league, not as a comics-lover, but as a comics soldier in the mission to give comics their due. People have been making, publishing and writing about comics for a while now. Some for 2 years, some for 5, some for 15 ! The sound of it is almost intimidating, but in hindsight I could rest easy, for the people I met these two days did not believe in a hierarchy.

I went in with little expectation, as I said. With luck I made a chain of acquaintances, all of whom summarily received my business card. Some even knew me, thanks to the Bloggers for Comic Con page. Likewise I had heard of my fellows the same way. A moment of surreal camaraderie descended when we had a group of new faces all identifying each other, not by their names, but by their URL’s. “Oh, you’re Comicology”, for instance.

We were all united by our curiosity of two things here, one was to see in person the people whom we only knew by their work (I met Abhijeet Kini for instance, who is a lot larger than I thought), the other was by our curiosity to see how big the comics scene in India was, and try and predict for our sakes how big it could become. On the second matter we safely concluded that the next edition, in Delhi or Mumbai or Bangalore, would be epic. Many times bigger and with much more participaton since this one proved the viability of it all. Organisers broke even, fans arrived in droves, sales were brisk. All good, my friend.

Rain played spoilsport on the last day, and at least two people I knew saw nothing except the indoor venue. But as a fellow blogger wrote, rains on the Con was also a sign of heavenly benevolence. That is the way I would like to see it too (though that’s from someone who had already made 32 trips of every stall there).

And, let me not forget all the costumed freaks. I didn’t expect more than one or two hapless souls to come in fancy dress, but lo and behold, many did. Freaks that didn’t let nervous pansies like me get in the way of the ultimate act of devotion to their comics. Kudos all you all.

I would like to mention names here, of people I met, with whom I talked comics, and who made these two days really bright and optimistic for me. Akshay Dhar, Vijayendra Mohanty, Saad Akhtar, Himanshu Singhal, Vivek Goel and Mayank Khurana. Credits to Rafiq Raja, (“Oh, you’re Comicology”) who gave me a lot of his time, and from whom I hope to learn what goes into a successful comics website.

Just one grouse. Can we please do away with the term “Fanboy”?

Indian Comics – Vision 2020

A question frequently on the minds of those of us who have been exposed to the larger world of international comics is – Can India produce writers like we see working in the field in the West? I think it is prudent to limit the question to writers of comics for now, and not to illustrators, for there are very good graphic artists in India, without doubt.

So what can I say with precision on this? Obviously nothing, but I can try and read the signs to see where things are headed for now. The answer is no, we cannot produce a Neil Gaiman, in the near future. But, yes, a decade or so later probably.

The thing to note here (like with so many other aspects of human civilization) is that there is a curve of learning and development in every field – economics, science and the arts. It is a classic bell curve – like this …

So we have initial periods where things are apprehensive, we have people trying out something new and seeing if others laugh or laud. That’s where are now. When things pick up steam the curve starts to rise, practitioners are appreciated. This gives them the chance to react to their own instincts rather than to public opinion. This gives us experiments with flashes of brilliance. The downfall happens when popularity breaks all boundaries of requisite talent and everybody plunges into the same pool, squeezing out all the water.

Now, this curve happens in the short term as well as in a longer term. Thanks to today’s connected world, influences are picked up overnight from across the globe and changes happen very quickly. So we have seen Indian writing in English go through sea changes in just 30 years. And we can expect the same in a shorter time from Indian comics.

Today’s comics are more in the ‘graphic novel’ genre and are trying to achieve a new standard of respectability. Therefore they are sticking to themes of conflict, both inner and outer, human psyche and social inequities. Just like what Indians refer to as ‘art films’ we now have ‘art comics’. They are not very different from what Indian writers in English are trying to do.

But now we see an essential next step approaching in writing – more and more people are trying their luck with English novels and we have the good and bad all vying for space. The great thing about art is that it finds worth in even the pedantic. Just as it is famously said that humans use every bit of a coconut tree, from its bark to leaves to the fruit to its husk and so on, art uses everything it is given. The writers we tend to value highly in popular art are people who digest everything. So Neil Gaiman, or Alan Moore or Grant Morrison, can take Greek and Egyptian mythology, modern politics, superheroes, supernaturals, Freud, androids, liberation armies, zombie armies, multiple narratives, non-narratives …and…and…whew…they take everything and add dashes to their story. Samuel Beckett won a Nobel prize by utilizing vaudevillian antics.

Neil Gaiman (Photo courtesy Kyle Cassidy)

Indian comics had been following a certain trajectory till the new millennium – we had the Pran comics, Raj comics, Tinkle magazine and Amar Chitra Katha all doing their own thing. But that thing had become very tiresome after two score years. Heights of comics excellence had been achieved, but soon forgotten. The current trend has completely recast the mould, gone from school keds to Converse canvas shoes. People looked good before, but now they are trying something very new, starting from scratch. But until everyone has had a chance to try out these shoes, seen it on others, wanted to find their fit, we will not see those limited designer keds that some pay a fortune to wear.

And remember, white keds aren’t bad. There is no point in comparing colours and trying to find the best one, similarly we shouldn’t compare Indian comics writers with western ones since influences are different. Why compare people who are trying to achieve different things? See if what they have achieved stands scrutiny and see if their effort was honest. Those are the most reliable yardsticks.

V for Vendetta (Alan Moore, David Lloyd)

Source of the River

I don’t know much about Orijit Sen, and I assume you don’t either. The little I do know of him is – part graphic designer, part part of People Tree, and part comic book maker.

The last part is what made me sit up and do a double take, for I know him through common friends, though I have never really met him (except for one time I got a lift from the railway station from him).

The discovery was by pure chance when I was idly googling on Indian comics online. His book ‘The River of Stories’ notched mentions as being one of India’s first graphic novels, composed back in 1994. It is the story of the Narmada Bachao Andolan as seen through the journey of a fledgling reporter on assignment. It is almost impossible to find a copy of this anywhere, and the best I could do is a photocopied version. Thankfully, it would seem that the book is originally in black-and-white and so there isn’t much lost.

The book is a joint venture between an NGO and a government ministry and is more like a pamphlet about the issue (definitely, not to trivialize it), but far more attractive than a pamphlet. The story mixes modern reportage with the folk lore of the river to present a scientific and spiritual denouncement of the river project. The politics of it might not sit easy with everyone, but the value of it as a pioneering work of the serious comics form in India is what is important.

So such as it is, it throws up some very important questions about the nature of the medium – why present such a serious issue through such a lightly perceived medium? Why make a comics-documentary and not just a comics fiction story? And whom does this experiment aim to serve – children or adults? The answers to this I would want to seek from the writer-illustrator himself someday, and all of you will get to see his responses when I do succeed.

The only bit of insight I got from the biography at the back is that Sen is a fan of the Tintin series, and I was struck by one image which serves as a chapter opening, which reminds me of pages from such Tintin adventures as Red Rackham’s Treasure and The Broken Ear, I hope I am not too off.

Meanwhile if anybody is interested then maybe contact the same shop where I got my photocopy copy and see if they have any more.