By Paul Gravett

29 October 2015 - 05:38

'The modern Indian graphic novel is radically repositioning the medium.' Art from Hyderabad: A Graphic Novel (c) Jai Undurti and Harsho Mohan Chattoraj
'The modern Indian graphic novel is radically repositioning the medium.' Art from Hyderabad: A Graphic Novel ©

Jai Undurti and Harsho Mohan Chattoraj

How much do you know about India's ever-growing and diverse graphic novel scene? Paul Gravett, an expert in the field for over 30 years, runs through a brief history of the form, mentioning some of its most illustrious examples.

Comics have been serious business in India since 1967

Comics in India used to be under-appreciated as cheap, undemanding, throwaway entertainment mainly for kids or the sub-literate. The famous Amar Chitra Katha series of comics launched in 1967 changed this perception somewhat by adapting India’s great legends and history and demonstrating the educational value of comics for children. They are ubiquitous to this day, but their style and approach, similar to America’s Classics Illustrated comic books, have hardly changed in nearly 50 years. It is the modern Indian graphic novel which is radically repositioning the comics medium and bringing it into the 21st century. Significant general literary giants like Hachette, Harper Collins and Penguin have published them, as have smaller picture-book companies like Tara Books and the political press Navayana, as well as comics-only specialists like Blaft, Phantomville and Manta Ray.

India is part of the 'graphic novels' movement

The graphic novel is a term first coined in English in 1964 and popularised by American legend Will Eisner and can be understood simply as a ‘fat comic’ in book form which can be aimed at adult readers. Art Spiegelman once suggested that a graphic novel is a comic book long enough to need a bookmark, like his own Pulitzer prize-winning Maus. Others, like Eddie Campbell, co-creator with Alan Moore of the even thicker From Hell, chooses to avoid nailing the graphic novel down by narrowly defining it by size or form. Instead, Campbell in his 2006 manifesto prefers to see it as an international creative movement striving towards enlarging the medium’s narrative techniques and themes. In that sense, India is now part of this movement. There is a growing library of Indian graphic novels of the non-genre variety which emerged as a vibrant turn-of-the 21st century phenomenon is are building a strong community of creators and readers.

Crucial to this development in any culture is to break free from the formulas of genre fiction, for example science fiction or heroic fantasy. If there is one specifically Indian genre which persists, it must be the endless retellings of the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics. The idea of adapting these deep-rooted classics, created by the Amar Chitra Katha series, has been copied by more recent publishers such as Campfire, Vimanika and Virgin/Liquid/Graphic India. They are modernising them with technically impressive computerised illustration, which imitates the Hollywood blockbuster look of slick Western comic-book output from Marvel and DC and appeals to their fan audience. Of far greater interest are graphic novelists like Amruta Patil, Abishek Singh or Vikram Balaogpal, who are bringing to these timeless tales their more personal and refreshing takes.

What there is beyond the retelling of epics (a lot)

In graphic novels in India, as elsewhere, it is the real world which offers so much scope. One recurring theme from the start has been a socio-political concern and a desire to surface issues under-reported in conventional news media. Orijit Sen’s River of Stories, published in 1994 by Kalpavriksh, is widely regarded as the principal pioneering work. Sen began working on his cartoon journalism in 1991 by making several trips to the Narmada Valley in western India to research the impact of building the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the local populace. The ongoing plight of ‘untouchables’ or Dalits is contextualised in Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability, written by Srividya Natarajan and S. Anand and drawn by Durgabal and Subhash Vyam, by revisiting the biography of Dr. Bhimarao Ambedkar (1891-1956), the great legislator and champion of affirmative action and an untouchable himself. In his Delhi Calm, Vishwajyoti Ghosh deciphers ‘The Emergency’ of 1975-1977, when India's president declared a state of emergency and suspended civil rights across the country for 21 months. Delhi Calm is part history lesson, part wake-up call to those too young to remember or have experienced it.

Urban India is a common setting of these books. The contemporary city’s fragmented realities and hidden lives and loves are explored in Corridor by Sarnath Banerjee through a Delhi shopkeeper, and in Kari by Amruta Patil through a lesbian community. In contrast, the sweeping and kaleidoscopic Hyderabad: A Graphic Novel by Jai Undurti and Harsho Mohan Chattoraj daringly spans four centuries, weaving together histories and fables that co-exist in this present-day IT hub ‘born as fire in the poet’s mind’.

The contemporary city’s fragmented realities and hidden lives and loves are explored in Corridor. (c)  Sarnath Banerjee
'The contemporary city’s fragmented realities and hidden lives and loves are explored in Corridor.' Art ©

Sarnath Banerjee

Noticeably underrepresented are women’s voices, aside from India’s first woman graphic novelist Amruta Patil. Art (c) Amruta Patil
'Noticeably underrepresented are women’s voices, aside from India’s first woman graphic novelist Amruta Patil.' Art ©

Amruta Patil

Delhi Calm is part history lesson, part wake-up call to those too young to remember or have experienced The Emergency of 1975-77. Art (c) Vishwajyoti Ghosh
'Delhi Calm is part history lesson, part wake-up call to those too young to remember or have experienced The Emergency of 1975-77'. Art ©

Vishwajyoti Ghosh

How these progressive graphic novels are made

The way these progressive graphic novels are made in India relies less on the corporate conveyor-belt production system of editors, writers, pencillers, inkers, colourists and letterers. Instead, they are often the work and vision of a single complete auteur or a close partnership working as one. Being in control of every task brings a greater personality, directness and intimacy, as one person or a collaborative duo can put their thoughts and feelings into words and pictures. The artistry in some graphic novels also draws on long traditions of visual storytelling, sometimes combined with printed or spoken words. A Patrachitrakar, for example, is someone who reads out and performs the text of a story live for an audience, while unrolling a vertical scroll of textless images, one-by-one (the term appears in an article on traditional visual narrative in the December 2014 issue of MARG Magazine). Tara Books has experimented with two graphic novels illustrated by Patua scroll artists. One is Sita’s Ramayana, illustrated by Moyna Chitraka's and written by Samhita Arni. The other is I See The Promised Land, illustrated by Manu Chitrakar and based on a biography of Martin Luther King by American writer-poet Arthur Flowers. Cropping the hand-painted panels in the artists’ vertical scrolls and rearranging them into pages of a book alongside cold, emphatic typeset text is not entirely successful. A more sympathetic and inspiring incorporation of folk art traditions into a graphic novel is Bhimayana (above), whose Gond artists retain their identity and integrity by devising sinuous panel borders based on decorative digna and designing thought balloons containing the mind’s eye, speech balloons shaped like birds, and to indicate words of cruelty the balloon’s tail transforms into a scorpion’s sting.

Another trend: anthologies

Another trend has been anthologies showcasing a range of emerging and established talents, such as The Obliterary JournalPaoDogs! and Twelve. Of particular note is This Side That Side: Restorying Partition, which brings together 48 authors and artists from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to address the consequences of the partition of former British India into independent states. One issue is that of language. Amar Chitra Katha comics were translated into as many as 30 languages and read across the whole nation. Apart from rare exceptions like Bhimayana, which was published in Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi, Marathi, Telugu and Kannada, graphic novels are rarely pan-Indian, but come in English, one-language-fits-all, which specifies and limits their readership.

Where India differs from international trends

Unusually, considering how important autobiography has been in establishing the graphic novel elsewhere – for example, Art Spiegelman’s Maus in America and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis in France – first-person memoirs are quite thin on the ground so far in India, aside from a few tales in anthologies or Stupid Guy Goes to India, originally a manga by Japanese author Yukichi Yamamatsu. Also noticeably underrepresented so far, when compared to other countries, are women’s voices, aside from India’s first woman graphic novelist Amruta Patil. Cartoonist Sharad Sharma’s remarkable network of comics workshops around the country are enabling many more women, especially outside urban areas, to express their experiences and view points in poster-like four-panel comics for the first time, issued as comics and newspapers. A week-long workshop by Larissa Bertonasco, Ludmilla Bartscht and Priya Kuriyan has resulted in Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back from Zubaan Books, an anthology of short, mostly autobiographical comics by established artists and newcomers, who tackle sexism, rape reportage, voyeurism and women’s rights and identities. Perhaps from among these novices, more female writers and artists will enter the medium and help broaden its themes and audiences still further.

The future of Indian graphic novels

Another indicator of cultural change are the new multimedia fan conventions like Comic Con India in Delhi, started in 2011, and Comic Con Mumbai since 2012. Although these are dominated by the big American and Japanese pop culture franchises, they can encourage local publishing and independent creativity and attract new audiences to other kinds of comics. The fact that almost two thirds of India’s 1.2 billion population are under the age of 35 suggests that, provided the habit of reading is maintained and promoted, there is great potential for the graphic novel to flourish, both in print and in digital forms online or via phones, tablets and other devices. Change is in the air. Graphic novels made in India are not graphic novelties or merely a passing fad like colouring books. They are here to stay and look set only to grow in their dynamism and diversity.

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