Gujarat riot victims as first-time voters, trafficking and forced marriage in Haryana, a vegetable vendor from Kolkata who becomes a world-renowned artist -- a bouquet of voices waiting to be heard are set to get their own space in a new non-fiction graphic novel series being launched by Yoda Press on May 29.
Called First Hand Vol 1, the first annual volume will feature 22 stories -- portraits of contemporary India categorised as oral history, biography, documentary, commentary, and reportage.
Thus the legendary ghazal singer Begum Akhtar has her story told in a comic titled Akhtari etched in intricate detail and hazy silhouettes by filmmaker Gitanjali Rao and penned by writer Rajesh Devraj, so that it resembles a movie in still frames.
Redefining the non-fiction genre through its panels, the 369-page book also contains a montage on e-waste management, a lively conversation between an Indian and a Mexican on liquor bans, and an old woman’s account of a near-death experience in pre-Partition Punjab .
The first volume is being co-edited by artist Orijit Sen and writer Vidyun Sabhaney, who say rigorous research was integral to the comics.
“While collaborating with journalist Neha Dixit on The Girl Not From Madras -- a comic on trafficking and forced marriages in Haryana -- I went back to that state and took photographs so that my sketches would be faithful to reality,” says Sen. “In today’s India, we need to be talking about these things. Today’s polity is far too polarised, and anything critical qualifies as Leftist.”
The medium of graphic non-fiction is one way to reduce that initial resistance. “The young reader is probably more used to absorbing text and image simultaneously, given the multimedia world they were born into, “ says Karthika VK, publisher and chief editor, HarperCollins India. “When it comes to politics, a shorter graphic narrative with a sharply focused gaze is surely more attractive.”
Incidentally, an e-book version is also in the works and will be available on the Juggernaut app.
“Reams of text can be overlooked in our era of text overload. A lot of it seems like rhetoric sometimes, or just a collection of numbers and stats. In First Hand, comic narratives tease out the substance,” says Arpita Das, founder of Yoda Press. “The numbers recede, and the human faces emerge.”
Interestingly, much of the content has been crowdsourced, in a sense. First Hand’s editors invited applications on Facebook and received 50 in 30 days.
“We thought it was a good idea to open it up like this because anthologies have become an important force in comics – they allow writers and artists the space to create short works, experiment and explore their art,” says Sabhaney.
Among the 32 artists and writers who will be part of the first volume, 15 accordingly are being published in graphic novel form for the first time, including filmmaker Rao, anthropologist Rahul Srivastava, journalist Neha Dixit. So seasoned comics artists such as Sen, Aparajita Ninan and film scholar Shubham Roy Choudhry held a series of talks to re-think graphic non-fiction in India. These talks also helped newcomers to the art form like filmmaker Aditi Chitre and English Literature lecturer AP Payal.
In the case of Akhtari, the collaboration between comics writer and the filmmaker helped frame the tale.
“In our comic the content and the art moves fluidly from reality to fantasy and back again; from present to past or future; from the streets of Faizabad to burqas in the sky,” says Devraj.
The medium of text is flexible too. Akhtari tells its tale in a combination of English and Hindi. Other tales in the anthology also feature Urdu and French.
Hills and Stones by art student Nikhila Nanduri, for instance, is almost entirely in Hindi -- mainly because it recreates interviews between oral historian Indira Choudhary and likhai or wood-carving artist Gangaram from Uttar Pradesh.
“Many of these comics address stories that are still unfolding. The stories do not end in this book – that is important to remember,” says Sabhaney. “Particularly in the context of people who are grappling with being displaced, living with the aftermath of the Gujarat riots, or of having been trafficked, forced into marriages and raped.”