Little stick figures taking digs at patriarchy. Illustrations poking fun at an intrusive government. Miniature paintings with hilarious speech blurbs. Cartoons that lampoon everything from selfies and smartphones to the Land Bill and pseudo-patriotism. In the new world of Indian web comics, illustrators are using art and wit to showcase (and soften) the gritty reality of issues facing India today.
No superhero adventures here. No stuffed tigers, lasagne-loving cats or philosophical beagles either. These comics are going viral because they tackle subjects from Breaking News tickers to Twitter rants, earning fans by making them question popular opinion and people in power.
The five-year-old web comic Crocodile In Water, Tiger On Land was born after its two creators spotted “a well-heeled, arty-looking guy… talking about Bengal’s great cultural heritage while pissing on the sidewalk” outside their house.
They named it after the Bengali proverb ‘Jawle kumeer, danga-e bagh’, which roughly means that between a tiger stalking you on land and a crocodile waiting in the water, there’s no safe place. “You are caught between the devil and the deep sea, a rock and a hard place, the Congress and the BJP, the left and the TMC, and so on,” they explain.
CWTL describes itself as a “non-profit, equal opportunity collection of below-the-belt cheap shots”. Its creators – one writes, the other draws – remain anonymous by choice, as they “want their work to be judged on its own merit”. It suits the nature of a job that takes potshots at controversial subjects like the India Is Tolerant march, and the beef ban.
Both creators insist they’re pretty ordinary, but admit to a love for comics. “When we were kids, we wanted to be superheroes. When we grew up, we wanted to write about superheroes,” says one of them. Their comic has been so popular that it was recently turned into a book.
In Chennai, one-time banker Rajesh Rajamani’s rants on Facebook were getting so popular that a friend encouraged him to start a separate page for them. The only hitch: he couldn’t draw. So Rajamani turned to India herself for help. His series, Inedible India, subverts classical visuals like Ravi Varma oleographs and portraiture by introducing witty blurbs on contemporary issues.
The series takes inspiration from Royal Existentials, a weekly webcomic that uses miniature paintings fused with modern dialogues to hilarious effect. “The contrast between the rich and opulent imagery, social dialogue, and re-engagement with art history makes it intriguing,” says Aarthi Parthasarathy of Royal Existentials.
Parthasarathy’s comic asks larger philosophical questions: the meaning of life amid war, gender biases and the like. Rajamani, on the other hand, stays topical. “Most strips lampoon certain political parties. There’s very little art about people, public opinion and behaviour. I’m trying to do that, albeit in a lighter vein,” he says, adding that his work makes people reflect, rather than leaving them angry. “It dilutes the shock value.”
Human rights activist Rachita Taneja’s comic, Sanitary Panels, is deceptively simple. The art is merely line-drawings – the kind you’d sketch when doodling in class. But the messages pack a punch. Taneja has joked about feminism, Tinder, the #NotAllMen hashtag, rising mobile data prices and moral policing. According to her, humour goes a long way in communicating a complex subject to a large group of people. “The best thing about the medium is its inclusiveness,” she finds.
The comics will make you smile, but they’ll also make you think. When she started out, Taneja confesses that people would often have trouble with a woman expressing her opinion. She’s been used to trolls. But using a medium like Facebook has meant not responding to every piece of criticism. She takes suggestions from close friends and family before putting up a comic.
Parthasarathy says that the feedback has been positive so far and has now collaborated with her friend, artist Kaveri Gopalakrishnan, to document changing Indian cities through a webcomic titled Urbanlore.
CWTL has also had its fair share of praise and criticism, but some readers have supported them since the beginning. “Over the years, they have religiously shared our work and spread the word. We owe them a great deal,” they say. “But nothing entertains us more than some sharply-worded trolling. One of them said, ‘Where are these dumb*****, ignorant, newly-‘secular’ retards coming from?’ It was so layered and revealed so much about us and the person saying it, that we even put it on the back cover of our book!”
From HT Brunch, December 13
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