An underground trickle of graphic narrative and reportage from India is threatening to become a flood. While the old contest of what is a comic book and what is a graphic novel rages, some Indian artists have started marrying graphic storytelling with non-fiction narratives to open a new ground.
This month, Sharad Sharma’s World Comics India will release India’s first comic anthologies on development — Whose Development? in English and Vikaskalhe Vipreet Buddhi in Hindi. Each promises 15 stories reflecting the “accomplishments” of development in 15 states.
For Sharma, one of the most challenging tasks in compiling the anthology was to turn hard stories into graphic narratives. It took him four years to complete the project. He says, “These are drawn by social activists and students of mass communication and social work. They are comics journalists.”
The stories range from a tale of a fisherman from Assam to a helpless woman from Kashmir, or the deleterious effects of tourism in Goa to the effect of uranium mining in Jaduguda.
While Sharma has been taking the graphic medium to the grassroots, the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad has started a project to understand the medium and encourage non-fiction graphic narratives.
Sekhar Mukherjee, head of the department of animation at NID, is launching Cowmixx, a magazine on comics and animation to be published twice a year.
“The idea is to encourage students looking for an alternative platform to publish non-fiction and non-commercial narratives,” says Mukherjee. The magazine will use “unpredictable” styles and forms to tell stories of an “alternate truth”. “Comics and animation are still at a nascent stage in India. A lot of things are happening but in a highly scattered fashion. The idea of the magazine is to make it a somewhat glossy tutorial,” he says.
Mukherjee’s magazine isn’t the only one. In August 2009, Comix.India and Pothi.com made a similar, online effort and called for entries. During the drive, they came up with a definition of the tricky medium: “A form of writing in which words and pictures have equal rights.”
Another effort that should help arrange this ‘scattered’ world is the sprouting of college courses in the last two years dealing with the subject. “The inspiration to write a graphic novel for my friends and I came in one such class,” says Pratapaditya Narayan Deb, 23, a graduate of the Srishti School of Art and Design, Bangalore, who wrote a graphic novel on Assam as his diploma project. His story looks at a seesaw father-son relationship, using the violent history of Assam as the backdrop.
“A comic book has a more well defined impact on a reader unfamiliar with the history and topography of a region,” says Deb, who was inspired by Joe Sacco’s journalistic visuals in Safe Area Gorazde. “The comic medium lets us, design students and artists, tell stories the way we visualise them.”
The Internet, too, has done its bit for the medium. An online comic — The Beginnings by Nishanth, claimed to be the ‘first Malayalam graphic novel’ — is based on a real story set in the 1990s. It uses simple black-and-white sketches to follow a young man who falls in love and gets entangled in the murder of a young nun.
Then there are works that have touched upon sensitive socio-political issues. River of Stories by the Delhi-based Orijit Sen, published in 1994 by Kalpavriksh, dealt with the Narmada dam controversy, and Kashmir Pending by Naseer Ahmed, published in 2007 by Phantomville, is a true story of life in the militancy-afflicted Kashmir of 1989.
The flurry of such works has emboldened some new, independent publishing houses to publish comics. Blaft Publications of Chennai is one them.
Moonward by Appupen, published recently by Blaft, is set in the fabled world of Halahala. Within the fantasy, the book satirises bigotry, ignorance, mob mentality and corruption.
No wonder that some of these comics carry a disclaimer stating it’s a work of fiction. Some even add: ‘Do not call or contact us for clarification or information.’