They arrive without fuss, merging with the crowd. One, John Lent, a large white man with grey hair, has a scholarly air about him. The other, Pran, a small Indian man with grey hair, is unremarkable at first glance except for his rather sharp eyes. They meet a very different character, a 36-year-old with a shock of unruly hair and an art school appearance, named Sarnath Banerjee. All three soon begin speaking animatedly about the common passion of their lives: cartoons, comics, graphic novels.
John Lent, from Temple University, US, is a rare scholar in a world with many PhDs. He has written 55 books, a large number of them on comic art. His friend Pran, with whom he’s staying on a short visit to India, is the man who created Chacha Chaudhary and Shrimatiji. Sarnath Banerjee is arguably the best known among the current generation of Indian graphic novelists.
Sarnath has never met the other two men before. He asks Pran about how things have changed since he started. “I started in 1960,” says Pran. Now, everything is computerised, he says. Back in those days, of course, hardly anyone had heard of a computer. And there were no Indian comic books or comic book characters. “We only had foreign comics,” says Pran.
So, after doing his M.A. in political science, Pran decided to become a cartoonist. “When I told my family, they said no one will marry you,” he says with a laugh. Eventually, he did find a wife.
Things are no different now, asserts Sarnath, but he admits that against all odds, he too did find a wife.
Lent’s marriage is not discussed. Instead, with Sarnath asking a question, the conversation leaps in the space of one
thought bubble to political cartooning. “Newspapers everywhere are dropping political cartoons”, says Lent. “And publishers are worried about legal problems and political correctness.”
Talk turns to how comic art is evolving under these and other pressures. Comic artists are reinventing themselves as animators and performance artists, says Lent.
“The fine line between fine art and popular art is breaking down.” It was a stupid line anyway, he adds. “Shakespeare didn’t start as fine art. Neither did opera,” explains Lent.
Pran is agitated about the lack of a museum of comic art in India. Cartoonists like Shankar, Ahmed and R.K. Laxman fought for Independence in their own way, he says. They are a part of our history, he says. “Where are their original cartoons?”
“I’ll tell you,” says Lent. “I have spent the last 16 years building a museum, archive and library. It is coming up now in China.” It emerges that a 40-building complex in Guiyang in south China will soon be home to the first museum of Asian comic art. Sarnath is amused that China, “guardian of the free press”, should be the place Asia’s cartoons get their museum.