A Brief Account of Graphic Narratives in India

in Article
Published on: 18 October 2016

Dhriatbrata Bhattacharjya Tato

Dhritabrata Bhattacharjya Tato is a writer, based in New Delhi.

In India, the graphic novel is a lesser known genre. However, major publishers are increasingly paying attention to this genre. Every year a new set of graphic novels is coming out. In the recent times, two major anthologies (This Side, That Side edited by Vishwajyoti Ghosh and First Hand edited by Orijit Sen and Vidyun Sabhaney) have showcased a wide range of visual-textual narratives. But since the year 2006, a new wave of graphic novels has captured the attention of Indian readers. This Novelle Vague of the Indian graphic narrative was brought to readers by V.K. Karthika, who remains perhaps the most consistent publisher and supporter of this genre which is both expensive and time consuming. She is the publisher of all the major graphic novels that have been well appreciated at the subsequent annual international graphic novel agora in Angouleme, France. This genre as a literary form was born in Europe, and today French-speaking countries are undoubtedly leading this genre which is often referred to as the 'ninth art form' (9eme Art).


In 1833, the world’s first comic strips Histoire de M. Jabot ('The Story of Mr Jabot') by Swiss educationist Rodolphe Töppfer also came out in French in 1833. What set this book apart from other illustrated books was the inseparabilty and complementarity of images and texts. It took exactly a century for comics to get proper recognition as a form of art when Georges Rémi (Hergé)[1] published his famous series Adventures of Tintin overlapping with the advent of American superheroes like Phantom, Batman and Superman.


Comics or graphic novel?

Confusion over comics and graphic novels is well known. According to some practitioners, comics are typically satirical in nature as the etymology suggests, and appear periodically for children. It may also contain advertisements along with puzzles and competitions for young readers. Christopher Murray writes in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 'In contrast, graphic novel is usually taken to mean a long comic narrative for a mature audience, published in hardback or paperback and sold in bookstores, with serious literary themes and sophisticated artwork. However, these distinctions are somewhat spurious, as comics are found in all shapes and formats, appeal to many different groups and age ranges, and encompass a huge variety of genres and styles.'


Artist Orijit Sen, creator of India’s first graphic novel The River of Stories (Kalpavriksh, 1994) says, 'The Graphic Novel in some people’s minds represents a new type of literature. Comics on the other hand were never literature. This distinction is emphasized by the generally assumed "frivolous" nature of comics. But a more important factor separating comics from mainstream literature is the medium’s emphasis on visual, rather than textual, storytelling. But by that yardstick, graphic novels are not strictly literature either.'


If we leave this debate to the connoisseurs and delve into Indian graphic novel scene, Sen’s The River of Stories was pioneering not only for its genre, but also it was perhaps world’s first work of journalism through a graphic novel, capturing the plight of adivasis displaced due to the construction of dam. It was years before Joe Sacco’s famous Palestine. Unfortunately this book published by a NGO called Kalpavriksh never received its due: probably it was ahead of its time. The Indian readership was only exposed to Amar Chitra Katha and Classics Illustrated. Graphic novels then disappeared for a decade in India.


Graphic Novel Movement

In 2004, two unrelated events established graphic novels as a genre in Indian popular and erudite imagination. Firstly, a Bollywood movie Hum Tum ('Me and You') had a cartoonist as its hero, and secondly, India’s most celebrated graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee published his first graphic novel, Corridor, from Penguin Books.


Since then this genre captured serious attention from the artists. A bunch of young creators took up the cause in a systematic matter. Amitabh Kumar, a trained artist from Baroda, not only carried out a proper historiography of Indian graphic content, but also organized a number of workshops with renowned French graphic novelists. The participants of those workshops included now well-established graphic novelists. In order to give impetus to the nascent genre, Sarnath Banerjee and Anindya Roy created Phantomville—the imprint that published Kashmir Pending (2007) by Naseer Ahmad and Saurabh Singh.


By the year 2008, Indian mainstream publishers also realized its hidden potential. Two of the most significant publications of the year were Pune-based Tejas Modak’s Private-Eye Anonymous from Westland and India’s first woman graphic novelist Amruta Patil’s Kari from HarperCollins. The previous year also witnessed Sarnath’s poignant satirical second book, The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers (Penguin Books), which confirmed his position as a pioneer of the genre.


In 2008, Amitabh Kumar published a comprehensive study of popular visual culture called Raj Comics for the Hard Headed that featured the superheroes of this imprint. It was around that time, perhaps at the behest of Amitabh, that India’s first graphic novel collective Pao was formed. The Collective comprised Orijit Sen, Sarnath Banerjee, Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Parismita Singh and Amitabh Kumar.


The next three years saw the coming of age of the Indian graphic novel genre. It started with Parismita Singh’s The Hotel At The End of The World (Penguin Books, 2009), which featured multiple black and white graphic novellas and George Mathen aka Appupen’s Moonward (Blaft, 2009) with strong visual language. The same year young artist Bharath Murthy started Comix India—an online platform-cum-comics magazine offering print-on-demand facilities—with six volumes to its credit till date.


In 2010, Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s Delhi Calm stirred the mainstream media for its critical yet satirical portrayal of the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi. Our Toxic World (Sage Publications and Toxics Link 2010) scripted by Aniriddha Sen Gupta with the illustrations of Priya Kuriyan was pedagogical yet enjoyable reading. Social critique by Gautam Bhatia in Lie: A Traditional Tale of Modern India (Tranquebar Press, 2010) drew the attention of the readers.


The visual narratives of these titles were highly developed, conforming to international standards. They bore complex styles, far from the clear-line drawings of the Amar Chitra Katha era. However, India’s folk and traditional visual languages also started making their way into graphic novels. The centuries-old scroll painting visual narrative featured in I See The Promised Land (2010, Tara Books) portrayed the life of Martin Luther King Jr with text by Arthur Flowers and illustrations by Manu Chitrakar, a Bengali patua, and Guglielmo Rossi. The following year, Navayana, a Chennai-based publishing house, created Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability (2011) by Gond artists Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam, with the texts of Srividya Natarajan and S. Anand.


The same year Navayana brought out an adaptation of Jotiba Phule’s Gulamgiri by Srividya Natarajan and artist Aparajita Ninan called A Gardener in the Wasteland. Prolific creator Sarnath Banerjee brought out his third book Harappan Files (Harpercollins, 2011).


The scene changed drastically from 2012. Gone were the days when a graphic novelist had to chase and look for a publisher. By then it became a norm of the industry to have at least a couple of graphic novels in the yearly catalogue of major publishers. Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean featured in HarperCollins' list. Pao Collective brought out its anthology from Penguin Books. The anthology featured many new creators along with established names like Sarnath, Orjit Sen, Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Parismita Singh. Vidyun Sabhaney, a contributor to the anthology, created her own imprint, Captain Bijli, that published Mice Will Be Mice by her along with Japanese artists Shohei Emura.

Graphic novels often bring out new perspectives on history and society. Vishwajyoti Ghosh curated This Side, That Side: Restorying Partition (Yoda Press, 2013) showcasing contemporary reviews of the Partition from the Indian subcontinent. This anthology also brought in a new set of young creators with powerful visual narratives.


Appupen’s Legends of Halahala (HarperCollins, 2013) often termed as a ‘silent’ graphic novel, attempted to create a text-less narrative, making it accessible to a non-English speaking readership. The artist argues that words are not always enough to say everything, and ambiguity leaves a space for imagination. His latest book Aspyrus (HarperCollins, 2014) takes a dig at consumerism, like his previous titles.


In the graphic novel segment, collectives and anthologies have proved to be conducive to creating a platform for newcomers. The latest anthology DOGS! brought out by Captain Bijli featured a new set of such promising creators. In 2015, Malik Sajjad's Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir (HarperCollins, 2015) created a narrative which explicitly refers to world-renowned graphic novel Mauz by Art Spigelman on the Holocaust. First Hand which came out recently (Yoda, 2016) claims to be India's first graphic non-fiction.



The Way Forward

Almost a decade after the publication of Corridor, Sarnath Banerjee feels that, ‘In spite of several graphic novels coming out every year, the actual potential of graphic novel is yet to come of age. The graphic novel is neither literature nor art, it has huge potential and in a country like India the scope of graphic novels is immense.’ Sarnath’s Liquid History of Vasco Da Gama (2014) was on display at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. His works are often sold as art work in galleries.


Most of India’s practitioners have made it to the world’s most venerated Angouleme Graphic Novel festivals. However, Appupen feels that India has a long way to go. Mythology-based graphic novels are not the only way to sustain the form. India has a wide spectrum of subjects and graphic novelists need to introspect more to find out visually and intellectually stimulating narratives.


In contrast, Amruta Patil, who regularly contributes to international magazines, is working on the sequel to Adi Parva titled Sauptik: Sleeping Ones, Rise, based on the Mahabharata epic. Similarly Bharath Murthy’s new graphic travelogue, The Vanished Path (HarperCollins, 2015) is based on an autobiographical and non-fictional account of the Buddha. Unlike Osamu Tezuka’s manga on the Buddha’s story which is heavily mythologized, Murthy tried to re-explore the physical locations that the great soul travelled and lived through.


In spite of such variations in approach, all graphic novelists feel that the graphic novel is still in its nascent stage and a lot has yet to be done. When the Japanese company Viz Manga is all set to enter Indian market, Murthy feels a high print-run national-level magazine is the need of the hour. Apuppen points out three major constraints to the growth of the genre: high price, lack of refined and defined visual language, and pedagogical and informative content.


When Amar Chitra Katha is sold 90 million copies in 20 languages then why is the graphic novel still in a nascent stage? In India, non-fiction does better than fiction, build-to-print sells more than innovation, and information outsmarts knowledge or creativity. We need to emphasise fiction, innovation and creativity, and it will only happen if we take comics more seriously and recognise their potential.


(An earlier version of this article has been published in Art Illustrated in 2015.)

[1] Composed in reverse from his initials, 'R' and 'G'—pronounced as 'Er' and 'Jay'.