Graphic Novels in India: A Critical View of Artistic Styles

in Overview
Published on: 18 October 2016

Bharath Murthy

Bharath Murthy is a graphic novel practitioner, who has published Vanished Path (HarperCollins, 2015).


This article attempts to survey the various artistic strategies used in the Indian graphic novel form. The focus is on works that self-consciously claim to be graphic novels. These are longer narratives, with a more ambitious scope both thematically and artistically. We trace the various borrowings, appropriations, emulations and idioms and contextualize them in brief.


Two Historical Trends: Ravi Varma and Indian Modernist Art

At the Faculty of Fine Arts, M.S. University, Baroda, a generation of influential artists had, through the 1960s and '70s, shaped a new narrative and figurative modernism that referred to and commented upon earlier painting traditions in India. These included Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, J. Swaminathan, Jyoti Bhatt and others who had begun their careers as part of the Group 1890, formed at Bhavnagar in 1962. K.G. Subramanyan, the influential artist and teacher, was at Baroda during those formative years. He had studied in Shantiniketan’s art school Kala Bhavan, and brought with him the innovations from Bengali modernism. In contrast to the Bombay Progressive Artists Group (M.F. Husain, F.N. Souza, S.H. Raza, Tyeb Mehta, Ram Kumar etc.) who were more concerned with developing an Indian aesthetic centred around an abstract purism, the Group 1890 wanted to engage critically with history and politics and therefore chose to develop figurative painting. The understanding, in short, was that figurative art would allow artists to contextualize their work within the diversity of India. To do it in an 'Indian' way meant that they looked at the old, lost traditions of Indian painting like the miniature (Sheikh), tribal and folk art (Subramanyan), the Company school (Bhupen Khakkar). The roots of this aesthetic practice lie in the Bengal school of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


One of the manifestations of the emphasis on figurative art was illustrated books, for example K.G. Subramanyan's illustrated books for children done for the biannual Fine Arts Fair at Baroda. The process was to adapt ‘Indian’ modernist art inspired by pre-industrial traditions to printed works, usually illustrating an original story for children. The 19th century English Arts and Crafts Movement and its reflection in Shantiniketan’s Kala Bhavan are precedents. These attempts would later be elaborated upon in Indian graphic novels. And yet, this relationship between fine art and illustration was at best tenuous. At Baroda, the term ‘illustrative’ was often used in art pedagogy as a criticism of immature work. To complicate matters further, the relationship between art and illustration, and between tradition and modernity was already a vexed one in the 19th-century work of Raja Ravi Varma. In fact, Ravi Varma had spent years in Baroda painting for the royal family.


Ravi Varma had done something unprecedented in Indian art. He had successfully utilized the realism of European oil painting and applied it to Hindu religious iconography. Not only that, reproductions of illustrated versions of these newly humanized Hindu gods and goddesses were printed by his press and these began to take their place in household shrines all over the country. These images became part of the emerging Hindu nationalist movements. The socio-political impact of this seemingly simple aesthetic act is still being felt a century later, and informs the iconographic trajectory of popular Indian art and illustration. Indian modernist art's emphasis on older painting traditions recontextualized with contemporary subject matter is in part a response to the likes of Ravi Varma who had gone in the opposite direction, that is, of grafting traditional subject matter to the European realist mode. Ravi Varma’s strategy is borrowed by one strand of Indian comics, the comics publisher Amar Chitra Katha. Their Hindu mythological comics laid the foundation for current revisionary graphic novel fantasies like Ramayana 3392 AD (2007),  Devi (2007) and Sadhu (2007) from the erstwhile Virgin Comics. Among the many imitators of Virgin Comics are Level 10 Comics, Vimanika Comics, Holy Cow Entertainment and Campfire Graphic Novels, publishers of The Kaurava Empire (Jason Quinn, 2014) and other titles based on the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. At 260 pages, Simian (Vikram Balagopal, 2014) is the most recent attempt at this type of story. These works attempt to re-envision Hindu mythological works in a broadly internationalist style derived from American and European fantasy comics. The religious iconography is deliberately underplayed or their meanings reworked so as to be acceptable to non-Hindu readers who may not have encountered the story before. Even legendary historical figures are subject to this treatment, for example Odayan (Suhas Sundar, Deepak Sharma, 2013) which is about a 16th-century Malabar swordsman. However, these works have so far failed to find the crossover readership they are aiming at. Here, it must be said that Raj Comics, a Hindi comics publisher, had created original Indian superheroes inspired by Hindu mythology in the mid-'80s, way before the current crop of revisionary mythology. In artwork, they derive from American DC and Marvel comics. Despite not having the production quality of the English language comics, these works have had by far the most success in this genre in India.


The realism of Ravi Varma’s reimagining of Hindu mythology overlaps with concerns of the popular film industry as well. The emulation of popular narrative tropes and iconography from Hollywood cinema has been a mainstay of popular Indian cinema from the beginning. The graphic novel repeats this process, as evidenced in works like Mumbai Confidential (2013), a hard-boiled crime series by Saurav Mohapatra and Vivek Shinde, whose title is a nod to the Hollywood noir film L.A. Confidential (1997). An early attempt to ride on the popularity of movie stars was Supremo (1984), wherein a real-life movie star Amitabh Bachchan plays himself as a masked superhero when he is not busy acting in hit movies. This comic series tries to equate movie stardom with the persona of a superhero. The effect is as ingenious as it is self-contradictory.


Comics companies aiming to hit the jackpot with the global Indian superhero have not yet been successful at producing the Indian equivalent of a Superman or Batman, which they had naively assumed was to be found among Hindu mythological heros. This is despite attempts by international comics superstars like Stan Lee, the creator of Spiderman, who created an Indian superhero Chakra (Chakra: The Invincible, 2014), and Grant Morrison who tried a revisionist Mahabharata in 18 Days (2014). As a result, the popular comics companies have been producing graphic novels that rely on the already established and successful Indian popular cinema. There are spinoff graphic novels of movie characters like Agent Vinod (Agent Vinod: The Jungfrau Encounter, 2012). Classic movies like Sholay (1975) also have their graphic novel versions.The art styles in these works are heavily indebted to American superhero comics and graphic novels. Nevertheless, there was a short-lived attempt to ‘Indianize’ an American superhero within the stylistic boundaries of graphic realism. This was the Spiderman: India (2004), a Spiderman from Mumbai wearing a dhoti, a traditional Indian lower garment, combined with the usual Spiderman costume covering the upper body. This quaint fusion is the inverse of the Indian modernist move to appropriate tribal and folk art.


This brings us to the other approach, grounded in Indian modernist art as discussed above. This finds expression in the attempt to create an 'Indian' idiom that, in its aesthetic strategies, harks back to the Bengal school appropriation of traditional arts that the Baroda artists drew from. Examples include Bhimayana (2011, a biography of B.R. Ambedkar) using Gond tribal art, Lie: A traditional tale of modern India (2010), using miniature painting, Sita’s Ramayana (Samhita Arni, 2012) and I see the Promised Land (2013, a biography of Martin Luther King) using the Patua scroll art style from Bengal. The method here is for the writer, usually an erudite urban intellectual, to collaborate with a traditional artist, appropriate those art styles and recontextualize them to serve the purposes of the graphic novel form. This aesthetic strategy finds a parallel in some ‘fusion’ music styles in India. However, as with a lot of ‘fusion’ music, this is a forced marriage exposing power relations between classes, and can result in a superficial and tiresome form. Having said that, more focussed study is needed to analyse and critique these aesthetic strategies.


Searching for a personal voice: Drawing on international alternative comics movements

Yet another approach in Indian graphic novels is informed by alternative comics movements in the US, Europe and to some extent in Japan. The most diversity is to be seen in this broad grouping. What distinguishes these works from others appropriating traditional art forms is their personal art styles that do not directly refer to traditional forms. Rather, they celebrate their deliberately idiosyncratic techniques that borrow from everywhere while not staying committed to any particular idiom. In the context of the aesthetics of modern art, some of these works might share characteristics with Naive Art or Outsider Art. Also apparent is the diversity of subject matter including reportage, autobiography, travelogue, essay and memoir. Orijit Sen’s River of Stories (1994) borrows from Robert Crumb’s expressive realism even as it flirts with Warli tribal art. His other short works show a range of different styles. Appupen’s satirical fantasies Moonward (2009) and Aspyrus (2014), Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s Delhi Calm (2010), Parismita Singh’s Hotel at the End of the World (2009) all assimilate indie comics styles. Sarnath Banerjee’s works like The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers (2007) and The Harappa Files (2011) self-consciously use techniques of Indian popular ‘kitsch’ art, in keeping with the current trend of post-modernism in the arts. He has also managed to sneak in his work into the art gallery space, thus gaining a respectability that few Indian graphic novelists enjoy. Amruta Patil’s graphic novel Adi Parva (2012), based on the Mahabharata, nods towards both Indian modernist art and alternative comics. This work uses mixed media art in full colour, recalling painting trends in the '90s Indian art scene. Retelling the Mahabharata is also part of a larger trend in the English-speaking cultural space in India. Sumit Kumar’s Amar Bari Tomar Bari Naxalbari (2015) is a satirical account of revolutionary politics in post-Independence India. It uses a generic newspaper cartoon style while expanding its scope to a book-length narrative. A similar work is Crocodile in Water, Tiger on Land (2015) an example of a webcomic successfully finding a mainstream publisher. This is a compilation of one-page political satire comics that appeared on the blog of the authors CWTL, who wish to remain anonymous. Malik Sajad, whose massive work Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir (2016) is indebted to Art Spiegelman’s Maus in its use of anthropomorphic characters and stark black and white art. Hyderabad: A Graphic Novel (2014) by Jai Undurti and Harsho Mohan Chattoraj tries to find a balance between a popular idiom and literary subject matter, here a psychogeography of the city of Hyderabad, which is reminiscent of Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland (2007). The Vanished Path (2015) by Bharath Murthy (author of this article) appropriates liberally from techniques found in Japanese manga. What is common among these works is the authors' desire to speak in their own voice while self-consciously displaying their borrowed idioms. The recent publishing trend of comics anthologies can be included in this grouping. Examples include the Pao Anthology (2012), the Obliterary Journal (2012), Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back (2015), This Side That Side: Restorying Partition (2013) and Mixtape (2013). The self-published Comix.India anthologies (2008-9) are also part of this attempt to create a space for amateurs and first-timers and through that encourage a personal expression. The origin of this kind of anthology is in Japanese doujinshi (self-published comics), wherein groups or circles of artists are formed and anthologies are self-published to be sold directly to the reader at comics conventions. 




Though the diversity of Indian graphic novels has increased since the 2000s, they remain a niche market in the publishing industry. None have been bestsellers. The quest for an ‘Indian’ form of graphic novel remains elusive. In popularity, it continues to struggle with other dominant cultural expressions like the cinema and popular fiction. The future of the Indian graphic novel depends on the gradually growing number of individual voices who must take upon themselves the task of reaching out to a general readership. If not, they will remain little more than a sideshow in the larger cultural sphere.