Pramod K. Nayar in his book The Indian Graphic Novel: Nation, History and Critique, argues that the art form has an edge over other dominant genres as it simultaneously engages the reader to the act of reading and perceiving. It embodies a unique inter-play of words and images, the literal and the symbolic layer of interpretation and even its gaps or absences render a field of signification. It not only communicates with its readers, but directly involves them and makes them the key players in the production of meaning.
Graphic narratives have been a significant part of Indian, or rather South Asian culture as seen in the various sculptures etched mostly on Hindu temples like Khajuraho, the Konark Sun Temple, Virupaksha Temple in Hampi and others. However, graphic novels did not make a foray into the Indian literary space before 1994 when Orijit Sen published his The River of Stories, which told of the controversial construction of dams on the Narmada River. However, it was Corridor, published by Penguin India in 2004, which introduced graphic novels into the mainstream publishing space in the country. Another event which carved a space for graphic novels in the mainstream publishing industry of the country was the release of a Bollywood movie Hum Tum, which had a cartoonist as its hero.
Here are a few graphic novels written by Indian authors since then:
I. Delhi Calm
Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s first solo graphic novel, “Delhi Calm” is a book narrating through words and images the tumultuous times India experienced during the Emergency. It is a story of the grit of the people who fought for their right to democracy despite all odds during these troubled times. Imagine a life where you wake up to learn that all your rights as a citizen have been suspended, you are told how to talk, when to laugh, how to live, what to speak, when to speak. Such were the restrictions that existed during the Emergency and this was just the beginning to an 18 month ordeal. Across India, people were picked up and put into jails, which included leaders and legislators of parties other than the ruling party. Anyone considered a threat to the ruling party was immediately arrested. The book shows what life can be like when your rights have been suspended. There’s joblessness and people being arrested for criticising their leaders, and the book is a detailed look at life in this period.
This book, part graphic, part text is set in Delhi successfully manages to chronicle the life and times of people during the Emergency. The book has some fabulous artwork and what is amazing is the detailed look and feel of the seventies. The illustrations beautifully convey the state of total government dominance with the unforgettable slogans coined during the period such as ‘Talk Less, Work More’ ‘Keep Distance, Keep Quiet’ ‘The Nation is in Deep crisis ’ cleverly merged in the background of every frame.
II. This Side, That Side
A significant addition to the corpus of Partition literature. This Side, That Side is an anthology of stories which attempts to “restory” Partition through the eyes of the children and grandchildren of Partition survivors. It consists of 28 stories composed by 42 artists after an open call was released in 2011. The stories are curated by Vishwajyoti Ghosh, who also contributes to the anthology. The stories concern themselves with revealing several common threads across the borders.
Experiences of Untouchability by .. seeks to humanise Ambedkar by providing a graphic account of the ordinary experiences that led to the emergence of an extraordinary politics. The story starts with a conversation between an upper caste man and a Dalit woman. The man who is in search of a new job is seen to be sulking about reservations, prompting the woman to start rambling about the ubiquity of caste-based discrimination in India, while simultaneously situating every such incident to the life of Babasaheb Ambedkar. The book is divided into three major chapters: Water, Shelter and Travel. As any ordinary human being would, these are the things Ambedkar seeks in his life. As the young Bhim becomes conscious of his identity, the struggle for these basic needs translates into something bigger: the struggle for Equality.
IV. Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir
The graphic novel is a journey through the unfolding history of Kashmir since the 1990s. It is an alternative history of Indian- administered Kashmir, specifically Srinagar, It is told from the point of view of Malik Sajad’s alter ego, Munnu, a boy who grows up in the conflict-ridden city of Srinagar and tries to make sense of himself and the world around him.
The book is a coming-of-age narrative, or a Bildungsroman as well as the story of the “conflict generation” in Kashmir, and weaves militarization and resistance as the very backdrop of Munnu’s life.
Set amidst a metropolitan city, Amruta Patil’s “Kari” attempts to portray the lived realities of homosexual women in a highly heterosexual society. Featuring a lesbian woman as its central protagonist, Kari shows the reader how social conditioning has an impact on our gender identities and the gender roles we are expected to adhere to. It is a moving narrative centred around the search for self in a society embedded with discrimination and prejudices.
VI. Legends of Halahala
A work of graphic fiction by the Kerala artist, Appupen, Legends of Halahala is set on a planet that resembles our own in many ways. It employs different drawing styles to tell five stories set in separate periods, each presenting a perspective on love, obsession and its effects. The themes explored in this novel include both a conventional, youthful romance, as well as the idea of two oddball, parasite-like creatures from the remote Oberian era, being each others’ forever companions. There is a man pining for the super-heroine he encountered as a child, and another man – a swarthy motorbike-riding daredevil who is the rescuer of, and then the abductor of, a supermodel’s absconding left breast. The book is completely devoid of words which adds to its distinctive artistic merit.
VII. Chhotu: A Tale of Partition and Love
Set against the backdrop of Partition, Chhotu by Varud Gupta is a coming-of-age story of an unlikely hero, and a parable of a past that spills over into the present. It is 1947, and the British are slowly marking their departure from the country. Meanwhile, Chhotu, a student-cum-paratha cook from Chandni Chowk, is soaking in the headiness of the first flush of love for the new girl at school, Heer. However, when he finally decides to approach Heer, he finds that the town’s aloos (potatoes) have suddenly gone missing. As he sets out on a journey to solve the mysterious case of disappearing potatoes, he finds himself involved in the world of corruption, crime and local dons.
Prateek Thomas and Rajeev Eipe’s debut graphic novel, Hush, is a short story in black and white. It is a dark, complex narrative about the events leading up to one catastrophic act of violence. A book with no words, “Hush” tells the story of Maya, a young schoolgirl and a victim of sexual abuse who is unable to control her pain and anger and breaks out in a rampage in the classroom.
Set in contemporary Delhi, Corridor is a graphic novel written and illustrated by Sarnath Banerjee. The novel revolves around Jehangir Rangoonwalla, a bookshop owner who, after some 40 jobs, and years spent seeking answers to life’s mysteries, suddenly attained enlightenment in the elevator of a skyscraper in Nariman Point. Among his customers are Brighu, a postmodern Ibn Batuta looking for obscure collectibles and a love life; Digital Dutta who lives mostly in his head, torn between Karl Marx and an H-1B visa; and the newly married Shintu, looking for the ultimate aphrodisiac in the seedy by-lanes of old Delhi. Played out in the corridors of Connaught Place and Calcutta, the story captures the alienation and fragmented reality of urban life through an imaginative alchemy of text and image.
X. Kashmir Pending
Written by Srinagar-based Naseer Ahmed with sketches by India Today illustrator, Saurabh Singh, Kashmir Pending tells the story of several characters in Kashmir, attempting to capture the prevailing psyche of that of anguish and alienation in the state. Ahmed builds a case for the people of Kashmir by using real characters in the backdrop of violence in the militant-occupied Kashmir of 1989.
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