Before Indian kids grew fond of the Marvel and DC universe, they had Amar Chitra Katha, the beloved series of Indian comics and graphic novels based on religious legends and epics, historical figures and biographies, folktales and cultural stories. Having been around since 1969, the publisher became a household name in the country and oriented thousands of kids to the comic-book culture, acquainting them with the tales of Hindu mythology that previously were purveyed only in religious hymns and prayers.
Though that was the intention of its creator, Anant Pai; to teach children about their own folklore and culture, Amar Chitra Katha also took a because of it. For years the comics fueled the Hindu nationalist doctrine devaluing lower castes, women, tribal populations, and religious minorities feeding systemic unequality. It went unrecognized until retrospection because the youth was just happy to see their Indian identities represented in comic culture in the era when Enid Blyton mysteries, and books on Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew were popular.
Bringing back the nostalgia and design of Amar Chitra Katha but in a liberal, futuristic universe, Chitra Ganesh, a Brooklyn-based, South Asian visual artist revamps our gaze towards Indian comics. Through studies in literature, semiotics, social theory, science fiction, and historical and mythic texts, Chitra attempts to reconcile representations of femininity, sexuality, and power absent from the artistic and literary canons. She often draws on Hindu and Buddhist iconography and South Asian forms such as Kalighat and Madhubani, but is currently negotiating her relationship to these images with the rise of right wing fundamentalism in India.
Unlike the typical linear structure of comics, Chitra utilizes the popular format to create open-ended images that reflect on her personal life experiences as well as elements of her Indian heritage and diasporic Brooklyn upbringing. She works with digital collage, painting, and installation, creating multilayered narratives with multiple meanings. In her comic-inspired work, Chitra utilizes text as poetic streams of consciousness rather than a device expounding plot or dialogue.
Her work is a convergence of surrealism and futurism, with female characters leading the narrative. Some of her projects include 'Multiverse Dreaming' — a suite of twelve digital prints informed, in part, by an increased sense of solitude over the course of a pandemic, the power of collective dreams and collective consciousness, 'Architects of Future' — integrating the visual languages of 60s and 70s science fiction and mid century Japanese comics in a retro-futurist universe where bodies, like time, are fluid, and 'She the Question' — featuring women as protagonists in their own right, actively articulating their pasts and shaping their futures, offering alternative articulations of conflict, desire, and power, through abject imagery and disjunctive narratives.
Across a twenty-year practice, the artist has developed an expansive body of work rooted in drawing and painting, which has evolved to encompass animations, wall drawings, collages, computer generated imagery, video, and sculpture. Her work is represented in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California and The Art Institute of Chicago, among others.
Chitra has successfully forged her own stylic expression through her work which is for and about the feminine intellectual, a demographic too rarely tended to. The themes of utopia, empowerment and sexuality in her designs along with the multi-dimensional abstract poetry create a shamanic connection between dreams and reality. Her female characters offer us the experience of the grandeur of Greek and Indian mythology and the thrill of science fiction through a feminist lens, and her play on nostalgic, retro colours with futuristic visions create and an entirely unique, timeless universe to get lost in.
Check out her work here.