The country stands divided with its current political and social climate in turmoil over a series of growing injustices against a number of communities. From the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula, to the controversy at Jawaharlal Nehru University, to the recent attack on tribal activist Soni Sori; there is an increasing amount of ‘anti-national’ behaviour. But not to worry folks! As the dissenting voices garner growing support across the country, there is still one man out there fighting these radical anti-nationals--meet Rashtraman. Clad in saffron he’s ready to swing fists to protect the people and bring peace to Rashtria from such terrible injustices.
The guardian of Rashtria and hero of Halahala, Rashtraman is comic artist Appupen’s green tea-drinking superhero who’s the protector of Rashtrapolis, the capital of Rashtria in the fantasy world of Halahala. Appupen is the pen-name of George Mathen, author and artist of the Halahala comics, paintings and graphic novels Moonward, Legends of Halahala and Aspyrus.
The comic strips may seem bitingly similar to our current political climate, keeping in mind the Rashtraman-like lawyers who assaulted students and teachers outside of the Patiala Court, but it was in fact conceptualised a while ago as part of an idea called Braindead that Appupen has had in the works for a few months now. Using satire to highlight everything that comes in the sphere of public discourse, Appupen’s work seeks to communicate and instigate through humour. “We’re going through a heavy shift in terms of a cultural wave of commercial interests that is coming in. We have a very new urban population with a lot of commercial agendas coming in as well, and we’re very underexposed to it... we don’t realise it,” says Appupen. Speaking to us about current urban realities, he says, “A lot of messages are being dictated to us, we’re being fed with this kind of stuff everyday and we need to make fun of it and it can be made fun of, it’s not the word of God. Some time ago, a similar thing happened in the West when activists and spoofs had come up, like MAD Magazine. MAD has a habit of making fun of things, things that take up your mental space and we don’t have something like that here, a culture of making fun.”
“We must be careful, these days. That’s why I have green tea every morning. It has antioxidants that arrest the free radicals in my body, while I take care of Rashtria!” reads one of Appupen’s comic strips. While Rashtraman keeps track the pesky ‘free radicals’ in Appupen’s fantasy world, freedom of speech in India is being clamped down upon, with the government even planning to monitor ‘negative’ comments online, it only seems to be getting progressively more rigid for artists and freethinkers alike.
“There’s a lot of things, it’s not just JNU. There’s been a pattern for a long time,” Mathen says. Art has always been a powerful tool for social and political change. “It’s one out of a whole array of things we can use for non-violent protest,” says Appupen, further adding that using art can highlight the absurdity of situations. “I’ve had this fear for a long time, it’s hard to communicate and tell people that it’s a very real fear. People go to work, go to offices, these are all artificial environments...they don’t see what I am trying to say, they think it’s a problem they’re far disconnected from. But these people [facing social and political injustices] are people in our circumstances. This is serious, the country has never come to such a place before. Big money and big power will cover this up, but we have a lot of critically thinking people and we need to tell them what an important moment this is.”
Rashtraman is as witty as it is a critical commentary on our society. A great admirer of O. V. Vijayan’s work--“he was quite a dude, he was a writer and he just cuts through a lot of crap with simple visual”--Appupen says he’s pretty new to “political stuff,” though the fantasy world he has created through all his work has always been a sort of grim parallel dimension, a dark mirror of our own reality.
We've posted below the first two comic strips featuring Rashtraman, courtesy Appupen. While we have a few of our own real-life Rashtraman’s flying around and causing a nuisance, you can follow Appupen on Facebook for more information and to stay updated on all of Rashtraman’s escapades.