Graphic novels radically rooted in Indian market

A growing number of novelists is marrying words and pictures with new ideas and characters.

Published: 03rd December 2016 01:20 PM  |   Last Updated: 03rd December 2016 10:20 PM   |  A+A-

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Sharad Devarajan, co-founder and CEO, Graphic India

In a dark and stormy night, a dark knight rises, silhouetted against a moonless sky. Gods prepare for war a few thousand years in the mystical past. A goddess manifests herself in a young woman who has been raped and takes revenge. In the more recent past and in the now, history is retold through nostalgic strips of art. Sholay and Shivaay splatter across four-colour pages.

But the one that everyone’s waiting for is yet to come. S S Rajamouli’s breathtaking world of Baahubali promises to change India’s perception of graphic novels forever.

These heroes are not guardians of Gotham City, Metropolis or New York. They are in our own Indian backyard, spawning out of graphic novels, embedding themselves in the hearts of those who grew up with Batman, Superman, Spider-man and their league of super heroes. Artful pictures that tell tales of valour, humour, sex, gossip, introspection, despair, darkness and light—graphic novels are making a bold and in-your-face impression on paper in four colours.

Girija Jhunjhunwala, Publisher Pic: Shekhar Yadav

A mix of photographs, drawings and text bound together in a slim book brought out the colours and darkness in the lives of three men in Delhi in 2004 in Corridor, which leapfrogged its author Sarnath Banerjee and the rise of the graphic novel movement in India. It took Sarnath three-and-a-half years to complete the story set in the corridors of Connaught Place and Kolkata, capturing the essence of urban lives in all its madness.

V K Karthika, who was then senior editor at Penguin Books, took a huge risk by accepting his manuscript. “There was no commercially available graphic novel available in India at that time. She must have spent hours trying to convince marketing. Today, most publishers want to do graphic novels,” says the 44-year-old artist, whose work represents the rapidly-changing Indian lifestyle.

But graphic novels are not new to India. What is new is the themes they depict. With the success of events such as Comic Con 2016, people have come to view the genre of graphic novels in a different light. Visually strung-together powerful stories by 14 women in Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back, published by Zubaan Books last year, reiterate that the realm of sequential art and graphic storytelling is here to stay.

“Amar Chitra Katha presented mythological tales in an illustrated format to readers all over India,” explains S Vijayan, the 49-year-old editor of Lion Comics, a pioneer in regional comics in Tamil Nadu. “Today, there are some young Indian comic book publishers who give an imaginative twist to our mythology for the English and Hindi audience. We need to keep pace with and embrace the changing times. That is why more space is now being created for graphic novels in other Indian languages as well.”

S Vijayan, Publisher. Pic : K K SUNDAR

The term ‘graphic novel’ was coined in 1964, and the Amar Chitra Katha comics were launched in India in 1967. The country welcomed the world of comics with open arms. Initially, they focused on retelling the epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana. The reality of the power of graphic novels struck us much later when Orijit Sen penned his River of Stories in 1994. Published by Kalpavriksh, his pioneering work focused on how the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada river in Gujarat would impact locals. It was India’s first
attempt at cartoon journalism and, perhaps, India’s first graphic novel. 

“I didn’t grow up with graphic novels as there weren’t any then,” says Sarnath, who was exposed to comics in a Bengali magazine in episodic forms—Indrajal, Amar Chitra Katha and even Tintin. “I was drawn to them because it was like staging your own play,” says the Berlin-based Indian graphic novelist.

Vijayan believes people need to accept that there is a thin line of separation between comics and graphic novels. “Comics in general are an all-encompassing genre, with awesome variety to suit all readers—young and not so young. Comics can mean fun-filled cartoons for kids, superhero stuff, mythology and more. On the other hand, graphic novels are a bit deeper, depict real life and target a mature readership,” he says.

Even though the last decade has seen the rise of more realistic stories, our hunger for superheroes has not gone down. “What has made superheroes and our genre of storytelling so successful is that great superheroes have for generations been reflective of larger societal narratives. They deal with serious storylines through characters that are flawed and go through a story of transformation and growth,” says 41-year-old Sharad Devarajan, co-founder and CEO, Graphic India, a publishing house.

Most readers will admit that the endless retelling of the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics still remain their all-time favourites. Adapting these deep-rooted classics by new-age publishers often see the use of latest technology—sharper, cleaner and refreshing strokes of Ram, Lakshman, Sita, Hanuman and their clan.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, International Publishing Consultant. Pic : Shekhar Yadav

Sarnath says graphic novels should reflect both mythology and reality. “There’s a lot of mythology that is created in real life, whether in politics or society. At the same time, mythology could be an inroad into understanding contemporary life. Comics with their multi-layered narratives and natural ability to play with parallel realities have a natural advantage,” says the author-illustrator, who was shortlisted for the Abraaj Group Art Prize 2015 at Art Dubai.

Even as some graphic novels look for inspiration from our yesteryear ethos, some look at present-day pathos. New York-based filmmaker Ram Devineni took up the case of rape survivors in his first novel, Priya’s Shakti. “I was in Delhi in 2012 when the December 16 gang-rape happened,” he says. “I participated in the protests that followed. I was horrified. The problem of sexual violence in India was not a legal issue, it was a cultural problem. For about a year, I travelled around India and Southeast Asia learning from poets, philosophers, activists, talking with rape survivors.”

During his journey, Ram realised how difficult it was for them to seek justice. On a parallel journey of understanding, he began researching Hindu mythology and discovered the many rich stories. “Often a disciple would call on the gods for help during dire situations. So I began formulating a new mythological tale where a mortal woman and rape survivor seeks help from Goddess Parvati. I wanted to create a new Indian superhero, Priya, who is a rape survivor,” he adds. What he did not expect was the stupendous success of the novel, which received so much acclaim that the World Bank approached them for Priya’s Mirror, an edition on acid attack victims. It was released in India in October at the Mumbai Comic Con.

Ram chose to work in this genre because he grew up reading Amar Chitra Katha, which influenced him hugely. “I first learned about Hindu mythology through their comic book series. Comics are an important part of our culture and hugely popular with teenagers and young adults,” he says. Ram explains how comic books have entered the commercial mainstream, major Hollywood releases are based on comic book characters and they fetch enormous box office returns. “Comic book characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman have become modern mythological icons. Other stories such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus address important historical events. We are using existing constructs that are familiar to everyone in India, but presenting them in a fresh and original way.”

Ram Devineni, Author and Filmmaker (second from left) with his creative team

Gaysi Zine, compiled by editor Priya Gangwani and art director Sreejita Biswas (aka Solo), is another success story that shocked conservative India. The country’s first graphic anthology with over 30 contributors visualising the gay Indian community is wacky, vibrant and brilliant. Solo from Bengaluru says she did not imagine its raging success. “The response was amazing. Starting from the successful crowdfunding and ending with the books selling out in the blink of an eye, it was quite the journey to be a part of,” she says. “When Gaysi Zine came out last year, a friend’s father called me to apologise for being homophobic and turning his daughter out of the house when she came out as a lesbian. That has been the biggest achievement for us.”

The making of a graphic novel involves a lot of hard work and intelligence. “It’s a great way to communicate with people across all ages, with people who can’t read, and overcome language barriers. It’s the cheapest way to make a three-headed alien having an epic space fight to come to life,” laughs Solo.

Rashmi R D, Editor, Blaft Publications. Pic: Sunish P Surendran

While many were exploring graphic novels to break stereotypes, Orjit used this format as a journalistic tool. He tried to narrate the voices lost in the 24-hour breaking news format with First Hand: Graphic Non-Fiction from India (2016). Vidyun Sabhaney, 29, who co-edited the book with Orijit, says: “First Hand came to us as an idea two years ago. We felt there were hardly any comics that told contemporary narratives. Comics that told urgent stories of the odds against which lives are being lived, and the events and forces that are shaping them, were missing. This understanding most often comes to us as reports, or in the form of books, but rarely as a visual story that can bring them alive with details, characters, location, etc.”

The Girl Not from Madras (perhaps the most poignant story from First Hand) takes you straight to the bricks of the police station, reluctance, apathy, et al. The Gurgaon-based writer recalls that when they put out a call for entries for the anthology, they got over 50 applications, many with preliminary sketches, storyboards and plots.

Vidyun agrees. “The community of creators is growing very quickly and attracting people from different disciplines. First Hand is an example of that. This is very different from how it was five years ago, when there were just a handful of comics creators. The medium is being used for many purposes—conventional storytelling, personal catharsis, documentation, education, etc.”

Graphic novels and comics have always sold well in India, says Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, an international publishing consultant in Delhi. “Characters such as Bahadur, created by Aabid Surti, are very popular. It is a familiar form of storytelling, and the Indian audience is receptive to it,” she says. But graphic novels require heavy investment. “When released, it must be affordable, and a substantial number of units must sell. It’s a Catch-22 situation. There is a lot of potential in this genre, but publishers will be wary of experimentation unless it is a tested author.” She cites Malik Sajjad’s Munnu as a remarkable graphic novel that narrates the story on J&K, with the Kashmiri Hangul stag anthropomorphised. “That’s an incredibly powerful book, but it was not published in India, though it was distributed locally,” she adds.

Sarnath points out that the international publishing world for graphic novels is dominated by the white middle-class male, with some designated spots for women, coloured writers and some easy-to-digest identity politics. The politics it represents is not as sophisticated as the form. “The story is different in India. A lot of bright people do graphic novels. It’s a better bet to work within the Indian sub-continent and look for markets outside the West, such as South Africa, Egypt and other non-Western regions,” explains Sarnath.

While working on the Gaysi Zine anthology, Sreejitha says she found that people want to read and know more. “The awesome thing about comic book lovers is that we actually want to keep reading new stuff from new places by new people.”

Vidyun Sabhaney, Author. Pic : Shekhar Yadav

There seems to be a tremendous amount of illustrated stories in the graphic novel format, straddling a variety of genres, both fiction and non-fiction, for a varied age group, from six years to infinity, believes Rashmi R D, 40, editor of Blaft Publications in Chennai. She agrees that comics with fictitious super humans with super powers thrived in the early years. But today, there are some amazing, hard-hitting non-fiction graphic novels for readers available in India. 

Blaft Publications’ first graphic novel was Moonward by Appupen, which released in 2009. In 2011, it was selected for the Angouleme Festival, France. Reviewed as vicious, dark and brutally honest, Appupen created the world of Halahala, named after the poison generated through the churning of the primordial ocean and swallowed by Shiva. He brings to light the absurdities, idiosyncrasies and poisons of our own world through his debut novel. “Moonward knocked our metaphoric socks off at so many different levels. The world that Moonward was set in was so off the wall. It was what we wanted to get behind one hundred per cent,” recounts Rashmi. “First, it was Appupen’s art style; the second was that more than 70 per cent of the book was ready.”

Graphic novels have also arrived in the world of education. “The creation of a graphic novel is essentially storyboarding, just like a movie script. This similarity leads to a visual delight for young readers,” explains Girija Jhunjhunwala, 45, director, Campfire Publications, Delhi. Since their launch in 2008, they have published over 100 graphic novels. She admits that Campfire has faced several challenges, of which the first was to find authors, illustrators and editors in India.

“When we started out, graphic novels were a new format and several authors we approached were not able to help. It was an uphill task to find and convince artists to join Campfire, although several young artists that we recruited loved the idea of using their talent for something unique and new,” says Girija. “Booksellers tend to stock graphic novels at the back of shops where customers cannot see them. I am hoping that with the success of events like the Comic Con, the growing reader fraternity of graphic novels will one day convince book shops to bring graphic novels to the forefront in their displays.”

Vijayan agrees and underlines that the world over, graphic novels are an accepted entertainment format and have stunning sales numbers. “In India, there is a slight mental block and we tend to connect kidstuff to reading comics. One picture can convey what a hundred words can fail to. You will be stunned to discover the depth and volume that both comics and graphic novels offer,” he says.

With over 10 of their titles recommended by CBSE and 13 titles recommended by Kendriya Vidyalayas, Girija believes that graphic novels are a suitable medium for engaging young, hesitant readers who may find textbooks boring. “Keeping that end in mind, we have published graphic novel adaptations of well-known Western classics and historical events, biographies of famous persons (Mother Teresa: Angel of the Slums and Steve Jobs: Genius by Design), and tales and legends from Indian and Greek mythologies,” says Girija. “A graphic novel, when used as educational material for young readers, is essentially information disguised as entertainment. In today’s context, time is at premium for the young and graphic novels are indeed ‘instant coffee’ for young readers.”

Like all genres of books, graphic novels also face the brunt of digital revolution. But some use this to up their game. Ram uses augmented reality to elevate the reading experience. “Augmented reality is a major part of our comic book, and by scanning the book with the popular augmented reality app Blippar, you can view animation, real-life stories, and interactive elements pop out of the pages,” he says. Working on his next, Priya and the Last Girls, with Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an NGO working to end sex trafficking, Ram hopes to define new frontiers of integrating books, exhibitions, and public art with augmented reality.

For a nation that grew up with stories and later movies, it makes perfect sense to merge the grandeur of film-making with the in-depth storytelling nature of graphic novels. In the past, the likes of the Bollywood blockbusters Sholay—and more recently, Shivaay—were made into graphic novels.

The upcoming graphic series Baahubali: The Lost Legends is set before the Kalakeya invasion depicted in the movie, when Baahubali and Bhallaladeva as young princes of Mahishmati vie for the crown. The animated series will explore characters such as Prince Baahubali, Bhallaladeva, Kattapa and Sivagami as well as a dozen new characters as they reveal hidden secrets for millions of fans. The series will follow the relationship between the two cousins as they journey across the kingdom of Mahishmati, solving hidden mysteries, overcoming ancient terrors and defending their people from danger.

Sharad Devarajan from Graphic India says, “When Rajamouli revealed the depth of the characters and the world he created, we knew fans would love to go deeper than what could be shown in the films; comics and other transmedia storytelling experiences would allow for these opportunities. In the same way that Star Wars reshaped US cinema and sparked transmedia in the West for generations thereafter, Baahubali will be the pivotal moment we see that similar change emerge here in India.”

Are creating graphic novels an exciting and lucrative career option? “Graphic novelists are paid the same as any author’s royalty, usually 8-12 per cent of the book price. However, it’s a financial nightmare if you want to live on your books,” reveals Sarnath. Sreejita adds: “The payment a graphic novelist receives entirely depends on the publisher. Without a guild to help creators, there are no fixed rates. They can make as much as `5,000 for a page
or as little as `100.”

There’s another factor that publications consider. “In Blaft Publications’ early years, we’d get a lot of queries from people who had ideas and concepts for comics and graphic novels. Having an idea and having a volume of completed, original work ready to present, that’s crucial deciding factor.”

Characters Who Connected With Us

From super heroes to chaiwallahs, here are some characters who struck a chord with readers while presenting stories from India

Corridor
Sarnath Banerjee
Jehangir Rangoonwalla (dispenser of tea, wisdom, and used books), Ibn Batuta (looking for obscure collectibles and love), Digital Dutta (who lives in his head, torn between Karl Marx and an H1-B visa), and Shintu (the newly-wed).

Suppandi
Amar Chitra Katha
Suppandi is the most popular toon of Tinkle Comics, created in 1987. He is based on the Tamil folklore character chappandi, who is a total goof and makes you laugh with his silly antics.

The Gaysi Zine

Priya Gangwani and Sreejita Biswas
A collection of stories written and illustrated by artists captures the truth, from personal experiences, expressing values that are felt deep down to the core.

Munnu: A Boy From Kashmir

Malik Sajad
Seven-year-old Munnu presents an insight into everyday life through evocative graphics.

Astra, the Immortal

After creating superhero Chakra with the legendary Stan Lee, Graphic India will recreate the magic with Amitabh Bachchan. The story revolves around mythical superhero Astra, played by Amitabh’s animated version, taking on supervillains to rule the galaxy.

First Hand: Graphic Non-Fiction
From India, Vol 1
Orijit Sen and Vidyun Sabhaney
Gujarat riot victims as first-time voters, trafficking and forced marriages in Haryana, a vegetable vendor from Kolkata who becomes a world-renowned artist, and 20 other stories.

Odayan
Suhas Sundar and Deepak Sharma
Odayan is a superhero with a dark side in the backdrop of feudal Kerala. He amasses wealth and builds a criminal empire. The green Kathakali-inspired mask strikes closer to home in both the visual realm as well as contextual.

Moon Mountain
Saurav Mohapatra and Sayan Mukherjee
The story set in 1909 is about Shankar, a middle-class Bengali village boy who is expected to get a job and take on more responsibilities. But Shankar’s heart is full of wanderlust and he wants to venture into the wilds of Africa.

Nirmala and Normala
Niveditha Subramaniam and Sowmya Rajendran
Nirmala and Normala are twins separated at birth. One becomes an actress, the other a normal person. Their lives run parallel to each other, bringing out the stark contrast between reality and movies.

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