Tales that time-travel
Merging history with illustrations, Nikhil Gulati travels through time to the Indus Valley Civilisation in his latest offering
CHENNAI: History has come alive on screen several times with elaborate costumes and verbose dialogue but with just as much cinematic flair, Nikhil Gulati’s The People of the Indus and the Birth of Civilisation in South Asia (with Jonathan Mark Kenoyer) raises the dead in 2D on paper. The graphic novel’s origin story can be traced back to a chance trip to Lothal some seven-eight years ago when Nikhil was studying in Gujarat.
At the time, the author and illustrator knew little about the Indus Valley civilisation and was a little disappointed to see the sparsely excavated site. But he was intrigued to learn more. “While I was researching the topic, I found there was so much discovered in the last few decades. I was surprised; why didn’t I know this? Why wasn’t it public knowledge? And that convinced me to make a graphic novel. I wanted to do history through comics because I felt history to be visual. The more I researched, the more I was fascinated. I was looking for something like this to read. When I couldn’t find it, I thought I’d create it myself,” says Nikhil.
Pictures that tell tales
The book takes you on a visual tour of the Indus Valley civilisation detailing several interesting facets from architecture and craft to the political structure and geography. While the story is completely rooted in non-fictional history, it finds a human voice through a narrator who plays the part of a tour guide. “When I go to historical sites, it is nice to have someone show you around, it humanises the whole experience. In comics, having a narrator really helps because they can be expressive. You see the excitement or boredom through their body language. A lot of communication happens that way in comics and that kind of power becomes available through a narrator. It also helps you put things at a human scale,” Nikhil explains.
Apart from the friendly escort, it is the picture-only sections that I found mesmerising. As if looking at a movie storyboard, the no-speech panels manage to share information and tell a story with no interruption from words. That being said, the novel also hosts panels that are rich in information. I found myself engrossed in the unique seals (that acted like the signatures of today), the decentralised power and the conversation on language. Nikhil, however, shares that it was the lack of weapons that fascinated him.
“How crazy is it that in a period of nearly 1000 years, there is absolutely no evidence of warfare and yet this is a civilisation that expands upto double the size of the Egyptian civilisation. How does it expand? Clearly it was not being forced upon people. When you look at history, you almost take it for granted that there used to be kings, warfare and revenue taken from where they spread their empire. That’s what happened in Mesopotamia and Egypt. And it is not that they (the Indus civilisation) did not know about it because they travelled to Mesopotamia and would have clearly seen weapons there but for them to continue to choose to not engage in it for centuries is a conscious choice,” he informs.
Helping hands of history
This trove of information that was a five-year project, however, went through several changes under the guidance of Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, who spent 30-odd years excavating the site. He became involved in the project when he was sent the manuscript by Nikhil, who did not even expect a response.
“We spent 4-5 months going through every line and illustration. And connecting things we felt were not accurate. More or less, the narrative stayed the same but certain details changed. As an artist himself, he had tried to visualise the clothing, architecture, hairstyles, jewellery, so a lot of that got updated. I also changed the size of the gates which were initially too large. Bullock cart wheels and the boats; a lot got corrected because of his involvement,” Nikhil shares, adding that much of the book is based on research by Jonathan.
While the book is deeply researched and aided by Jonathan’s extensive expertise, Nikhil does not claim for it to be the final word and expects some disagreement. “I feel very confident about what is presented but this is also about interpretation. This is something that happened long ago and the evidence we have is fragmented…we have to connect the dots that are far and few in between. But if you look at even present day, no two people will agree with what is happening today even when we have all this evidence and lived experience,” Nikhil says and it’s an explanation with which I cannot argue. The book took me back to days of reading Amar Chitra Katha and the experience is just as enchanting as I remember it.