There’s a podcast of Aabid Surti online. A legendary artist, painter and creator of the much beloved comic, Bahadur, Surti hides a smile behind his beard as he flips through his new book, Dr Chinchoo ke Karname. Later, still hiding that smile, he lets it drop that there’s talk of reviving Bahadur, but this time as a web comic. Somewhere across India, a thousand fans are holding their breath.
The podcast is the first of many to be released by Alok Sharma — an artist, writer, director and now producer of the soon-to-be-released documentary Chitrakatha: Indian Comics Beyond Balloons and Panels. The documentary, the first of its kind, attempts to showcase the rich history of Indian sequential art — from cave paintings in Hampi to modern day graphic novels. Switching seamlessly from Hindi to English, Alok narrates the documentary and interviews some of India’s most renowned comic artists. Produced in collaboration with noted artist Saumin Patel (Devi, Mumbai MacGuffin) and cinematographer Neeshank Mathure (Well Done Abba), the documentary is an attempt also to unmask the creators of India’s most beloved comic characters and afford the public a peek into the everyday lives of the artists and creators who brought them to life.
“Creators in India don’t have the same fan following like those in Japan or America,” Alok says, outlining one of his reasons for making the documentary. Besides that, he had also harboured the life-long dream of meeting his childhood heroes; the documentary was a perfect excuse.
He spent five years researching the story and tracking down artists and creators scattered across India. “You could say I travelled from Meerut to Kerala, Kolkata to Mumbai,” he laughs as he reminisces about traversing the country in second class non-A/C coaches and shooting in trains. The documentary, now in its final stages of post production, features such legendary creators as Anant Pai (Tinkle, Indrajal Comics), Aabid Surti (Bahadur), and Pran (Chacha Chaudhari, Billoo ), as well as the creative young minds of today like Mukesh Singh (Devi,18 Days) and Abhishek Singh (Ramayana 3392 AD, Kali: India Authentic). For the most part, the creators were happy to talk to Alok, but the most memorable interview for him was with the Late Govind Brahmania. “He didn’t even want to do it,” Alok says of the man who illustrated Bahadur;
but eventually Brahmania consented. It was
to be his first and last video interview as the
renowned illustrator passed away shortly afterwards on December 9, 2009.
Apart from gathering sound bytes from industry veterans, the documentary also explores the history of Indian art. “Sequential art is not foreign to India. It’s 100 per cent Indian,” Alok says referring to pillar and cave paintings across India. While the work there is ancient, they still tell stories about the human experience using pictures and images that occur sequentially in time. Indian or not, the comics culture in India has, however, largely emulated the west.
Historically, the popularity of comics began with the publication of syndicated western comics such as Mandrake and The Phantom as far back as in pre-independent India. As the medium itself gained popularity, Indrajal Comics, India’s first comics company, was established in the mid-sixties. In 1967, indigenous comics were popularised by Anant Pai with the establishment of Amar Chitra Katha and with it, Pai came to be known as the ‘Father of Indian Comics.’ From the Sixties through to the 21st century, the medium has gone through a lot of changes as each generation of artists had more material to draw from. “The third generation of artists working today are the luckiest,” Alok says because they have a potentially limitless pool of work, foreign and Indian, to learn from.
The documentary is sure to be a treat for comic buffs but Alok insists that “there’s a lot of masala in it for non-comic fans also.” Chitrakatha: Indian Comics Beyond Balloons and Panels will be released by the end of 2010, Alok hopes. Check them out online at www.chitrakathaonline.com or at www.facebook.com/chitrakatha.
— Anisha Sridhar writes fiction and non-fiction from her base in Massachusetts.