How Baantool was beaten by English

How Baantool was beaten by English

For the past few years, there has been a sense of tremendous anticipation about the imminent coming of the graphic novel in India. A sense that a critical mass has been reached and that a deluge of new, edgy material is just round the corner.

Sadly, this has not happened. Publishers have shown no sign of starting a graphic novels imprint, and creators, for their part, have been in no hurry to rush into print. From time to time, one hears of various genre-altering works in progress, or gets to see the odd brilliant fragment. But the overwhelming sense is one of lassitude.

It is in such a scenario that the first ever comic books convention in India will open in the Capital today. As an initiative, it is certainly welcome, though the absence of any major names (with the exception of Pran, the creator of Chacha Chaudhary) is a bit of a dampener. One hopes that at the very least, it will help create and nurture a well-knit community of comic book writers, readers and researchers.

Additionally, the history of the Indian comic book in regional languages is an incomplete one. It started its life mostly in children’s magazines, and spanned the whole gamut of good, bad and ugly. It was driven entirely by market forces, but for precisely that reason it could never aspire to the status of high art or anything approaching seriousness. The material which appeared in the magazines was hugely popular, but its publishers were not persuaded that it could have a longer shelf life. So, with few exceptions, there were no collections, anthologies or subsequent printings; the material languished in the magazines it was first printed in and soon passed beyond the reach of later readers.

In the case of English language comics, the problem was exactly the opposite—there was little popular material to fall back on. Writers/artists such as Sarnath Banerjee or Amruta Patil were schooled in European styles of comic book art, such as the hugely influential L’Association school of France, or the works of American masters such as Robert Crumb and Will Eisner. So the Indian comic book in English experienced the singular fate of leapfrogging the popular altogether, and straightaway entering an evolved and mature state. This is not to say that there were no attempts to create a popular market—Gotham comics tried to fill the gap a few years ago but failed owing to the extremely derivative nature of its artwork and storyline.

But what of the comic book in regional languages? Is it yesterday’s news? Or is there a brave new future waiting for it?

Partially in order to answer these questions, I began a research project last year to locate and digitize comic book art in some of the major regional Indian languages. The aim was not to digitize the material which came out in book form from the beginning (such as ACK, Bahadur, Chacha Chaudhary) but the material which first appeared in magazines, either serially or in its entirety. Though the project is yet to be completed, we have been able to find an extraordinarily diverse body of work, and one which gives us a somewhat different understanding of the beginnings of the comic book in India.

Take, for example, the history of the comic book in Bengali. The first stage in its history was largely imitative, a relatively straightforward rendering of some of the more accessible protocols of Western comic art. One of the key examples of this was the figure of Narayan Debnath—the grand old man of Indian comics, still going strong— who indigenized Laurel-Hardy for the Indian audience in the 1950s, and then launched his hugely successful and long-running superhero series Baantool the Great in the magazine Shuktara.

Baantool may be regarded as the first superhero in the Indian comic tradition, but he differed sharply from his Western counterparts in that his vigilantism was never co-opted into becoming an instrument of American foreign policy, as was the case with the caped crusaders federated under the “Justice League of America" during the Cold War years.

In the late 1960s, ACK began to loom large over the Indian comic book scene, and not just in one or two languages. But while ACK was heavily preoccupied with relatively static narratives drawn from history and mythology, it was the magazines which engaged with an incipient modernity, and tried to compose their own distinctive iconography. Shuktara also carried the work of the versatile Mayukh Chaudhuri, who ranged over a wide territory in both style and genre, and whose finest work, Agantook (The Stranger), is one of the most interesting examples of early Bengali science fiction. The other Bengali magazine for children which carried comic book art was Kishore Bharati, published by the house of Patra Bharati. Kishore Bharati was even more experimental in its choice of material, moving effortlessly from adaptations of Bengali classics (Domru-charit), to a highly Eisner-inflected detective series (Black Diamond) to the street violence of the Naxalite era (Palabar Path Nei). The quality of such work was sometimes uneven, but there was enough to gesture towards a robust engagement with an emerging visual aesthetics which borrowed substantially from allied forms such as cinema, advertising and the billboard.

The downfall of the Bengali comic book began in the late 1970s, with the arrival of the children’s magazine Anandamela, published by the media giant Anandabazar Patrika group of Kolkata. Anandamelawas the first Indian periodical to syndicate series such as Tintin and Asterix. They were also the first to translate these comics into any Indian language, in this case Bengali.

Anandamela soon captured much of the market of Shuktara and Kishore Bharati, and local artists found their work unsaleable in the pages of Anandamela. Many of them were forced to move away from sectors such as illustration and advertisement, and over a period of two-three years, original comic work in the Bengali language all but perished. There has been a recent resurgence of Bengali material in the same Anandamela but these are mostly adaptations of literary classics.

I cite the Bengali case at some length to show how the vagaries of the market and the lack of a sufficiently proactive community can kill a robust tradition almost overnight. Those entering the comic book field will do well to remember this. It is not enough to create brilliant new material once in a while; one must ensure a regular supply of work in an easily accessible format. Small magazines and collectives can do this till a point, digital comics are another way forward. But until the regional comic book market is re-energized, the Indian graphic novel will find it hard to move beyond the rarefied ghettos of the metropolis.

Abhijit Gupta teaches English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and is working on a project to digitize comics of the pre-graphic novels era in Hindi, Bengali, Malayalam and English.

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