Discovering Indian art through comics and graphic novels

Vivid story lines behind a sketchy affair


August 22, 2022

/ By / New Delhi

Discovering Indian art through comics and graphic novels

Comics are no longer considered only a children's entertainment as they are read by all ages

Caught between art and literature, comics and graphic novels have successfully emerged as an alternate art form, one that voices perspectives while reflecting upon the pertaining cultural context.

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Visual storytelling as we know it today stems out of a rich history of vivid storylines and colourful illustrations that were a result of the conscious efforts to induce a comic culture in India. The prime reason being to keep the culture and traditions alive by means of idolising the mythological characters and inducing morals that have so deeply influenced the nature of comics and graphic novels in India.

It is no surprise that a country that immortalised scrolls and illustrated manuscripts, would open up to the idea of comics and graphic novels. The first instance of what closely resembled a comic book in India can be dated back to 1947. In 1947, noted Telugu movie producers, B Nagi Reddy and Aluri Chakrapani, founded and published a children’s magazine in a bid to help Indian kids learn more about the country’s rich culture. Named Chandamama, the magazine published stories creatively adapted from mythological stories and epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata. Chandamama was originally published in regional languages like Telugu and Tamil and around 2004 it was adopted into other local languages.

It was also around this time that globally popular comics like Tintin, Asterix and Obelix, Archie Comics and Commando started making its way to India. Though, the comics were meant for a niche audience given the high prices of the same, these comics have always been a part of growing up in an Indian household.

Tintin and Archie Comics have loyal Indian readers even today. Tintin, which had references to India in series like Tintin in Tibet and Cigars of the Pharaoh, has also been translated into regional languages, thus increasing its popularity. According to BBC reports, Bengali children’s magazine Anandamela “brought Tintin to India in a local language for the first time in the mid 1970s”.

Jatin Varma, founder of Comic Con India, says, “One of the first comics I ever read was Archie Comics, and millions of comic book fans in India have a similar story to share. They are considered as Indian as some of our local comics.”

However, it was with Amar Chitra Katha comic book series that India formally ventured into the comic space in 1967. Although, graphic novels do not have a well-defined timeline in India unlike comics, it is believed that India’s first attempt at graphic novels was when Orijit Sen penned his River of Stories in 1994. Published by Kalpavriksh, Sen’s pioneering work focused on how the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River in Gujarat would impact locals.

Talking about the specificities of Indian comics and graphic novels, Pratheek Thomas, co-founder of publishing house Studio Kokaachi, says, “There are the mythology inspired superhero comics, basically reimagining super-heroes with a mythological background, non-fiction comics that is currently observing a huge impetus; for example, publishing houses like Zubaan and Yoda press are bringing forth a number of non-fiction works. A lot of people are also doing realistic fiction and personal comics to a certain extent.” Kokaachi is a storytelling house with a focus on original graphic stories told through comics, sequential art, picture books and animation.

Reading the Audience

“Comics and graphic novels are a niche!” – according to Anindya Roy, founding director of the Delhi Comic Arts Festival (DeCAF).

Suyatra Mukhopadhyay, an avid reader of comics and graphic novels, and a student of Mass Communication at AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia in the capital New Delhi, says, “I have read some Indian comics, though mostly I have been drawn towards the western counterparts. However, one of the best graphic novels that I have read of the recent times has been by this Bengali novelist named Sarnath Banerjee, which is named The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers; and of course I have grown up on Nonte Phonte, Handa Bhonda, Batul the Great, also a little bit of Tinkle. What I feel sets Indian comics apart from western ones is largely the cultural context. Also, comic books like Amar Chitra Katha focus on Indian mythology, and that is what most comics are based on. However, I think the comic book nerd culture in India is mostly grown out of, and is an extension of the culture in the west. I think the primary reason is the fact that the notion of comic books being strictly for kids is still pretty much prevalent here. As a result, graphic novels by the likes of Sarnath Banerjee get a niche target. I think we do have good content for comic books in India, but as long as we do not take comic books seriously as a medium that can be just as influential as cinema or a book, things will not change.”

Siddhartha De Bose, a student of Film and Television Production at Xavier Institute of Communication, adds, “Indian comics have a history of coming from pulp fiction, like all comics. Except, comic culture in the west took a sci-fi route and India stuck with stories of socio-political and sexual exploitation.” When asked why Indian comics and graphic novels have not been picked up by readers, Bose argues, “I personally think it’s largely because of the hegemony American comics have all over the world; and yeah, the mature themes don’t really help the cause. That’s why the only indigenous stuff you see coming out is Chacha Chaudhary and Tinkle.”

Expanding on the point that comics are still a niche in India, Thomas adds, “A lot of the comics that we are making are going to a very educated class of people, who have access and understand the medium, and have money to buy it, because comics are expensive. Sharad Sharma is doing great work that is reaching a lot of people who had previously not read comics. He is giving them a platform to tell their stories and also an ownership on their own stories. At least among a certain community, they are getting a voice of their own. However, there is a huge scope of market penetration between the educated, young illustrator and the upper middle class who are our primary readers and the NGO based comics and comics the likes of that Sharma is producing. It’s still just Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha. There is a huge lack of material for children’s comics as well. Till now, comic is a niche.”

Roy states, “I have a publishing house and over a period of time I found that I was not able to sell a lot of comics. There wasn’t a culture that was as excited to consume the comics as we were when it came to producing them. I realised that it is rather difficult to sell more than 1,200 copies of comics or graphic novels at once. Our aim is to increase this number and push more Indie comics and graphic novels towards increased circulation.”

Thomas argues that another problem stunting growth of comics and graphic novels in India, is the lack of focus and acceptance by mainstream publication houses.

Raising a Pen

In the mid-90’s Sharad Sharma started World Comics Network that has conducted more than 1,000 comic workshops in the most remote and disturbed areas of the globe and trained over 50,000 common people. Through Grassroots Comics, Sharma gives voice to marginalised groups and people living in remote and conflicted regions by means of using comics for advocacy and information dissemination. Sharma also uses comics to promote literacy while promoting Comics journalism, a fairly recent phenomenon. Sharma uses comics as a tool to talk about development issues, especially among the south Asian countries.

In yet another initiative to give platform to the comics and graphic novel space in India, Roy organised the first edition of Delhi Comic Arts Festival (DeCAF). Hosted by India International Centre (IIC) in New Delhi, DeCAF honoured the independent international scene of comics, cartoons and illustration in various ways by showcasing and exploring this art differently in all its forms.

States Roy, “I want to create a certain following, to create a culture roundup, so that people are able to connect with indie comics. DeCAF was meant to showcase what comics and graphic novels are capable of while showcasing the ability of the artists to think out of the box.” According to Roy, although comics and graphic novels are still in a nascent stage in India, “the curiosity among graphic novel and comics’ creators is huge” and “many more creators are on the scene”.

Talking about the use of the two mediums as an alternate voice, Roy added, “People who did not have money to make films, asked me how they can bring about awareness and educate people from small cities, towns and villages, which will be as effective as cinema as a medium. For those people, I suggested comics because it is easier to communicate through the popping illustrations and sometimes simple supporting texts to go with the illustrations. I have personally conducted workshops where we have gone and trained journalists and activists in the art of comic illustrations to put across a social/political message. The idea was to highlight how a visual medium like comics can be effectively used to communicate the desired message. A heavy worded article may not be the right choice as the message may get lost in translation but comics have a different visual appeal that retains ones attention for a longer period in such cases.”

Commercial versus Indie

Like most art forms, the very fact that there is a gap between commercial and indie comics and graphic novels in India, talks a lot about the journey the medium has undertaken. By crossing territories into pop culture, comics have started a different conversation altogether.

While Comic Con India, which is a native version of its popular global counterpart, focuses on the celebration of the pop culture surrounding comics with an emphasis on cosplay and merchandising, the Indie versions, much like DeCAF are all about the art form and its practitioners.

Also Read – A peek into the business of comic culture in India.

Popular Archie Comics to get a Bollywood makeover

Poor sense of humour behind India’s failure to produce sitcoms.



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