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It may not be Savita Bhabhi, but a group of Indian artists is reinventing the medium.
NEW DELHI, India — Fifteen years ago, when artist Orijit Sen produced India's first graphic novel — a story about the Narmada valley dam protest movement — he was only able to print the book with the help of government funding, and distribution meant carrying copies of the book to stores and trying to explain why it didn't belong in the children's section.
“No publisher would consider publishing something like a comic book,” Sen said. “We were only able to publish it with the help of a small grant from the government, and the government didn't know what we were using it for, obviously.”
The scene is different now.
Amid a boom in publishing and contemporary art, India's comic book scene is undergoing a renaissance of its own. Once known only for the beloved Amar Chitra Katha series, which focused on Hindu mythology, today India's comic book industry includes homegrown superhero sagas, modernized versions of classic myths and even postmodern tales of urban angst.
Courting the global audience, self-help guru Deepak Chopra and Oscar winner Shekhar Kapur have teamed up to develop a library of India-inspired heroes for Liquid Comics, from which several potential Hollywood film projects have emerged. And domestically, upstarts like the Kolkata-based Kriyetic Comics and the Google group Project C are moving in on the territory of longtime leader Raj Comics. This is fomenting a much-needed revolution in a kids-only oriented industry that has become excessively formulaic over the past two decades.
“In the earlier part of the decade, in India, comics were still perceived as 'kids products,' whereas in the last five years a new generation of world-class Indian creators have begun expanding the boundaries of the medium and transforming its perception within India as a viable foundation to create compelling stories that are not defined by age or genre, just like other visual storytelling mediums such as film and television,” said Sharad Devarajan, co-founder and CEO of Liquid Comics.
The latest buzz is literary. Following in the footsteps of genre-pioneer Art Spiegelman (Maus) and recent sensation Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), a new group of Indian comic book artists who call themselves “the Pao Collective” are fighting to make the Indian graphic novel a publishing phenomenon to rival so-called “Indian writing in English” — a virtual factory for Booker Prize winners.
“We are like the older guys who are somewhat known, who have been doing this for awhile, so publishers will listen to us,” said Sen. “We want to use our influence there to help bring out young people and their work.”
The Pao Collective joined forces about a year ago, inspired by painter and comic book scholar Amitabh Kumar, who was researching Indian popular culture at the Delhi-based Sarai Media Lab. Recognizing that the commercial houses were evolving on a studio model that to some degree stifled creativity, Kumar approached the country's small set of successful graphic novelists to form a group that could nurture young artists, promote the comic book medium, and further blur the lines between art, literature, and the comic book.
“We decided that we needed some kind of platform, or some kind of organized setup, that can promote comic book culture in India and bring out various different kinds of stories to look at the visual narrative device in the Indian context,” said Kumar.
Along with Kumar, the Pao (or “bread”) Collective comprises Sarnath Banerjee, Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Orijit Sen and Parismita Singh — each of whom has emerged as a pioneer of the Indian literary graphic novel. Sen, whose 1994 “River of Stories” was a compelling comic about a young activist confronting the tragedy of the Narmada Dam Project, is often credited with introducing the graphic novel in India.
The winner of a $33,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation, Banerjee in 2004 produced the first graphic novel, Corridor, to attract the attention of India's literary publishing industry — as well as the country's first graphic best seller. Ghosh has produced a number of works for international anthologies, and last year Singh's "The Hotel at the End of the World" reignited the interest of India's literati.
“Art is a vehicle for understanding ourselves, and for young people a medium like this could be a really strong creator of identity, a mirror for what we are, and a means of questioning our values,” said Sen.