India's comics boom: The Pao Collective

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.

[For another side of India's booming comic industry — porn — see this profile of the Indian creators of Savita Bhabhi, India's first bona fide porn star].

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.

The Pao Collective has embarked on an ambitious plan to promote interest in the Indian graphic novel by mentoring new artists, publishing compelling work and bringing the comic book form into spaces traditionally reserved for art and theater.

Already Pao is making a splash in the country's literary and art circles by writing reviews of graphic novels for daily newspapers like the Times of India, presenting its work at dramatic readings or “storytelling sessions” in cultural venues, and exhibiting comic book pages in art galleries. The launch of a Pao Collective blog featuring online editions of the members' work is imminent. And down the road, Pao plans comic book workshops across the country, which the members hope will inspire similar organizations in other cities and towns, and eventually a comic book convention.

“It's on the fringe of art and the fringe of literature, which is great,” said Banerjee. “Who wants to be in art, and who wants to be in literature? The time has come for the graphic novel to be looked into from outside the parameters of literature and outside the parameters of art.”

To start that process, Pao will soon bring out an anthology of new and veteran Indian comic book artists in conjunction with a major international publishing house. Though all the material has not yet been selected, the depth and variety of the work that has been chosen so far sounds promising.

In one story, for instance, a young Indian writer has collaborated with a Japanese expatriate to produce a sort of spoof of the epic Mahabharata — in Japan's much-admired “manga” style. In another, a medical doctor has collaborated with a graphic artist on a non-fiction comic, almost like an academic study, on the meat-eating habits of northern India. And in a third, a filmmaker has collaborated with a illustrator/animator on a gothic story set in 18th century Lucknow that obliquely addresses conflicts between women's self-realization and the bounds of tradition.

“It's fantastic to see these types of stories being told,” said Devarajan. “It further enhances the opportunity for Indian audiences to reassess what they perceived as a comic book and start taking the medium seriously.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct that Banerjee did not receive a MacArthur "genius grant." He received a grant to produce comic books on reproductive health issues.