Comics From A Changing India
A culture rooted in traditions as well as a rapidly growing economic power, India is facing many changes and challenges as it opens up to the modern world. As a political cartoonist based in New Delhi, producing until recently the weekly ‘Full Toss’ column in The Hindustan Times, and as an acclaimed graphic novelist, Vishwajyoti Ghosh confronts these issues by engaging head on with his nation’s history and society, past and present.
In his most daring long-form project Delhi Calm (2010), Ghosh blends more realistic reportage with incisive commentaries and flights of surreal fantasy to capture those extraordinary 21 months (1975–7) of ‘The Emergency’, when the Indian government suspended citizens’ basic civil rights and had many dissidents arrested. What motivated Ghosh was “precisely how little I knew about this important chapter” and so it became his quest to decipher it. Delhi Calm reanimates this controversial period for those Indians who may have forgotten it, misremembered it or were simply too young to experience it, partly as a documentary about the past, partly as a warning about threats to freedoms today. In Ghosh’s view, “The world is leaning more towards the Right and cocooned conservatism, and India is no different.”
Looking further back to learn from the past, for This Side That Side: Restorying Partition (2013) he selected 48 authors and artists from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, who share their diverse perspectives about the traumatising and ongoing consequences of the partition of former British India into independent states. In choosing the participants, Ghosh’s goal was to “listen to the subsequent generations and the grandchildren and how they have negotiated maps that never got drawn”. The award-winning comics journalist Joe Sacco hailed the collection for the way it ‘dwells on the human yearning for something other than what history and its makers dictate’. An extract from Ghosh’s own contribution, ‘A Good Education’, written by Amiya Sen, is shown above.
Among Ghosh’s other projects are Lingua Comica (of which I was artistic director), matchmaking seven Asian and seven European comics creators into pairs to take part in a residency, cultural exchange and anthology, the Pao Collective, a group of five New Delhi cartoonists whose first anthology was released in 2012 by Penguin Books India (a page from Ghosh’s contribution, ‘RSVP’, is shown above). He is also a co-founder of Inverted Commas, an initiative to encourage the use comics as free publications or training materials in social campaigns, such as a programme about domestic violence in 2004 entitled WE CAN End All Violence against Women Campaign, published by Oxfam GB (sample comic card below).
Miss The Kiss, Ghosh’s recent comic for Sunday newspaper India Express (below), critiques India’s recent conservative furore over the morality of kissing in public. “This non issue has become a national one, as if one’s social fabric is under threat”, comments Ghosh. “One day it’s girls wearing denim jeans, the other it’s Valentine’s Day, and kissing the day after. This unfortunately will go on, but young people are finding a way to reply, protesting against this diktat by kissing in the open. These initiatives convey a sense of hope. In a nation of a million problems, where a graduate girl gets killed by her own family for marrying a boy of another caste, are these really issues worth fretting over?”
Similarly, more pressing yet under-reported is the targetting by India’s liberal economy of the countryside’s untapped potential. In ‘The Offer’, his new strip for ArtReview Asia (below), Ghosh highlights how “brands are moving in deeper, connecting the rural masses to the global world. The word ‘rural’ now has sex appeal and the chase is on to corner this emerging market.”
Web Exclusive Interview
Vishwa kindly answered my email questions, which I am sharing below:
I presume like so many people in India you grew up reading Amar Chitra Katha comics about Indian legends, myths and history. How did these influence you? What are the pros and cons of these comics being so popular for so long and seeming to define Indian comics?
I got into comics when I was in the second grade with Amar Chitra Katha comics. They had arrived with a bang. One couldn’t have missed them. It was my first engagement with the comic as a form. I don’t think at that stage it was an influence, but another form of reading. To be frank, an interesting form of reading with the visuals. It was also a quicker and a simpler form of reading, to read histories and mythologies through a simplistic narrative. Much of its own aesthetic evolved from calendar art, popular prevalent iconography, religious posters and pamphlets etc. They were popular because in many ways these comics were quick, simplified digests to pick up one’s history etc. Much as Amar Chitra Katha comics co-existed with other funnies and super heroes around the time. Hence there was a wide range back in the early ‘80s too. Amar Chitra Katha may not necessarily define Indian comics but they are a very important chapter in the history of Indian Comics.
As your new comic Miss The Kiss for India Express discusses, attitudes towards sexuality in India are changing but in what ways?
I am not sure if we are going 3 steps forward or 8 steps back. A few years back, the High Court decriminalized homosexuality, which was quite a bold move for the court and a victory for the LGBT movement but later the Supreme Court reversed it. So its back to square one. Recently transgenders have finally got their voting rights which is a step forward. At the same time, as the nation is opening up to the world in the times of the wireless, the more cagey, conservative and regressive we are becoming as a society in a bid to ‘preserve our cultures, traditions and societies’, and this is what creates a schism between what we value and aspire vs what we live. As I write this, a graduate girl who went ahead a got married to a boy of her choice, gets killed by her own family as she decided to marry a boy of another caste. And this is not a class issue, its happening across economic classes. But then if we see all around, the world is leaning more towards the right and cocooned conservatism and India is no different.
What lies behind the recent spate of outcries about kissing in public in India? What are the hidden agendas behind this?
I don’t think there are any hidden agendas, it’s all out in the open. Religion, Morals, Culture, Traditions, etc, etc, are the most convenient platforms to appropriate one’s own political survival. So this non issue has become a national one as if one’s social fabric is under threat. Why only kissing? A few years back a group had a problem with girls wearing jeans (denims)! So they went around threatening and beating girls while wearing denims themselves. One day its jeans, the other day its Valentines Day and Kissing the day after. This unfortunately will go on, but whats interesting are the ways young people find a way to reply back right in the eye. So this group of people gathering and protesting against the diktat by kissing in the open, or many similar initiatives convey a sense of hope. My point is something else, in a nation of a million problems, are these really issues worth fretting over?
Which comics inspire your own? What other influences, perhaps from fine art, political cartoons, illustration or other media, inform your work?
I think the newspaper is my playing field. So much happens in those pages vis-à-vis the streets we walk on, the people we interact with, the systems we negotiate with. But yes, in terms of the form and practice, it would be much of the contemporary media.
Much of your comics work sets out to shed light on India’s history and society, past and present. What motivates you to pursue these subjects and what can graphic novels bring to them?
I tend to work on these themes and threads not because I am proficient to talk about them but more because I am highly curious to understand them. For me, it’s a complex maze out there that I want to know more about. When I worked on my first graphic novel Delhi Calm, a book that engages with the politics of the ‘70s, I did it not because I knew about it. But precisely how little I knew of an important political chapter and it thus became my quest to decipher it. And here the graphic novel is a very interesting and interactive form to process it, as the visual medium broadens the canvas to comment through many nuances. It’s this visual reimagining that has the potential to put across another perspective.
You are part of a boom in serious comics from general book publishers like Harper Collins India. How are graphic novels marketed to the general reader in India?
The good thing is that most mainstream and independent publishers are engaging with the form and are making some brave choices to bring the books out. This is creating an engagement with the readers and also bringing new readers into graphic novels. It’s a small world but one that’s growing and developing.
Is there still prejudice towards the medium or is it becoming more understood and perhaps respected?
I would say, there are many more books required out there to create a more dynamic engagement. The good thing is that in a book store our books have now moved out of the children’s section to a dedicated graphic novel shelf. For most, the graphic novel is an unchartered territory and that’s slowly changing. A little bit of prejudice about the form of course still exists, doubts on whether is capable of dealing with serious subjects of course exist. Hence we need many more works out, including serious long-form graphic editorials in our newspapers etc.
American comics and manga have been invading India in force with the growth of ‘Comicons’ in Mumbai and elsewhere catering to genre media fans. What are your views on this? Can these massive imported brands stimulate local publications or do they tend to overwhelm and dominate the market?
American Comics or Manga are serious market forces that cannot be ignored or avoided. But that does not necessarily shade the Comic Con in only their colour. There are many independent publishers who present themselves at such events. The numbers in terms of sales can vary hugely, but it also brings in new readers into the fold. The organisers in India Comic Con have been aware of this and have presented books of both kinds equally. So even if the invasion happens with the simultaneous appearance of Robert Crumb in Delhi or David Lloyd in Bangalore, it’s great for the form here.
Who do you admire among the upcoming next generation of Indian comics creators and why?
Given the still nascent stage of graphic novels in India, I myself forever belong to the upcoming next generation of Indian comics creators (wink, wink!). Last year when I curated This Side That Side: Restorying Partition, I worked with 48 contributors across South Asia and that was a revelation. So yes, works of Nitesh Mohanty, Priya Kuriyan, Prabha Mallya and Archana Sreenivasan are surely hi-energy. Hope they each engage with it in a long-form story sometime.
Finally, please tell me about your new comic for ArtReview Asia magazine, entitled ‘The Offer’.
In the 90’s, as the Soviet bloc disintegrated along with the collapse of the Berlin wall, the world was changing in South Asia too. It was the same time, India’s economy moved from a socialist to be liberal one, opening up its markets to the world. In no time, words like Multi-National Companies, Globalisation became household words replacing the allure and the mystique of the terms Foreign and Imported. What followed was the rise and rise of the great Indian middle class who benefitted most from this wave, thus widening the divide between the urban and the rural. And soon enough, the power of the market economy realised the untapped potential of the rural landscape. The brands moved in deeper, connecting the rural masses to the global world. The word rural now had a sex appeal. That game is now a chase for the ‘emerging market’.Posted: December 11, 2014
The opening Article first appeared in ArtReview Asia magazine.