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Amruta Patil:

India's First Female Graphic Novelist

On Friday September 28th, 6.30-7.30pm at Foyles Bookshop, Charing Cross Road, London, Comica at Foyles presents ‘Visions of India’, the first and only UK speaking engagement by the acclaimed Indian graphic novelist Amruta Patil, in a Comica Conversation with novelist Neel Mukherjee. She will also be launching her new work, Adi Parva, out in October from Harper Collins India. Tickets are available for £6 each online. To learn more about this remarkable new voice in comics, read about her and her powerful debut Kari.

“People love easy synopses”. Amruta Patil, India’s first female writer-graphic novelist, is quick to counter the trite summary of her 2008 debut from Harper Collins, Kari, as a comic about a suicidal lesbian. Now that the graphic novel is emerging in India, notably from innovators like Sarnath Banerjee and Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Amruta wanted to send out an unusual protagonist into the literary scene.

“Kari is a young, deeply introverted, asocial and queer woman, a counterpoint to the hyperfeminine prototypes you keep coming across.”  Twice during the course of the story, Kari stands on the brink, literally teetering on the ledge of a building. The first time round, she chooses to jump; the second, she chooses not to. And yet, the book is not an angsty coming-out tale. Kari is dark, funny and detached and her queerness is incidental, rather than central to her journey. And before you jump to conclusions, the book is not autobiographical.

For her debut, Amruta chose an atypical literary crossover, more text-based than most graphic novels, the story flowing back and forth between voice-over narration and visuals. She’s the first to admit that not all her experiments worked:  “The book is very raw - I was working on instinct.” Even so, Kari announces a highly individual voice, part of the growing chorus of women authors in world comics. Last January, Amruta returned to New Delhi after a European residency at the Maison des Auteurs in Angoulême, France’s capital of comics, with some valuable insights:  “I ought to stop apologising for my lack of exposure to ‘norms’. My lack of familiarity with storytelling traditions, my gender, my foreignness - these could all be assets. And I need to tell stories that matter.”

Few stories matter more in India than the great all-encompassing mythohistorical epic, the Mahabharat, which she immersed herself in as a child through the comic-book adaptations in the ubiquitous Amar Chitra Katha series. Now, almost as a coming-of-age ritual, she has chosen to engage with these classics in her next project, Parva.

“It’s a mammoth of a project that I am trying to steer by its tail. It keeps on changing me. I have gone from cocky and ambitious to far more diffident and humble. I am living differently, more pared down, austere. The way I eat has changed, and the way I conduct myself in the world. It has slowed me down, made me aware of hubris, and hopefully helped me become a little more thorough. Which is the only way you ought to work on a project like this. You don’t want to play with cosmic tales lightly.” That said, for her new strip for Art Review magazine (reproduced below), she playfully rewrites a Bible story by imagining a dinosaur mutiny on Noah’s Ark.

In preparing the above article for Art Review magazine, I conducted a short interview with Amruta by email, the full text of which is shown below.

Paul Gravett:
What were the deepest influences on your comics from your childhood, both visual and verbal?

Amruta Patil:
To begin with, I need to clarify that I do not see myself as a ‘comic artist’ primarily, but as a writer. I choose to use images along with words at this point of time - I may choose not to do so in later work. Coming back to the matter of influences - they came from everywhere but comics (in fact the only comics I knew while growing up were Tintin, Asterix and the wonderful and ubiquitous Indian mythological series, Amar Chitra Katha).

My visual influences include: Indian temple art, Mughal Miniatures, Japanese Silkscreen prints, Egyptian funerary art, Mahayana Buddhist imagery, Iconic art from Medieval Europe. The artwork of Dave McKean, Gustav Klimt, Frida Kahlo, Paul Gauguin.

My textual influences include: Indian mythology; The Bible; Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion and Weight; John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat; VS Naipaul’s Miguel Street; RK Narayan’s The Malgudi Omnibus; John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces; Dave Mckean and Neil Gaiman’s The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mister Punch and Signal to Noise; the works of Karen Armstrong; and various other theology academics and historians.

Why are there so few women comic artists in India? What are your views on the traditional mass-market Indian comics market?

There are few women comic artists the world over - the paucity is not restricted to India. I guess that may have something to do with the kind of culture and storyline preoccupations that have traditionally existed. Now with newer kinds of stories being accepted, there is resurgence of women in the domain, particularly women who both write and draw their work.

What inspired your first graphic novel, Kari?

Well, I write and draw. So combining the two things was the most obvious thing to do. That explains the choice of form. Kari is about a young woman who is on the brink (literally teetering on the ledge of a building) two times over in the book. The first time round, she chooses to jump. The second time round, she chooses not to. The book is about that journey. I wanted to send out an unusual protagonist into the Indian literary scene. A young, deeply introverted, asocial and queer woman - counterpoint to the hyperfeminine prototypes one keeps coming across. And yet, the book is not a coming-out tale. Kari’s queerness is incidental, rather than central to her journey. She is a dark and funny and detached - something you may not expect from a quickie ‘suicidal lesbian’ synopsis. People love quick synopses.

I was keen to try a crossover literary form - it is more texty than most comics or graphic novels - and the story flows from voice-over style narrative text to visuals, and then back to voice-over. As I say in every interview - there are various experiments going on in Kari - some are not particularly successful, others have worked out ok. The book is very raw - I was working on instinct. Future work will have resolved these experiments in a better fashion.

Do readers expect it to be autobiographical?

Oh the famous autobiography question. Unlike in India, where the book was taken for its content, in the West I am continually met with the question about autobiography. I guess people are curious about the personal lives of women of a certain age, particularly if their work also features women of a certain age. They aren’t half as keen to ask boys if their work is autobiographical. The media will eat you up like a careless snack and spit you out. Whether something is autobiographical or not ought to be completely irrelevant to the reader. And to the reading experience. And certainly to the merits and demerits of the book. How tedious to write only about oneself. One would just be writing the same story all one’s life!

How aware were you of graphic novels in other countries, like Maus or Persepolis?

I became aware of them in my twenties.

What ideas and insights have you brought back with you to India from your recent residency in Angoulême, France?

That I ought to stop apologising for my lack of exposure to ‘norms’. My lack of familiarity with storytelling traditions, my gender, my foreignness - these could all be assets. That I ought to be more meticulous about my artwork. That I need to exercise utmost discrimination in spitting things out into the print world. Bookshops are filled with swill - one needs tell stories that matter.

Tell me about your current project Parva, your approach, your ambitions for it, how it is changing your techniques.

Parva is a mammoth of a project that I am trying to steer by its tail. It is based on the Mahabharat - the great old Indian mythohistorical epic about pretty much every human preoccupation under the sun. Many Indian writers come back to the feet of these epics at some point in their career - it is almost a coming-of-age ritual.

The project has changed me, keeps on changing me. I was always meant to do it. But in getting around to making a start - I have gone from cocky and ambitious to far more diffident and humble. I am living differently than I used to - more pared down, austere. The way I eat has changed, as has the way I conduct myself in the world. It has slowed me down, made me aware of hubris, and hopefully helped me become a little more thorough. Which is the only way one ought to be working on a project like this. You don’t want to play with cosmic tales lightly.

Technically - it is more visually-led than Kari. Unlike Kari‘s grey-and-black world, Parva is in full colour. There are frequent style shifts, to allow for the story-nested-within story approach. As the story heads into the war episodes, it may become more photographic and/or b&w. I don’t know. For now, I am taking it one step at a time, one tiny episode at a time. I have staggered the project into parts. If I don’t get greedy; and if I live to complete it - it may all be worth it.

You are also co-editor on the magazine Mindfields - please tell me more about this project.

Mindfields is a quarterly print journal about ideas and education. It hopes to contribute - in whatever tiny way it can - to bring some spark and self-esteem into the school system and school staffrooms in India. We bring ideas and essays from around the world; we interview imaginative teachers/educators/entrepreneurs who are already working in the field of education in India. People keep on harping about the abysmal state of things. We profile the good things that are going on, and put ideas on the table that could possibly spiffy things in other areas.

Do you see great potential for the graphic novel to develop and prosper in India?

Certainly - we have a smart and intellectually sophisticated reading audience. And it is an audience that is not jaded by traditional expectations. It is a good time and place to evolve a new visual/verbal grammar. And Indians, as a people, are very adept at handling complexity, which is very liberating for a storyteller.

Posted: September 4, 2012

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Amruta Patil
24 Hour Comic: Noah

Interviews:
RFI
Ultra Brown

Kari Reviews:
Neel Mukherjee
Rimib Chatterjee
Aspi’s Drift
Trendylicious

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