When the truth is graphic

By Anindita Ghose in Mint Lounge, saturday, 13th march 2010

For an Indian artist, a trip to Pakistan on a “reporting visa” is likely to make for interesting anecdotes. For Vishwajyoti Ghosh, the anecdotes were so bizarre that he felt compelled to chronicle them.

Visual stories: A page from Delhi Calm, which will be released in June.

His short graphic narrative, Lahore Reporting, documents his exchanges with Intelligence officers in Lahore, including one in which he is lectured on child-rearing. This is Ghosh’s contribution to the upcoming Pao anthology that he and his peers from the Delhi-based graphic artists’ ensemble, The Pao Collective, are set to publish later this year.While Lahore Reporting is a light-hearted diary of personal experiences, Ghosh has attempted more journalistic reportage in Unmasks Corruption, released in November by Ctrl.Alt.Shift, a UK-based initiative that seeks to politicize a new generation of activists using assorted multimedia projects. His six-page piece on the Indian cellphone theft cartel appears alongside other takes on corruption by British comics’ stalwarts such as Pat Mills and Bryan Talbot. This June, HarperCollins India will release his debut graphic novel Delhi Calm which, set in the mid-1970s, focuses on an important chapter in Indian political history. Sardonic strokes wrapped in dirty brown watercolours tell the story of three young activists caught in a crossfire between ideology and survival.

Like him, other Indian graphic artists are increasingly marrying graphic art with non-fiction narratives. River of Stories by Orijit Sen (Kalpavriksh, 1994) set an early precedent. Sen’s book brought alive documentary episodes from the Narmada dam controversy at a time when graphic non-fiction was still making its bones worldwide. He also illustrated the award-winning young adult graphic book Trash! (Tara, 1999), based on the real-life experiences of street children in Chennai.

Eight years later, there was Kashmir Pending (Phantomville, 2007). The second book by the publishing house floated by graphic novelists Anindya Roy and Sarnath Banerjee, it is a poignant take on Islamic militancy. But despite powerful visuals, it failed to marry text and image in keeping with the standards that had been established globally.

Delhi Calm: By Vishwajyoti Ghosh, HarperCollins India, 256 pages, Rs495.

The current tide of non-fiction swooping over the Indian graphic vista can be best credited to the buoyant reception of Nicolas Wild’s Kabul Disco. Weaving Afghanistan’s turbulent political history with an outsider’s quirky observations, the book is a serrated satire on the expatriate experience in a war-ravaged region. In a big leap of faith, HarperCollins India bought the rights of this 2007 French book and translated it into English for the Indian market. It was released three months ago and the effort seems to have paid off. V.K. Karthika, chief editor of HarperCollins India, now rattles off several forthcoming titles in the same genre. A sequel, Kabul Disco 2: How I Didn’t become an Opium Addict in Afghanistan, which is already out in Europe, is on the cards. There’s also a graphic travelogue on Nepal that is slated to release in early 2011. Karthika believes that reportage is the most accessible sub-genre within the vocabulary of the graphic novel, using both words and visuals to translate unknown realities.Independent publishers are riding this wave too. The Chennai-based Blaft has joined the graphic arena with the fantasy fiction Moonward by Appupen. Kaveri Lalchand, director of the publishing house, says they’ve received several manuscript submissions of graphic non-fiction over the last few months, a few of which they are interested in pursuing.

Non-fiction narratives take a lot of research and time to produce. Since the genre doesn’t have a market cachet yet, several projects are supported by funding institutions. Two recent releases: Our Toxic World (Sage) and Tinker.Solder.Tap were funded by the NGO Toxics Link and Sarai at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (New Delhi), respectively. Our Toxic World, by Aniruddha Sen Gupta and Priya Kuriyan, is a guide to hazardous substances using characters of a fictional family. Tinker.Solder.Tap is a take-off on five years of research conducted at Sarai. The book, a joint effort by researcher Bhagwati Prasad and artist Amitabh Kumar, animates studies on the evolution of media technology and media piracy in India.

Kumar claims inspiration from the legendary Maltese-American comics artist Joe Sacco, who is known for meticulously documenting the areas he draws and then rendering them to the last detail. The cross-hatching style Kumar has used in the book emerged after he saw a special edition of Sacco’s Palestine.

While discussing graphic non-fiction, the boundaries between journalistic reportage and a subjective impression are important. Ghosh believes this fluidity between fact and fiction is the very charm of the graphic format. Several American and French graphic works will have notes such as: “All speeches attributed to public figures are authentic.” Or they will delineate parts that are the author’s viewpoint with different design styles. Wild uses some of these tools in Kabul Disco but doesn’t feel compelled to constantly make a case for authenticity. “We should dissociate two things, the facts and the way of telling them. All the events in Kabul Disco did happen for real, but I took some freedom with the way of telling them,” he says, placing his book somewhere between new-wave journalism and personal diary.

In books such as Palestine (2001) and Safe Area Goražde (2000), Sacco, the universal favourite among graphic artists, has produced extraordinary examples of what is becoming known as “graphic reportage” or “comics journalism”. There are rumours that he might soon be working on a project on the Maoists in India.

Tinker.Solder.Tap:  By Bhagwati Prasad and Amitabh Kumar, Sarai-CSDS, 84 pages, Rs100.

Tinker.Solder.Tap: By Bhagwati Prasad and Amitabh Kumar, Sarai-CSDS, 84 pages, Rs100.

While no work on graphic non-fiction in India touches Sacco’s calibre yet, Kabul Disco and Lahore Reporting are close to autobiographical graphic travelogues of the kind made famous by Guy Delisle, a French-Canadian illustrator who produced similar accounts of his stays in Pyongyang and Shenzhen. Several comics practitioners in India, however, have strong objections to Delisle’s brand of Orientalism, making the case for domestic output even stronger. Sarnath Banerjee finds Delisle’s Pyongyang almost condescending. “How (Delisle) dutifully performs his role as an evangelist of Western concepts of individual freedom and expects the world to follow. He leaves a trail of clichés, a grand Eurocentric vision of the ‘great Other’,” says Banerjee, for whom Pyongyang is beautifully drawn, but lacking in insight, a work by a modern-day Herodotus.Sharad Sharma of World Comics India agrees. To temper this outsider-insider divide, Sharma conducts workshops to empower villagers and far-flung tribes with the skills to tell their own stories. In January, Sharma edited and released a 15-chapter anthology on development called Whose Development? in English and Vikaskalhe Vipreet Buddhi in Hindi. The stories range from a tale of a fisherman from Assam to the deleterious effects of tourism in Goa. Two other anthologies are under way and will expand their scope to include stories from Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. This idea of grass-roots comics already has currency in Scandinavia and the UK, regions from where World Comics India gets its funding.

For those who wish to attempt graphic non-fiction, there’s training at hand. Sharma is now giving the final touches to comics journalism courses for universities in Kashmir and Assam. The National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad has also started a project to encourage non-fiction graphic narratives. Sekhar Mukherjee, head of the department of animation at NID, is all set to launch a magazine on alternative comics and animation, to be published twice a year.

With educational institutions gearing up for this new wave, it appears that the surf might be coming ashore. This, despite the fact that graphic novels are a minuscule part of the Indian publishing market. And while the works don’t spell magic or leave scars, the lines are definitely getting bolder.