Drawing to an end


IF language is what makes us human, using language to tell stories might be the first and most pervasive human pastime. In a civilization where literacy was the preserve of a minuscule elite, the storyteller needed to be an artist of the spoken word – and before modern recording devices were invented, the story would have to be told anew each time. This would be true even if it was an old story, where most of the audience already knew the characters and the plot. So, some storytellers combined forces with actors, dancers, musicians, or mime artists, creating varied renditions of the same tale – and giving rise to the multifarious dramatic traditions of South Asia. But an oral storyteller could also work, quietly and on a smaller scale, with painted scrolls or cloth panels or unfolding wooden boxes that told the tale in pictures.

From the pattachitra painters of Bengal and Odisha to the Kavadiya bhats and the tellers of the Pabuji myth in Rajasthan, many of the subcontinent’s best-known tales have historically been told with the aid of images. But since barely anyone knew how to read, these traditional storied panels rarely incorporated text. Meanwhile, those few who could read and write didn’t think they needed images: wasn’t the whole point of fiction to paint a picture with words? Thus, even as the story moved into the pages of a bound volume, in modern India, it was only children’s books which had illustrations. Pictures were a way to lure the child reader into the world of the written word. No wonder, then, that a book that combined images and text in equal parts was seen as childish, and thus by definition, not serious. Of course, this was true the world over: ergo, the word ‘comic’.

One wonders, though, whether the symbolic hierarchical gulf between words and images may have been starker in India than in the developed world. Was it because only a small elite was literate, and education was about distinguishing oneself from the masses who could not read? If you could read therefore, you needed to be seen reading – not looking at pictures! Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that until the 1980s, many an educated Indian parent thought it anathema to let their child read comics. And yet, of course, urban elite children devoured comics: borrowing them from hole in the wall lending libraries, posh clubs, or each other.

Growing up in big city India of that time, the comics I remember being ubiquitous were either superhero-themed like Mandrake and Phantom (American comics distributed by the Indian company Indrajal) or teen-themed, like Archie: our wide-eyed introduction to a suburban America in which kids only a little older than us negotiated an unreal world of dating, proms, and suntan lotion.

By the 1980s, though, there were multiple local claimants breaking into the Indian comics market. The North Indian market was dominated by the diminutive but supersmart Chacha Chaudhary (he whose brain was ‘faster than computer’) and his brawny assistant Sabu. Devoted niche followings existed for characters like Detective Moochhwala or the hilarious singing donkey Gardhab Das, both of whom appeared in Target, a children’s magazine created by the India Today group. But it was Tinkle’s d-uh Suppandi and wily Tantri the Mantri that had the much wider reach. ‘Uncle’ Anant Pai, who created Tinkle in 1980, was also behind the only real mass-market phenomenon in the history of Indian comics: the retelling of myth and history in standalone comics called Amar Chitra Katha (lit. ‘Timeless Picture Story’). It was into this world that the Indian graphic narrative first dropped.



Whenever a new medium of storytelling appears in India, our oldest stories always get first dibs on the market. It was true of cinema (D.G. Phalke kicked off Indian filmmaking with Raja Harishchandra, then Mohini Bhasmasur, Satyavaan Savitri and Shree Krishna Janma – while down South, too, things began with Keechaka Vadha). It was true also of television (the serialized Ramayana and Mahabharata on Doordarshan changed the history of tv viewing – and the country). Similarly, Amar Chitra Katha captured a big share of the children’s comics pie.

But the Indian appetite for our myths and epics is apparently inexhaustible. So at least two ongoing graphic series retell the Mahabharata in multiple volumes: Sibaji Bandopadhyay and Sankha Banerjee’s Vyasa: The Beginning and Panchali: The Game of Dice, and Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva and Sauptik. Among Ramayana-inspired graphic narratives, one might note Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar’s Sita’s Ramayana (the illustrator practices the traditional art of Patua painting) and Vivek Balagopal’s Simian, which tells the story of the Ramayana from the perspective of Hanuman, monkey god and Rama’s loyal lieutenant (a figure we should think about more often than we do).

But beyond the mythology shelf, the Indian graphic book seems particularly adept at grappling with realities that are far from ‘comic’. Some of the most acclaimed graphic narratives in India include a book about the people’s movement against the Narmada Dam, a book about the Emergency, a book about Kashmir, at least two books about Partition, and at least two about caste and untouchability. These are all subjects of great gravity.


Yet the whole point of the new form is to devise ways of talking about these complex times and places that departs from the grim facticity that usually surrounds them. Accounts of them usually reach us (if they reach at all) through the dull prism of data, the anger of polemic, the piety of platitudes, or the sensationalism of mass violence. In contrast, the Indian graphic artist draws us into the vortex of these worlds through a glittering web of stories.

How do Indian graphic books tell their stories? Is there anything about the form that allows it to venture into the most complicated topics, and distil them into something a beginner might at least start to understand? Examining four of the most talked-about Indian examples of the genre – River of Stories, Delhi Calm, Munnu and Chhotu – one finds that all four books are astonishingly comfortable splicing together fiction and nonfiction, past and present, history, legend and contemporary individual stories, and reality and dream. Certain other motifs also recur: art and the media.

Let me start with the dream. The beginning of the beginning of the graphic novel in India – Orijit Sen’s 1994 book River of Stories – are four pages that would, in the vocabulary of classic Indian cinema, be called a ‘dream sequence’.

Why did our old movies have so many dream sequences? Because dreams are democratic. They are the fictions everyone creates. In storytelling the world over, the dream offers respite from the harsh limits imposed by real life. This is especially true in a society as unequal and socially regimented as India. The home you’ll never own, the job you’ll never get, the love you’ll never speak of – these can all be yours in a dream, for free.

In a film that is already fiction, a dream sequence offers double the respite. In a graphic book that deals with the harshness of a collective Indian reality, it can do many things – it can imagine an alternative world, it can serve as a visual introduction to the state of the protagonist’s mind, or just offer the space for truth and fiction to come together in something surreal but enlightening.

River of Dreams’ opening dream sequence is of the last kind. It starts with a young man watching India lose a cricket test on television and progresses into a televised address by a politician with the deliciously silly name of Shri Khapi K. Soja (to risk a transcreation: ‘Mr. Eat-Drink N Sleepitoff’). Ostensibly a call for better Indian performance on the world sports stage, the minister’s lecture includes all the familiar pointless tropes of Indian political speeches. Indian sportspersons failing to perform are being ‘anti-national’, India has a ‘tradition of victory that goes back to the Vedas’, and as we hurtle along the ‘fast track of development’ with ‘the largest dams, the latest nuclear reactors, the tallest statues’, it is futile – and socialist – to ask silly questions about those left behind.

In Sen’s wonderfully surreal scene, when the TV-watching Vishnu scoffs at the speech, the minister retorts angrily, berating him personally through the TV screen. Eventually he flies off in a helicopter, evil laughter floating in the air behind him. In the next image, a fitfully asleep Vishnu is woken by his mother, asking if he plans to be late for the first day of his job as a journalist. That’s where the nightmare ends in the book. But there  is something quite nightmarish about reading the book in 2023, almost thirty years after Sen created it, and finding that we have been falling for the same phrases for at least three decades.

In Malik Sajad’s brilliantly evocative Munnu, fittingly for a thinly disguised memoir of growing up in Kashmir in the 1980s and 1990s, there are more nightmares than dreams. The first we hear of Munnu dreaming is after he sees his first dead body: the family’s neighbour Mustafa, who everyone knows was a militant, but who was also a kind man who always encouraged Munnu and his siblings to focus on their studies. After he visits Mustafa’s grave, the imaginative and empathetic seven-year-old becomes obsessed with the darkness and suffocation of the grave. He stays awake at night worrying about what death feels like, sitting up in bed and telling whoever is unlucky enough to sit next to him: ‘I want people to pinch my body, beat me up and make sure I’m dead before they bury me.’

A few days later, he dreams of the marble gravestone shining in the moonlight, getting bigger and shaking until it erupts like a volcano and Mustafa emerges from it, clad in a bright white shroud. His feet floating a foot above ground level, the militant’s ghost in Munnu’s dream passes through the streets and closed gates and doors, entering the very interior of Munnu’s room so that he wakes, weeping with fear.

But this is only the start of Munnu’s nightmares: later he starts to dream elaborate dreams in which a crowd is assembled to bury Mustafa, and he tries his best to stop them, even kicking open the lid of the coffin to check if Mustafa is still alive – and finding his eldest brother Bilal inside instead. The connection between Mustafa and Bilal is not a factual one, but early in the book, we are told that Bilal’s generation is the first generation of Kashmiri boys that had started to cross into Pakistan and receive training as militants. Munnu’s – and Bilal’s – father was afraid that Bilal might be lured into that life. Though that never actually happened, the dream is a stunning way of showing the fears and often unspoken stresses that shaped the dynamic of family life in Kashmir, often putting greater and greater stress on young children, even as episodes of political violence, lockdowns and curfews led to longer and longer stretches where school and college life was suspended.

In another of Munnu’s remarkable panels, after the teenaged protagonist gets his first job as a cartoonist for a Srinagar newspaper, he dreams of being given a white navy uniform, wearing which he splashes paint all night long ‘on long, wide canvases, like Jackson Pollock.’ The next day Munnu shows his cartoon in the paper ‘to hawkers, to confirm it wasn’t a dream.’ The day after that, he demands an ID card from his editor, to present to the police at the checkpoint. Again, the dream is a vivid pointer to the main benefit of his job in the Kashmir of that era – the uniform stands in for a new and visible identity, something that would lift him up from the indistinguishable masses whose rights of movement could be and were restricted at will.

VP’s dreams in Delhi Calm are more like daytime visions that conjure up the surreality of the Emergency in Delhi: everywhere he turns, he sees masked men and women speaking in the voice of the state and threatening to transmit information to it. The landlord, the man in the bus, the beggar at the street corner – everyone has apparently enlisted as part of these ‘Smiling Saviours’, announcing that citizens should smile because things are fit and fine, while soliciting patriotic donations for New India.

The dream in Chhotu, true to its deliberately cinema-influenced aesthetic, is more like an unconscious flashback. It is brought on by an episode of vertigo, which is also a traumatic trigger from the past. The protagonist Chhotu climbs to the top of a building, and his unconscious brain takes him back to the previous time he was up anywhere this high: a childhood visit to a ferris wheel in a mela, when he ended up losing his parents.

Art, or a creative pursuit of one kind or another, is another thread that runs through the terrain of these books. Orijit Sen, for instance, ties his contemporary narrative to the origin myth of the Bhilala Adivasi people of the Narmada valley. When Sen draws Malgu Gayan singing the song of Rewa, accompanying himself on the rangai ‘given to me by Relukabadi, the woodcutter’, he brings in some of the mythic power of the traditional Adivasi gayans: those who sing the creation myth on ritual occasions.

Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s protagonists VP, Parvez and Master, meanwhile, travel through the country on the eve of the Emergency with their Naya Savera Band, singing songs of protest, change and democracy in ‘places we would never have gone to otherwise.’ They hope that their ‘chorus on wheels’ will both offer a way of connecting to the poor, often rural people they wish to rouse into Total Revolution – and keep them under the radar in the guise of ‘Music and Culture’.

In Varud Gupta and Ayushi Rastogi’s Chhotu, although its chapter names are adapted from classic song lyrics (‘Jab Tak Rahega Aloo’, ‘Oonchi Hai Building’, ‘Tip Tip Barsa Paani’, etc), the creative pursuit through which a central character tries to stitch people together is not music, but cooking. Bapu, the bespectacled and elephant-headed foster father of the book’s eponymous protagonist Chhotu, is the owner of a paratha joint in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk area. When the city is afflicted by a shortage of potatoes, an anxious Bapu tries experimenting with other stuffings. Gupta and Rastogi are young authors themselves, and are pitching for a younger readership, so the tone is kept sweet and silly: Bapu’s paratha stuffing options range from gheeya and karela (vegetables that most Delhi children seem to particularly dislike) to jalebi and even popcorn.

On a more serious note, through the book, we find aloo and later chhole (chickpeas) being hoarded, secretly traded, stolen and in at least one dramatic instance, stored inside a place of worship to deliberately set off riots. One hears in these the distant echo of beef and pork, also food items, which have for nearly two centuries been used to engineer violence between religious communities.

Of the four books I examine here, the one where art plays the most well defined role is Munnu. Right from the start of the narrative, art is imbricated in the everyday – and the everyday life in art. But since this is Kashmir, that everyday is also full of extraordinary violence, made ordinary by repetition. Munnu is the youngest child of an artisan who earns a meagre living doing traditional Kashmiri wood carving. The whole family often ends up participating in the work. So, as children do, Munnu wants to draw, too. His early attempts to trace the curves of chinar leaves and paisleys on wooden blocks are disheartening. ‘And sketching the photos of unrecognizable, disfigured people from the newspaper was even harder. Even if you traced them,’ writes Sajad in the next panel, under a drawing of Munnu poring over newspaper reports, trying and failing to replicate the images in them.

Very quickly after this, Munnu does become an expert at drawing something – an AK-47 rifle. So many of his classmates want him to draw it in their notebooks and on their bags that he finally carves his eraser into a stamp of it, to meet the demand. A few pages later, we learn that there is very little demand for the delicate carvings Munnu’s father does – the foreign tourists who paid a good price for them no longer visit the valley much.

Sajad doesn’t spell it out, but a painful symbolic transition unfolds across his pages – all the more vivid for its meta-visuality. Paisleys and chinars, age-old stylized motifs that have distilled the exquisite natural beauty of Kashmir into highly sought-after shawls, carvings and papier mache since Mughal times, now struggle to survive in a new Kashmir whose the most ubiquitous visual references are now AK47s and misshapen corpses. Like their neighbour Mustafa’s grotesque corpse in the papers, this Kashmir is nothing like the one they once knew.

The presence of the media haunts all four of these graphic books. In River of Stories, it is most straightforward and perhaps the most optimistic. The young journalist Vishnu’s reporting trip to the Narmada valley forms the backbone of the contemporary narrative. It is interwoven with other tales – the aforementioned song of Malgu Gayan, for example, and the stunningly simple, deeply affecting life story told by Relku, the help in Vishnu’s urban upper middle class home, who is also the daughter of a displaced and dispossessed Adivasi family. But it is Vishnu’s paper commissioning a piece on the anti-dam movement that allows him to visit and meet activists and affected locals.

In fact, in a courageous decision about form, Orijit Sen includes Vishnu’s fictitious but real newspaper article as a two-page spread in the book. When he follows up with an illustrated spread where different sorts of people are shown responding to the article (even if critically), one could almost weep for the hopefulness of three decades ago, where such a simple line could be drawn between information and knowledge.

Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s 2010 portrait of the Emergency era is less sanguine about the transmission of information, but the contours of the book’s universe are defined entirely by the media. The primary protagonist here, too, is a journalist, but one grappling with the barrage of censorship and fake news that first hit India during the Emergency era. When we meet VP in the first scene, he is waking up to All India Radio (sorry, Akashvani) announcing the Emergency. The book’s title is drawn from a headline of a fictitious news report from 26 June 1975 that takes up one of the volume’s early pages: ‘Delhi Calm’. That ‘news item’ underlines Ghosh’s sarcastic take on what reporting might look like in a less-than-free society: a lot like fiction. ‘A calm prevailed in the capital this morning. Clusters of people in… houses, bus stops, at pan vendors and in offices were not discussing the possible outcome of the Emergency and its implications, reports IND. People by and large described the day as a “historic one”.’

VP’s job is in limbo, as he gets to his newspaper office to find the premises locked and his editor incommunicado. Some editors and papers are printing empty pages in protest against censorship and government-approved news. Other parts of the media are kowtowing, running scared, given the prevalence of phones being tapped and the threat of jail. But the media is still the first port of call for guerrilla activist networks – a speech by ‘the Prophet’ (Ghosh’s thinly fictionalized version of Jayaprakash Narayan) needs to be smuggled to one ‘Editor Joshi’.

Munnu, published in 2015, describes in heartfelt autobiographical detail an era in which journalism was expanding in Kashmir. The protagonist’s coming of age is tied to his youthful success at drawing political cartoons for papers that don’t yet all have entrenched cartoonists. Editors react to his age with disbelief – he is 13 or 14 when he publishes his first cartoon – but they also seem approachable and willing to work with his ideas to make them publishable.

But the memoir also tracks Munnu’s gradual journalistic fatigue – the repetitiveness of the themes on which sarcastic cartoons can be made, as well as the unrelenting violence and despair of the news with which he must engage on a daily basis for his work. Meanwhile, he has a disillusioning inside view on what he calls ‘chicken patties’ journalism: leaders of the Kashmiri resistance movements have gone from threatening journalists to feeding them patties in exchange for coverage.

The most recent of the books, Chhotu, is set in 1947 Delhi. But its vision of the media is the darkest of all. Published in 2019, five years into the Modi era, the book’s depiction of the media seems clearly inflected by the present. Merging fact and fiction as graphic novels do, the mass media in Chhotu takes the form of a fictitious radio channel called All India FM (Radio began in India in 1923, and Delhi was indeed one of the six stations on the All India Radio network by 1947. But the first FM broadcast in India was in Chennai in 1977, and it only expanded nationwide in the 1990s.)

But facts apart, each chapter begins with the day’s broadcast. There is news – usually neutrally delivered, even if it is about impending violence – and always, even in the midst of Partition riots, there is advertising. The ads for Kanchan’s Khadis and Lucky’s Locks may seem ridiculous on the surface, but they are possibly the sharpest way to signal the reality of a world where the media is more about advertising than news, and where commerce is all that really matters. Even in the darkest of times, companies don’t stop trying to make money off people’s insecurities – for instance, advertising locks to those forced to flee their homes by riots.

It is no surprise, therefore, when the cheerful radio host Bol Gappa turns out to be in cahoots
with the evil mastermind of the Delhi riots: the lion-faced politician Shere Singh. That Bol Gappa is anthropomorphized as a parrot – a bird called clever for successfully repeating what its master says – or that the devious Shere Singh is also a writer of persistently bad poetry – ties the book’s historical tragedy to our present. Chhotu uses visual imagery and farce to make its political point in terms as simple as a children’s fable – the media is a parrot, and works as the mouthpiece of the king of the jungle, who spends a lot of time feeling sorry for himself.


Dreams and flashbacks, songs and art and mythical stories, as well as different kinds of media narratives – cinema, radio, advertising,  televised speeches, political reports, and editorial cartoons – all provide inspiration for the multi-fariousness of storytelling that we see in the Indian graphic narrative.

Perhaps the reason the graphic book – and its close and rising cousin, the digital graphic narrative – is so good at dealing with daunting subjects is that it feels free to try the approaches of so many other genres and forms, and to combine them at will. Refusing to be bound by convention of any sort, it would appear, is the genre’s greatest advantage. That, and its capaciousness: its ease with bringing together things that used to once be kept apart – a little like words and pictures?