First Hand is an anthology of non-fiction graphic narratives - the first of its kind in India - that narrates the stories of people whose voices have been lost in the drone of a 24-hour news cycle. It may be a comic but First Hand does not have any cape-clad superheroes or cackling supervillains, rather it shows the lives of real people and reflects on the extraordinary - often heart-breaking - circumstances of their lives; be it personal struggle, or social and political injustice. Writers, artists, reporters, activists, researchers, designers, anthropologists, academicians, and film-makers lend their experience, knowledge and craft to bring alive in illustration stories that too often get reduced to numbers and statistics. In doing this, they offer us new worlds through which we can re-enter our own and, perhaps, see it more clearly. The book gives us many different points of view through which we can look at reality, unfiltered and unfettered by the politics of mass media and governance.
The stories range from contemporary narratives which bear witness to our times to more exploratory historical perspectives to simply the extraordinary lives of ordinary people.
For instance, ‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Back’ by Dhwani Shah, describes the protagonist’s experience of visiting Pissurlem, a Goan village where the natural landscape and lush beauty became a victim of mining companies that were allowed to dig beyond the permitted depth. ‘The Girl Not From Madras’ is a reportage piece about the abduction, rape, forced marriage and eventual rescue of a young woman from Assam. 'The Edge of the Map' is a documentation of how people are displaced by large-scale development projects in Jharkhand and Odisha - a narrative interspersed with quotations and commentary by people actually affected by these projects. Another masterpiece is 'Akhtari’ by Gitanjali Rao and Rajesh Devraj, a breathtaking comic on the early life of Begum Akhtar.
First Hand has been planned as a series - with a view to regularly bring narratives from the ground to graphic form. Critical to that is making this project sustainable in the long run - and we have commenced this campaign to achieve the goal!
This is a call and plea to our community and the people at large to make this series more than just a pipe-dream. With this campaign, we hope to bring these urgent narratives in First Hand Volume I closer to the reader, as well as sustain a series that can commit to this work in the long-term.
Here is an approximate cost break-up, listing how we will be using the funds we acquire through this campaign:
Contributor's Honorarium/Compensation - 40%
Production - 40%
Outreach - 12%
Crowd Funding Platform - 8%
If you have any queries or doubts, or just want to chat, feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org any time.
Graphic novels are finally looking beyond superheroes and the supernatural
In April 2014, 15 women, mostly in their twenties and early thirties, gathered at a workshop called Drawing Attention. It was led by comic-book artist and editor Priya Kuriyan and German illustrators Ludmilla Bartscht and Larissa Bertonasco. “The idea was to get more women into the comic-making space and introduce them to a medium that can be such a powerful communication tool,” says Kuriyan.
Anita Roy, senior editor at Zubaan, a Delhi-based publishing house, recalls, “We wanted the women to draw on their personal experiences and talk about what it is like being a woman in contemporary India,” she says. “Part of the impulse came from the reactions in the wake of the terrible rape of December 2012.”
What came out were stories as varied and unique as the women themselves. Each had a different tone and feel, but every story spoke about sexual harassment and the challenges arising from having to live with or negotiate gender roles and expectations. These short sketches by amateur artists were compiled into an anthology and published as Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back in 2015.
Sarnath Banerjee’s All Quiet In Vikaspuri features Delhi’s water wars.
It was just one of many graphic novels released that year. Malik Sajad released Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir, a story of a young boy growing up in a militarised and militant state. Sumit Kumar came out with Amar Bari Tomar Bari Naxalbari, which chronicles the history of India’s Maoist uprising, tracing its origins to the village of Naxalbari. These were followed by Sarnath Banerjee’s All Quiet in Vikaspuri, published this January. Banerjee’s dystopian novel depicts, in black and white, the ever-so-real water wars of today’s Delhi.
The new slew of graphic novels looks squarely at the issues facing contemporary India. “Comics have the potential to reach out to a large audience,” says Kuriyan, adding that its unique text and image format lets storytellers weave scenes in a way that makes their tale more meaningful and poignant. “The impact visuals have can be much more visceral and direct as compared to prose; not to forget they also have great recall value.”
How it all began
India’s love affair with comics started in 1967 when Amar Chitra Katha was launched. Diamond Comics, Raj Comics, and other homegrown publishers followed. But while Indian comics remained dominated by mythological figures and superheroes even through the 1980s, on the other side of the globe, change was afoot. Artists like Art Spiegelman, and later Joe Sacco and Marjane Satrapi started using comics to tell some very poignant and grown-up stories. These were the graphic novels (although the term was coined way back in 1964 and Will Eisner made it popular).
Back home, Orijit Sen was the first to tap into the potential of this new format to raise awareness about the issues surrounding the Narmada Dam Project. In 1994, River of Stories was published. But it took another decade for a second graphic novel to emerge. This time it was Sarnath Banerjee’s Corridor (2004). Set in Lutyen’s Delhi, it dealt with urban youngsters at odds with a changing India.
Our superheroes and four-colour gods didn’t quite welcome the change. They invaded the newly popular graphic novel space almost annihilating the realists. “Mythology and folklore are classic comics topics,” says Banerjee, explaining their popularity. “They have neat ideas of good and bad, and have morals. They are not messy or complicated like real life. The same goes for superhero books. Maybe we like clear-cut.”
So most of the graphic novels that came out of India over the 2000s looked basically like stylised versions of Amar Chitra Katha. Hindu gods and goddesses were mercilessly moulded into Captain America-like superheroes. Graphic novels seemed to suffer from the Bollywood syndrome – occupied with creating a world twice removed from reality to offer an escape from real-life problems, or to provide fantastical solutions.
It wasn’t that Indian readers were not ready for stark tales, argues Kuriyan. “In the case of graphic novels, many people who began experimenting with the form took up mythology as they wanted to work with stories people are already familiar with,” she says. In a nation full of fantastical tales, magic and other-worldly powers, it was an easy leap.
The real picture
Malik Sajad’s Munnu: A Boy From Kashmir is a story of a young boy growing up in a volatile state
But artists and writers were aware that graphic novels could tell a certain kind of tale better than prose. Sajad, whose bildungsroman raises multiple questions on the Kashmir issue, found the format perfect for his story. “When you talk about Kashmir, the discourse is hinged on the geographical disputes, apolitically correct but fundamentally lazy theories, and the baggage of Partition,” he points out. The rest of India however doesn’t see the real story. “They echo the noise of the media that amplifies the comedy. I thought the graphic novel format would help me tell my story more effectively,” he says.
Sajad finds that the graphic novel format helps develop familiarity with the subject and makes a story more personal. “There are things that can’t be communicated through just words. Visuals illustrate our subconscious labyrinth while the words lead the plot,” he says.
But can four books deeply rooted in reality, all published within a year, point to the start of a trend? Is the Indian graphic novel getting serious?
Kumar believes even if it is, it shouldn’t. “Serious is often boring,” he reminds us. According to him the graphic novel should be conversely growing younger in its approach. Instead it’s already growing too dark and cliche. “I see gender neutral, hyper sensitive, black frames. Kuch serious conflict type issue + grayscale + in English + thoda samajh nahi aaya = a great graphic novel? This perception is getting tiring.”
Kumar finds it’s necessary for a story to be funny, especially when dealing with serious issues. His own book covers the Naxalbari movement, but it is laced with light humour, the panels are dipped in colour, and the dialogues are peppered with references to pop culture. “Why can’t I draw about class conflict using fruits who talk like us?” he asks.
Sumit Kumar’s book Amar Bari, Tomar Bari: Naxalbari, covers the history of India’s Maoist uprising
Of course, we have seen a few strikingly bold works in the past. While Abdul Sultan PP and Partha Sengupta’s The Believers (2006) set in present-day Kerala was about religious tolerance, Naseer Ahmed’s Kashmir Pending (2007), depicts Kashmir seen through the eyes of a reformed militant and Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s Delhi Calm (2011) was a graphic representation of the Emergency-era Delhi. And then there was Amruta Patil’sKari (2008) – a wry tale about a lesbian woman dealing with loneliness, death and a ruthless city. But such instances were few and far between.
Winds of change
Certainly, the graphic novel scene in India is slowly expanding to include more political commentary, especially with web comics like Royal Existentialists and Crocodile in Water, Tiger on Land, and now, Rashtraman. Many newspapers have begun to carry short graphic-novel-style strips within their pages, the latest being the revival of Manjula Padmanabhan’s Suki – the strip that pioneered feminist comics in India. But Kuriyan seems to think that it is still too early to herald a renaissance. One reason for this is the lack of an organised industry of colourists within India. Graphic novelists working on non-fiction and contemporary issues have no choice but to operate as single entities. This can be a double-edged sword. “It is what makes their work stand apart, but it is also what makes it more difficult to keep up with the organised industry that produces comics on mythology on such a large scale,” Kuriyan says.
Also, while graphic novels are slowly pushing the boundaries, they have a long way to go before the panels produce profit. “Graphic novels – both fantasy and literary – have a small but very involved readership” says Ajitha GS, senior commissioning editor at HarperCollins India. She adds that although people are experimenting with newer content as well as styles, the size of the graphic novels market in India is still minuscule. Unlike the US, France, the UK and Japan, the country is yet to have a stand-alone graphic novel industry. Printing graphic novels are more complex than just all-text ones. Even paperbacks start at `1,000. “We are selling an expensive product in a price-sensitive market,” she adds. “This limits the reach.”
But it seems there might be a change round the corner. Banerjee says there is a rich body of work coming out of India. “It is our insecurities that make us often look to the West. I find that many Indian graphic novelists are often more original than their Western contemporaries and the stories they tell are more relevant to us,” he says, pointing out that many graduates, fresh out of universities and design schools, are taking to this form in a huge way. “They are developing a sophisticated language to portray their interior worlds and are discussing their most deeply felt thoughts. Usually, these are original voices untainted by the forces of mainstream media,” he says optimistically.
Image: A comic strip on double standards for women and men in India by Inedible India-La
“I have been writing for the last 25 years, yet I believe that a picture speaks more than words. In fact they give the reader more space to form individual opinions than when he/she is reading articles,” said 36-year-old Chetana Thirthahalli, who is a freelance journalist–turned-Kannada-comic- strip- artist.
Captivated by idea behind English comic strips of Arathi Parthasarathy and Chaitanya Krishnan’s brainchild -Royal Existential and Rajesh Rajamani’s Inedible India, Chetana wanted to do something similar for her fellow Kannadigas.
Inedible India, which was launched by Rajamani in August this year, was inspired by Royal Existentials that was launched in 2014. Both series of comic strips’ use vintage art, Indian paintings and imagery for political commentary. While Inedible India uses Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings Royal Existential uses art from the Mughal era.
“Apart from wanting to translate Rajamani’s comics in Kannada, I wanted bring out my own series, which would focus on issues that I personally feel strongly about. When I spoke to him, he said there were no copyrights and I could do anything as long as I took up authorship. That is how Inedible India-La was born,” said Chetana.
The core idea behind Royal Existentials and Inedible India ticked all the right boxes for Chetana, who writes columns for Mangaluru-based News Kannada and Bengaluru –based Agni under her sixth pen name Alavikaa La.
Double standards for judging men and women by Inedible India-La
She said:“Firstly, for Inedible India-La, I didn’t have to draw so it is time saving. More importantly using Indian paintings actually added native flavour to the work. It attracts people.”
Inedible India-La comic strips, which are published on Facebook with #Inedible_India_La, are not released periodically. “I write or make comic strips on issues as an when they surface,” she said.
Chetana, who publishes the comic strips under the pen name La (short-form of Alavikaa La), uses both Raja Ravi Varma paintings and vintage art in her comics.
Covering a range of topics from Indian politics to feminism
Dead against inhumane activities, Chetana, who calls herself a liberal, said, “I write out of experience and I am not bound by any socio-cultural thoughts or practices.”
However, she says that be it any form of writing, it can be called authentic only if the writer has personally faced or experienced.
On Dadri lynching by Inedible India-La
“I know what eve-teasing means, what domestic violence is like, how religion curbed the spirit of women and how religion divides people. I have seen all this and these have shaped my ideas,” she added
Issues that Chetana has covered in her comics include Dadri lynching, double-standards for women in Indian society, Hindi as national language, moral policing etc.
Beauty of Indian languages and art
Any Indian, who has widely read works from his/her native written in vernacular, would agree that expression in native language is more powerful and rich than when it is anglicised.
“The beauty of writing in vernacular is the range of words that native Indian languages offer. And this automatically enhances the quality of work,” said Chetana, whose works are all in Kannada.
However, she also agrees that her comics got better and more response than her articles ever got, especially from people who can only comprehend Kannada.
Views on Modi government
Satire and sarcasm are some of the most striking qualities of Chetana’s comic strips. One other quality which is apparent is that Chetana is highly critical about Narendra Modi government.
“I don't agree or support Modi. This was after Godhra. Having observed his moves and political ideologies so far, he seems more like a CEO of India than a Prime Minister. His initiatives are focused on the corporate sector not for the common man,” said Chetana.
Chetana is a part of a group of writers who meet to discuss various issues in the state and country, which apart from helping her write columns also gives her ideas for the comics.
“We have some responsibility when it comes to striking a balance. Though we are budding writers, any statement we make can be very sensitive and they have the potential to create discord. We do have limitations and that is why I feel discussions are integral to any writer who wants to broaden his or her perspective,” she said.
For the Tamil literary scene, this internal exchange within various art forms is a ray of light on the horizon.
The recent release of a Tamil digital graphic novel, possibly the first in the language, is a boost not just for Tamil literature, but also for writers in other regional languages.
Called “Sivappu Kal Mookuthi” the book also has an English version titled “Girl With a Red Nose Ring”.
Its author, filmmaker JS Nandhini, is most popularly remembered for her hit romantic comedy movie “Thiru Thiru Thuru Thuru” which was produced by Sathyam Cinemes and released in 2009.
Although she has been in love with comic books forever, it’s something that she had never tried before. “I’ve always fancied comic books. I have loved movies, especially Avengers. But I loved independent comics with real life human stories in them more” she says.
It was after her previous script (a supernatural thriller) failed to pick up two years ago, that she made a conscious decision to try this new medium. “There are no middlemen out here. So I can make sure it reaches the audience,” Nandhini says.
Getting the book ready was not without its difficulties. “We got a lot of criticism initially,” she says, adding that it helped her and her team to work on improving their standards. “As a creator I cannot just sit back and wait for something to happen to me. I had to do something,” she says about the project that was completed it a month ago.
Based out of Chennai, the 37 year-old is an alumnus of the Film Institute of Chennai. Her first film Thiru Thiru Thuru Thuru was one of the first in India to be digitally shot. Now, she has gone one step further and made a digital trailer for the comic book, which can be viewed on her website. The two versions of the book are available for download.
“I had to do something new to get the attention of readers,” she says adding that it is common practice for comic giants like Marvel and DC to make their own comic book trailers ahead of book releases.
Acknowledging that the diminishing print market was one of the reasons to avoid publishing a regular print comic book, Nandhini says: “Everything is going online now, and this is a bigger market.”
And she has bigger plans for her digital comic book. “I want to make it into a film,” she says claiming that if it did transpire with support, it would become the first comic book in India to be made into a film.
Comics into movies, movies into comics
The exchange has always been two-way. The list of comics characters have been turned into successful films is very long. It includes the latest 2015 superhero movie, Ant Man, which was first introduced in as a comics character way back in 1962. Others include the Avengers and Men in Blank, Alien vs Predator, Oblivion and The Mask.
A great example for the constant exchanges between various media of art is Game of Thrones. Originally a series of novels created by George R R Martin, the epic fantasy books have been equally successful as a hit TV series before and as graphic novels.
India is already home to its own creative space for upcoming talent in the comic industry with companies like Graphic India. Nandhini’s own inspiration has been Shekar Kapoor, a filmmaker who came up with the famous fictional character, Devi, which was published by Virgin Comics as a part of its Indian releases.
“Comics are made into books, and books into comics,” says Nandhini emphasizing on the vast market potential available. But she adds that this is a nascent genre in India that is still facing difficulties and needs more visibility and support in achieving the heights of creativity.
(Image courtesy: Girl with a red nose ring Facebook page)