Mythology flourishes in Indian graphic novels

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Indian readers have grown up reading the likes of Amar Chitra Katha and Indrajal Comics…the mythology still rules the roost when it comes to graphic novels, shares Shabari Choudhury, editor, Campfire Graphic Novels. No longer living an uncertain existence on the fringes of the publishing world, the Graphic Novel has truly come a long way. Viewed as a niche genre ever since its inception, graphic novels were often thought to be the same as comics. The creation and subsequent publishing of graphic novels like Will Eisner’s Contract with God, Marvel Comics’ Silver Surfer and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman saw a shift in the popular perception regarding the medium. The evolution of the graphic novel in India has, in some ways, mirrored its trajectory in the West. Starting in the 60s, the Indian publishing industry had a rich repository of comics that were being published by publishers like Raj Comics, Amar Chitra Katha and Indrajal Comics. So, although readers were familiar with a format that was similar—images with panel and text—the content and subject were poles apart.

Changing content

The advent of independent graphic novel creators in the early 90s created a ripple whose effects can be felt even today. One of the earliest Indian graphic novels was Orijit Sen’s River of Stories, a take on the socio-political and environmental issues surrounding the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Another early instance of an Indian graphic novel that is semi-fictional in mode is Sarnath Banerjee’s Corridor. Based in modern Delhi, the novel looks at people and their everyday interactions in an urban setting. Books like these made publishers sit up and take notice of the graphic novel, opening up the possibility of using it to create content for mature readers. Manta Ray Comic’s Hush and Phantomville’s Kashmir Pending that dealt with complex and sensitive issues like child abuse and post-partition aftermath further cemented the position of the graphic novel as a medium for serious storytelling.

The last decade has seen many Indian publishers explore the medium of the graphic novel for the medium’s sake. The combination of visuals and text create endless possibilities of telling and re-telling stories across genres. While publishers like Vimanika and Pop Culture Publishing have used it to create cult-fiction series like I am Kalki and Odayan, Campfire Graphic Novels has used the medium to tell the life stories of great leaders and unforgettable personalities like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Steve Jobs and more recently, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam.

Mythology and the graphic novel

In spite of novel attempts to create original stories, the one source that most Indian publishers seem to fall back upon, time and again, for inspiration is mythology. Titles like Campfire’s Ravana: Roar of the Demon King, Draupadi: The Fire-born Princess, Krishna: Defender of Dharma and Vimanika’s Shiva: The Legends of the Immortal have created a strong reader base for this genre in the Indian market.

Fresh adaptation of stories from the Mahabharata, Ramayana and other popular mythological tales continue to make it to shelves in bookstores. Retellings of Indian mythology seem to draw maximum readers, especially in the case of the graphic novel. Ingrained in our subconscious since childhood, stories of gods and goddesses are an inherent part of our cultural idiom. An immediacy of association with these tales of superhuman men and women, perhaps allows the reader to explore a world that forms an escape from reality, much like any good film. Therefore, for every original work like Delhi Calm, Kari or Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir, there are three to four mythological stories that are being published.

Even in the case of popular cult-fiction work like Holy Cow Entertainment’s Aghori where the protagonist embraces a terrible sect of ascetics, the source of inspiration is Indian mythology. The story traces the character’s journey that brings him face-to-face with beings out of Hindu mythology, ultimately making a deal with the Devas or gods.

The way ahead

Of late, subjects of horror and fantasy have also seen a rising popularity in graphic novels. On the lines of From Dusk Till Dawn, Shamik Dasgupta’s Caravan is the story of a centuries old vampire coven that travels through the deserts of Rajasthan disguised as a caravan of gypsies.

Besides these, there are a few novel, but short-lived attempts at stylized renditions like Sita’s Ramayana and I see Promised Land that have been illustrated by Patua scroll artists Moyna and Manu Chitrakar, respectively.

Although some seasoned writers and artists believe that the Indian graphic novel needs to let go of genre classification, and look beyond mythology for inspiration, the fact that mythology sells more in India is somewhere reflective of the people’s taste and choice. Is it then possible for mainline publishers to not cater to this wide market?

Whether tales from Indian mythology continue to be made into graphic novels or not remains to be seen, but for the time being mythology is here to stay.

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