BY: KRUPA JOSEPH
For years, in India, comics were cast aside as entertainment for the less educated. Then, in 1967, Amar Chitra Katha breathed life into Indian myths, legends, and history and transformed them into series of comics and changed everything. Amar Chitra Katha became synonymous with comics for Indians across the world. They were bright, colourful books that imbibed knowledge and sometimes, even moral lessons to its readers. Children waited eagerly for the newer editions, and later on, went on to buy the same for their children. That is how Indians began to accept graphic books and comic books.
Since the turn of the century, graphic novels have become an increasingly popular form of expression and Indians have joined in on the trend. Over the past several years, publications such as Hachette, Penguin, Harper Collins, Tara, Blaft and Mantra Ray have started bringing to its readers what we call the ‘modern Indian graphic novel.’ One genre that has been extensively explored by graphic novel creators is the retelling of the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics. Many others have used this medium as a platform for satire and to talk about sociopolitical events and issues that are often under-reported by mainstream media. Orijit Sen’s River of Stories (1994) that highlights the impact of building the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the local populace or Kari by Amruta Patil that takes its readers through a lesbian community are some examples.
However, it took a while for the voice of women to find their way into the pages of a graphic novel. To change this, cartoonist Sharad Sharma began conducting World Comics India workshops around the country, bringing the art of creating graphic novels to women who lived in rural areas. Larissa Bertonasco, Ludmilla Bartscht, and Priya Kuriyan held a workshop that led to the creation of Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back, an anthology of short, mostly autobiographical comics by established artists and newcomers, who talk about topics ranging from sexism, rape reportage, voyeurism to women’s rights and identities. Since then, several female writers and artists have begun exploring the medium and women began to find a voice in these books, with several artists creating memoirs featuring female protagonists, others writing about female superheroes, or strong women who revolt against patriarchy, or deal with personal or family-related issues. So, we decided to take a little look at a few Indian graphic novels with strong female characters:
‘Kari’ by Amruta Patil
“They were inseparable – until the day they jumped. Ruth, saved by safety nets, leaves the city. Kari, saved by a sewer, crawls back into the fray of the living.” Kari decides to commit suicide along with her soulmate, Ruth and when their attempts fail, she is left all alone in the big, bad city of Mumbai. One of the first Indian women-centric graphic novels, that also delves into homosexuality. Alienated and frustrated, she goes about her life completely numb. She finds allies in Angel, Lazarus, and her two roommates. You watch her make her way through the busy streets of Mumbai, and it is almost poetic. The book is also extremely humourous, in an ironic, dark, and yet intelligent way and it is one of the many things that makes the book such a delight to read.
Twins being separated at birth is probably one of the biggest clichés that the movie industry has sold us. Nirmala & Normala follows the same dramatic plot, and shows us the life of two girls, one nurtured by a wealthy family, and the other raised in an orphanage. Sowmya Ranjendran and Nivedita Subramaniam put together a series of humorous incidents that takes place in their lives, to show us the stark reality between movies and reality. The detailed and dramatic illustrations makes reading the book an even more enjoyable experience.
This novel tells us the story of Sita, the princess of Videha, who gets married to Rama, the prince of Ayodhya. The book follows the Indian epic, Ramayana, and tells us the story of how the couple was forced to leave the comforts of the royal household and live the simple life of forest-dwellers. And, to make things tougher, Sita gets abducted by the demon-king Ravana and the task to rescue her falls on Rama. While the epic focuses on Rama and his quest to find his wife, this story focuses on Sita. They story is told to us from the perspective of Sita, and we watch her as she remains a pillar of strength through the toughest times of her life.
‘Priya’s Shakti’ by Ram Devineni, Vikas Menon and Dan Goldman
This graphic novel takes us to a small village in India, where we see a young girl, Priya, look for guidance and comfort in the arms of the goddess Parvati after a violent crime turns her life upside down. Very often, victims of rape are stigmatized. Rejected by her family, she runs away and hides in the jungle, where she is approached by Parvati, who tells her that she has the power to follow in the footsteps of India’s history of revolutionary women to bring about change. She returns to the village, riding on an enormous tiger and begins preaching about gender equality to the villagers. She starts fighting against patriarchy, misogyny and indifference towards gender-based sexual violence. Filmmaker Ram Devineni, was inspired to create this comic after the infamous 2012 Delhi gang rape. He got together with Vikas Menon to create the story-line and worked with Dan Goldman to create the illustrations.
Written by Indian-American author Keshni Kashyap and illustrated by Mari Araki, Tina’s Mouth brings to us a young sophomore who goes through a bit of an existential crisis. While the start of the novel takes us through a clichéd story of a young girl who is left behind by her best friend who discovers what it is like to be popular. An English project on existentialism leads her to write a diary addressed to Jean-Paul Sartre. She talks about everything from her highs and lows, to failed friendships, new relationships, crushes and even her family. She is brood, and yet so humorous and this story is relatable for both teenagers and adults.
Drawing from the Indian epic, Moyna Chitrakar along with Samhita Arni brings to its audience a retelling of Ramayana from Sita’s perspective. One of the things that struck Arni while reading and understanding the saga was Sita’s refusal to prove her “purity” to Rama after she is saved from Ravana. Many have bestowed the title of “ideal woman and wife” to Sita and see her refusal as a tragedy. However, to Arni this was a powerful moment. She is no longer just Rama’s wife, but a woman who has her own mind, and makes decisions based on her understanding of right and wrong. Even those who haven’t read the original legend would find this graphic novel to be a gripping and enlightening tale.
HUSH is probably one of the best graphic novels that the country has seen. It is a bold narrative about a young girl Maya, who is a victim of child sexual abuse and they tell us her story in less than 20 pages. The book has no text, with the black-and-white illustrations doing all the talking. The lack of text is symbolic of the silence that surrounds Maya’s abuse. The story is simple, as are the illustrations. The non-linear narrative can leave you confused, which means you probably have to read the book more than once. In the introduction to this tale, journalist Rahul Bhatia writes, ‘By the time [the novel] ends, everyone in it has seen too much. Life won’t be the same. And that, in a way, is what this book is about. It tells readers that the quietest stories are often the most devastating ones.’ This gem of a book is one that keeps reading even after the pages stop turning and an absolute must-read for anyone who loves art, reading or a good story.
While these two aren’t graphic novels, it seemed like a bit of an injustice not to mention them. One of them is a series of comic strips, while the other is a comic series:
‘This is Suki!’ by Manjula Padmanabhan
Created by Manjula Padmanabhan, the comic series called Double Talk published in the Sunday Observer was how Suki, a free-spirited urban Indian woman, first appeared before Indians in 1982. Then there was a four year hiatus, when people longed to see Suki again. In 1992, she returned, but this time on the pages of The Pioneer and stayed for five years. Then there was a hiatus for nineteen long years, till she returned to the pages of The Hindu Business Line in 2015 as a series called Suki Yaki.
In 2000, Duckfoot Press brought out a compilation and for anyone who ever knew Suki, it was a god-sent. When Suki first came into existence, the country only knew political cartooning. Here came this curly hair woman, who had an opinion on many things. She spoke about the absurdities of everyday life and many were taken aback to the extent that the editor received sixty indignant letters. The series was way ahead of its time, considering it spoke about a woman who may not necessarily settle down, and yet had fun. It is hilarious and witty, and relatable for women, both young and old.
Created by filmmaker Shekhar Kapur, Devi is an action-packed tale based on the story of Durga. However, in this book he chooses to place his focus on Devi, a rogue warrior who had been created by the Gods during the second century to fight off the demon-God Bala. The story, however, takes us to an entirely different era. We meet Tara Mehta, a young woman who lives in the futuristic city of Sitapur with her boyfriend. Soon we realize that Tara is a reincarnation of Dev and finds herself thrown in midst on an ancient war that has emerged all over again. Created by Shekhar Kapur in collaboration with Virgin comics, the book was written by various writers, primarily Siddharth Kotian, Samit Basu, and Saurav Mohapatra, and illustrated by Mukesh Singh, Aditya Chari, and Saumin Patel.