It’s still way too early to make strong pronouncements, but signs are that the desi graphic novel is coming of age. When Sarnath Banerjee's Corridor, widely marketed as the first Indian entry in the medium, was published in 2004, the response was mixed: it was widely felt that though Corridor was clever, and good for a few belly-laughs, it didn't break new ground – the drawings in particular didn’t meet the high standards fans of international graphic novels have come to expect.
But with his second book, a much more substantial work titled The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers, there's more to cheer about for aficionados. This is a sprawling story that covers many time-periods and places but is, for the most part, set in 18th century Calcutta – a place populated by a number of colourful character types, and Banerjee does them all justice in a work that is a definite pointer to his artistic growth. The droll humour of Corridor is still in place and the illustrations are more assured: just flip through a few pages of Corridor and then do the same with a few pages of The Barn Owl's…, you'll see the difference. (Thanks to Shamya for alerting me to the book; I would probably have delayed reading it otherwise.)
Last year, Banerjee and Anindya Roy co-founded Phantomville, a publishing house exclusively for graphic novels (and a brave venture for the Indian market). Their first publication was The Believers, a poignant but unspectacular story about a Muslim man returning from Edinburgh to the small Kerala town he grew up in and discovering that his older brother has become involved with a terrorist operation. This was not much more than a moderately engrossing tale told in (moderately well-drawn) pictures; what it had going for it was the price (Rs 150), very low by graphic novel standards.
But with Phantomville's second publication, the bar has once again been raised. Kashmir Pending, written by Naseer Ahmed and drawn by Saurabh Singh, is – visually at least – a more ambitious work than its predecessor. For me, the interesting thing about this book is that content takes a backseat to form. This is a welcome sign because the Indian graphic novel is always in danger of becoming pedantic, attaching too much importance to depth of subject matter and message, and not enough to how that message is conveyed. Internationally, the medium has developed to the extent that the genre of the stories being told is not a big issue. What matters is the execution: if the writing and artwork are intelligent, provocative and play off each other well, even a Batman story can attain the level of High Art. In India, that level of comfort will take some time to achieve. (During a chat with Anindya Roy last year I got the impression that there was a conservatism at work – that he was overly concerned with the potential of comics to spread awareness about social and political issues. "Most people are uncomfortable enough with the format in the first place,” he told me, “so giving them, say, fantasy stories in this format will mean setting up a double barrier. In the initial stages we will concentrate on human stories – dramatic narratives about some of the issues facing the country, which people can relate to.”)
Given all this, I was impressed by the quality of the drawings in Kashmir Pending. The plot itself is fairly straightforward: it’s about unrest in the Valley, about confused and easily manipulated youngsters becoming pawns in the hands of larger forces, the subtext being that it falls to individual conscience to end the cycle of violence in Kashmir. But the real highlight of this book is Saurabh Singh's artwork, in particular the many tenebrous images of prisoners sitting in shadowy cells, praying, passing cigarettes to each other, recounting their experiences, their sunken faces only half-visible (the artist makes very effective use of red and black). The storyboarding is also more complex than it was in The Believers, with panels bleeding into each other, and effective use of cinematic devices such as cross-cutting and sudden movement from long-shots to close-ups. [Note: the image shown here isn’t among the better examples – will try to replace it later.]
One of the challenges that Phantomville faces is supervising what can be a torturous artistic collaboration. The best graphic novels seek to attain a perfect balance between the written word and the visual, and this requires just the right synergy between writer and illustrator. Though I’m sure there are many fine writers and artists in India, most of them would still be unfamiliar with that collaborative process, at least when it comes to working on a book-length project. Hopefully this will change soon, so the medium can build on the promise shown by the last couple of titles.
(Next on Phantomville's catalogue is a collection of four short stories dealing with life in contemporary India, including issues of sexuality. Looking forward to how that turns out.)