Saturday, November 03, 2012

Art, craft and orange tones: a mouthful of Pao

[Did this review for the Hindu]

In the Q&A session that introduces this dynamic comics anthology, Parismita Singh – one of the five members of the Pao Collective – gives a wise answer to the question of how one should “read” a comic: “Quickly, greedily, racing to the end. And then a slow return: go back to the beginning, savour it, read only the orange or the grey tones. The next time pick another element...and so on.”

Any comic buff will know how rewarding this process can be – assuming that it is applied to rigorous, well-integrated graphic stories, as opposed to literal-minded comics where each panel is a drab illustration of the text accompanying it. Pao, which brings together many skilled artists and writers, is anything but drab. And so, after you have raced greedily – to use Singh’s formulation –through each narrative, it is possible to scrutinise the stories more closely and appreciate how text and visuals inform or bounce off each other. You might pause to take in the striking use of the colour pink in two unrelated stories (one about anonymous “helmetmen” in a world afflicted with terrorism and suspicion, the other about an insurance agent w
ho transforms into a flamingo). Or the sinister patches of red amidst black-and-white drawings in the gorily deadpan “Hindus & Offal”, credited to Ambarish Satwik and Pia Alize Hazarika but just as likely the result of a partnership between Hannibal Lecter and a theology student. Or you might note, in a panel where a distracted mother fails to register what her son is telling her about his US trip, that the brand-name on the matchbox in her hand is “Tube Light”. Little delights like these ensure that this book has plenty of repeat value.

Understandably, some of the best work here comes from the “Paoists” themselves. Orijit Sen’s “Hair Burns Like Grass” – a story in progress, done mainly in charcoal – is a gorgeous-looking account of the life and work of the poet Kabir, interspersed with the memories of an old man living in our times; on this evidence the complete book should be one of the major achievements in Indian graphic novels. Singh’s “Sleepscapes”, with its shape-shifting forms, is equally mesmerising in a different way, as an emaciated dog resolves itself into a cloud and the laws of physics are made subservient to the logic of a nightmare-world (where a blabbering, Arnab Goswami-like newsreader threatens to “protect” viewers from jihad with his news-channel).

In his inventive take on cultural confusion in “RSVP”, Vishwajyoti Ghosh uses a classical, sepia-like style to depict a milieu where cellphones and gramophones coexist, and where the workings of a colonial mindset are revealed through the use of quaint, old-world spelling and phrases (“Fab Indies”, “Hindoo”, “Nayi Dehli”) in an otherwise modern setting. Sarnath Banerjee brings another form of nostalgia – and infectiously droll humour – to “Tito Years”, an account of a boy growing up in pre-liberalisation India and hankering for foreign-brand shoes. Banerjee makes characteristically funny use of mixed media: an image of Subhas Chandra Bose performing a salute represents the much-anticipated arrival of a US-based cousin on an India visit; a Nike is obscenely superimposed on Bruce Lee’s feet in a page-length photo; a boy unwrapping a box of precious shoes is depicted as a surgeon gingerly wielding his tools. But the last panel, which has the narrator drily calling his dad a “cheap bastard”, also has a poignant quality – what the father is doing should be instantly relatable to anyone who has ever known a middle-class parent trying hard to meet a child’s impractical wants.

Some stories read like fragments torn from a more sprawling project: Sanjay Ghosh’s “Print Screen”, about a dreamy wannabe artist with Van Gogh on his mind, has an incomplete feel to it. Others work as stand-alones: the minimalist but effective “Tattoo” (Lakshmi Indrasimhan, Jacob Weinstein) has men opting for primitive tattoo designs like snakes and scorpions but soon graduating to plush multi-storeyed buildings in what may be a sly comment on the egoistic and competitive urges that build
what we call civilisation. And though “The Afterlife of Ammi’s Betelnut Box” (Iram Ghufran, Ikroop Sandhu) is laid out as a text-driven story with smatterings of images, it would be a mistake to only read the text and dimly register the drawings; Sandhu and Mitoo Das’s artwork, some of the most intricate in the book, is vital to the full effect of this tale about an old lady and her djinns.

Finally, what would an Indian graphic-story collection be without a retelling of a well-known mythological tale? In “Chilka” (Vidyun Sabhaney, Shohei Emura), the Mahabharata war is filtered through some of the more hysterical tropes of manga, such as characters yelling dramatically at each other (if a revered artist like Osamu Tezuka could do this successfully with the Buddha’s life, why not?). There are lunatic twists in the tale: grand epic tragedy meets slapstick comedy when Karna’s chariot wheel is undone not by an ancient curse but by a vagrant banana peel. However, you won’t find many other slip-ups in this wide-ranging book.


  1. Great review. I am specially interested in Satwik's work. Wonder if you have came across his book? Here is a review

    It sounds interesting, to say the least.

  2. Rahul: yes, I've enjoyed Satwik's work very much, including his columns - he has a very distinct sensibility as a thinker/writer. Had commissioned a piece by him for the Tehelka short-fiction special I put together in 2008, subsequently published in book form by Hachette (see here and here).