Show and tell

The graphic novel in India.

'Graphic novelists are influential in an arena where nobody cares about influence.'
– Sarnath Banerjee, in conversation 

The graphic novel in India is a bastard child with many snarling parents. The anxiety related to its influences, to borrow the literary critic Harold Bloom's hoary phrase, are both vicious and various. How is one to trace this heritage? A casual empiricist would say that the story of the graphic novel begins with Will Eisner and R Crumb in the 1960s, or perhaps with the Superman comics of the 1930s. A purist would head back to the 19th century, to credit Rodolphe Töpffer with founder-status. Scott McCloud, the ultimate comics nerd, would take you all the way to Sumerian cuneiform.

To trace the history of the genre in the Subcontinent, we can turn to Alok Sharma, an encyclopaedia of lost cities and forgotten heroes, and the director of the documentary Chitrakatha: Indian comics beyond balloons and panels, soon to be released. From pioneer Indrajal Comics during the 1960s to the chart-busting Raj Comics of the early 1990s, Sharma unveils something of a hidden history of the genre. Indrajal Comics, Anant Pai's maiden venture, introduced figures such as Phantom and Mandrake alongside indigenous characters, beginning the region's long tango with the Western tradition of comic art. Uncle Pai continued this tradition of inter-mixture in Amar Chitra Katha (ACK), early editions of which were illustrated Western fairytales. The Story of Krishna made its debut as ACK #11 and sparked off a boom in Indian comics. Its influence eventually became so wide-ranging that it inspired a graphic novel in turn, Rogan Gosh, by the British duo Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy. The science-fiction legend Roger Zelazny is said to have kept a stack of ACKs by his bed during the writing of his well-regarded Lord of Light.

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