Fifteen years ago, when artist Orijit Sen produced India's first graphic novel — a story about the Narmada valley dam protest movement — he was only able to print the book with the help of government funding, and distribution meant carrying copies of the book to stores and trying to explain why it didn't belong in the children's section.
“No publisher would consider publishing something like a comic book,” Sen said. “We were only able to publish it with the help of a small grant from the government, and the government didn't know what we were using it for, obviously.”
The scene is different now.
"In the earlier part of the decade, in India, comics were still perceived as 'kids products,' whereas in the last five years a new generation of world-class Indian creators have begun expanding the boundaries of the medium and transforming its perception within India as a viable foundation to create compelling stories that are not defined by age or genre, just like other visual storytelling mediums such as film and television,” said Sharad Devarajan, co-founder and CEO of Liquid Comics.Following in the footsteps of genre-pioneer Art Spiegelman (Maus) and recent sensation Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), a new group of Indian comic book artists who call themselves “the Pao Collective” are fighting to make the Indian graphic novel a publishing phenomenon to rival so-called “Indian writing in English” — a virtual factory for Booker Prize winners.
The Pao Collective joined forces about a year ago, inspired by painter and comic book scholar Amitabh Kumar, who was researching Indian popular culture at the Delhi-based Sarai Media Lab. Recognizing that the commercial houses were evolving on a studio model that to some degree stifled creativity, Kumar approached the country's small set of successful graphic novelists to form a group that could nurture young artists, promote the comic book medium, and further blur the lines between art, literature, and the comic book.
Along with Kumar, the Pao (or “bread”) Collective comprises Sarnath Banerjee, Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Orijit Sen and Parismita Singh — each of whom has emerged as a pioneer of the Indian literary graphic novel. Sen, whose 1994 “River of Stories” was a compelling comic about a young activist confronting the tragedy of the Narmada Dam Project, is often credited with introducing the graphic novel in India.
“It's on the fringe of art and the fringe of literature, which is great,” said Banerjee. “Who wants to be in art, and who wants to be in literature? The time has come for the graphic novel to be looked into from outside the parameters of literature and outside the parameters of art.”
To start that process, Pao will soon bring out an anthology of new and veteran Indian comic book artists in conjunction with a major international publishing house. Though all the material has not yet been selected, the depth and variety of the work that has been chosen so far sounds promising.
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