This past spring, an article by me was published in the International Journal of Comic Art on the history of comics as a medium in India. It was based on a chapter from my dissertation, and so there’s a fair amount of detail that had to be cut out to make space for the point of the article, namely tracing patterns in the history of one comics culture. Originally, it involved more about what it means for creators to make a history of their medium, and there was more about the creator who helped ground the piece, Amitabh Kumar (who is doing really great street mural work — see here; also, here’s his blog).
Anyway, just to wet your appetite, and because IJOCA is not available online to my knowledge, here is a short, sneak peak at said piece, with one image, the cover of one of Kumar’s books. Enjoy!
Oh, and yes, you’re absolutely right — this is my way of defaulting on the next few comics posts for a while longer — too many projects, not enough time! And now back to working on that international comics anthology…
A Creator’s History of the Comics Medium in India
Excerpt from International Journal of Comic Art. Ed. John Lent. Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring 2013): pp. 363-82.
Before the early 1970s, the only comic books in India were Western ones, including the adventure stories of The Times of India’s Indrajaal imprint, namely The Phantom, Archie, James Bond, Flash Gordon, and other Western comics, as well as those published by Diamond Comics. However, they foreshadowed the then-soon rise of some of the most popular and important publishers in Indian comics culture. These included religious and historical stories for children, as well as stories modeled on American superheroes and contemporary Indian politics.
Despite this variety, though, much scholarship has tended to focus on just a small sampling, mainly the most widely distributed among India’s comics narratives. In an insightful analysis of India’s comics culture, Aruna Rao, in “From Self Knowledge to Super Heroes: the Story of Indian Comics,” describes the shift from the first Western comics in the 1970s, to the nationalist comics of the 1980’s, and the regional, often superhero-focused comics of the 1990s. Although Rao details the history of both religious and adventure comics, she places a great value upon the Amar Chitra Katha series of the 1970s and 80s because its stories deal with religion and history instead of superheroes and pulp storytelling. Similarly, Karline McLain, in 2010’s India’s Immortal Comic Books, focuses upon the Amar Chitra Katha series; she analyzes the roots, artistic processes, and cultural contexts for ACK in great depth.
As the most widely published and read Indian comics, books from this series are the ones that most scholars have focused upon, to the detriment of understanding the wider context of India’s comics, storytelling, and visual cultures. While Indrajaal and other publishers set a strong precedent for the comics medium in the 1960s and 70s, Amar Chitra Katha would eventually transcend them in popularity. ACK’s religious, historical, folkloric, and other stories would build upon rather than imitate these earlier examples. Yet, these works are important for their ability to engage local or regional arts and international comics culture. More importantly, few have addressed the work of contemporary comics creators or the graphic novels and comics currently coming out of New Delhi and the rest of India.
This article provides a historical account of the path from comic books to the later rise of graphic novels grounded in one creator, Amitabh Kumar’s, experiences as an author and researcher on Indian comics and culture. As an artist, he graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts, MSU Baroda. He has been a researcher with Sarai Media Lab, within the larger Sarai Center for the Study of Developing Societies, since 2006. As a researcher there, Kumar pursued an interest in comics by interviewing comics creators as part of the Research Project on Raj Comics and Graphic Novel Culture in Delhi. Through this research, he began a collaboration with Raj in creating a comics narrative to celebrate and historicize the Raj Comics repertoire.
In the resulting book, Raj Comics for the Hard-Headed, published in 2008, Kumar argues for the importance of Raj Comics in the history of India’s comics culture. In particular, he celebrates their historical role in maintaining comics as a narrative medium while other publishers ceased. Kumar would continue his comics work with short stories, the illustration of Tinker. Solder. Tap, a short graphic novel written by Bhagwati Prasad on the transition to television in a Delhi suburb, and as a muralist, particularly in his Projectile Prophecies series (Images 1 and 2). Kumar’s perspective serves as a strong foundation for a broad account of the history of comics in Indian culture as he works to establish a historical narrative himself while engaging with that precedent in crafting his own comics. This history is important for creators, as well as scholars, because both build upon the comics narratives that have come before, from political cartoons to superhero comics and graphic novels.
Finding the Roots
With the recent rise of graphic novels in Delhi in the 2000’s, creators have generally asserted that the comics medium is, in and of itself, a distinctive medium. In fact, creators have often turned to international comics culture in defending their narratives as more than just children’s stories. This is because comics have historically been defended as children’s literature in India, and incorporated as such into education systems in India, where the medium could be approached as more than a vulgar medium capable only of entertainment. Unlike in the United States, comics as a medium has long been associated with education in this context, largely due to the importance of the Amar Chitra Katha series, which was the earliest indigenous comics series. The development of comics in India thus involves a move not only from nationalism to regionalism, and even localization, but also from the defensive posture of incorporation into existing children’s literature to independence as a medium unto itself.
As the earliest indigenous comic books in India, the Amar Chitra Katha series set a strong precedent, one which has dictated comics content and style for decades since. However, the earliest example of comic strips in India is the Avadh or Oudh Punch, a late 19th century satirical magazines that was inspired by the British Punch. The Punch was originally a satirical magazine of comic strips and other material started in 1841 in London (Hasan 2007). Many countries under the yoke of the British Empire imitated the Punch in order to criticize their rule. As the first newspaper with recognizable comic strips or cartoons, Oudh inspired many authors and artists in its weekly publication of poetry, essays, and comics from 1877 to 1936 (Hasan 2007).
Kumar, meanwhile, links the development of the Indian version of the Punch to the longer, historical process of comics’ development. In particular, he connects the Indian medium to progenitors of Western comics in England, namely ‘Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday,’ which is extraordinary for being the first comics magazine to be titled after and illustrate the adventures of a regular character (Sabin 2001). “If you try to connect with the history of comics globally, and ‘Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday’ and the distribution, it [comics] started as a weekly, an illustrated weekly. After the weekly, there was this illustrated pamphlet called the Punch, and a version of that was imported to India.” Kumar thus references the international context for comics culture in India. Before “Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday,” the history of comics in Britain was a movement from the Edwardian broadsheet of the early 20th century to youth-focused funny papers in the 1930s, and later forms that would evolve into what is now recognized as comics (Sabin 2001). Kumar demonstrates that his own understanding of comics history is grounded in an international perspective of its history as a Western medium. Furthermore, Avadh and the other seventy or so Punch magazines published in over twelve Indian cities by the end of the 19th century were part of the print revolution in Delhi and the Northwest provinces of Agra and Awadh (Hasan 2007).
Accordingly, the Oudh Punch is generally recognized as the earliest root of comics in Indian culture, as well as the roots of the vernacular press. Kumar further notes that “Oudh Punch was this spoof on The Punch basically, and that to my mind, is one of the earliest forms of illustrated texts. But then again, the argument is that illustrated texts have always existed in India.” Several creators and readers have connected the Indian comics medium to pre-existing artistic forms and traditions, particularly folk storytelling forms like the patua scrolls of Bengal and the Gond painting tradition. Kumar notes in a blog post for the Pao Collective that the roots of Indian comics are difficult to solidify, as they may begin with Oudh, with the illustrated Daastan-E-Amir Haamza manuscript of Mughal Emperor Akbar, or any number of image-texts (Kumar 2008). When asked about the place of Indian, visual culture or storytelling in the history of comics, Kumar pointed out that defining the medium is a tense and difficult process. “It automatically gets into a very complicated territory when you use the word Indian. Because there are just so many layers to that. Because now it has also entered the domain of the sort of graphic, published books found in book shops. There is this katha form of storytelling, there is this patua tradition, which is also a form of storytelling, there is various traditional forms all around India.” While the Oudh Punch serves as an important entry point for creators to draw together Indian and international comics culture, by the 2000s, local, visual culture influenced comics in a different, more contentious way. Yet, in terms of the roots of the comics form, Kumar chooses to focus on the rather clearer history of the comics medium after independence, as focusing on earlier works seems, at best, unfruitful (Kumar 2010). He points out that arguing over what is or is not ‘100% comics’ is futile. In Raj Comics for the Hard-Headed, he asks, “how fruitful would it be to hold onto an imagination of the ‘puritan’ or an ‘original?’ (Kumar 2010). This is an especially vivid point in the context of various creators, who each draw on a variety of sources for inspiration.
Before the widespread distribution of comics, though, the Oudh provided a precedent for comics storytelling. From there, as noted earlier, the comic books present in India before the early 1970s were largely Western ones, from adventure comics like Lee Falk’s The Phantom and tales of World War II in the popular Commando series, to children’s comics like Archie (Rao 2001). In large part, this saturation of Western comics was the result of British influence and import by soldiers or expats living in India (Rao 2001). In the case of the Phantom series, though, these earliest comics were imported in order for publishing houses to take advantage of as yet un-tapped younger audiences.
As Rao and Kumar both note, many involved in India’s comics culture trace the development of comics back to Anant Pai, the man who started Amar Chitra Katha, due to his involvement in persuading The Times of India to publish The Phantom rather than the then-editor’s favorite, Superman, in their dailies (Rao 2001; Kumar 2010). Based upon interviews with potential readers, Pai argued that the jungle setting would be more familiar to readers while still telling adventurous tales that appealed to young readers. From his point of view, merely importing Western comics was not enough and likely reinforced problems with the Indian education system. (Rao 2001) Through him, and based upon the precedent set by both the Times dailies and Western comics, production and distribution shifted to the national level.
As writer, editor, and publisher of ACK, Pai was the leader behind the series, but he drew on several precedents in Indian culture. For one, Chandamama, a family-owned monthly children’s magazine, had already been publishing stories where both illustrations and an oral storytelling style played an important role since 1947 (Chandamama 2012). Similarly, several other publications intended for children, such as the Champak magazine, had already set a model for producing stories for young readers that engaged both visual and textual media. Later, in the 1960s, several creators and political cartoonists were publishing some of the earliest comics narratives in India based out of West Bengal. Within that culture, Pratulchandra Lahiri focused on strips for local newspapers, Mayukh Choudhury created action/adventure and historical stories, Tushar Kanti Chatterjee did detective comics for the magazine Shuktara, and Narayan Debnath crafted strips later published as books (Mukherjee 2011). Debnath is significant, in particular, because his Batul the Great is likely the earliest of India’s superheroes, having been created long before Raj Comics began publishing (Deb 2007). Within this context, it was thus neither the educational approach nor the similarities to Western comics that made Amar Chitra Katha an innovative series.
Yet, Pai did uniquely work to develop comics as an industry, primarily through a divided model of production, much like that of the later Raj Comics. As Nandini Chandra notes in recognizing the roots of ACK comics as “…products of the capitalist mode of production which [seek] to mask [their] commodity existence,” Anant Pai was likely drawing on international discourse in the creation of India Book House and ACK (Chandra 2010: 202). In particular, as Pai turned from Indrajal’s intended mix of Western and local stories to ACK, he was likely influenced by UNESCO’s 1967 endorsement of the use of comics for communicating cultural values (Chandra 2010). His use of the term “cultural heritage” thus related to international discourse at the time, a relationship that shaped much of India’s comics culture afterwards. At the same time, though, as a result of the generally Western quality of imported comics, Pai was driven by a desire to focus on daily life in contemporary India. However, by 1967, despite his initial enthusiasm for Indrajal, only three years after the publication of its first issue, Pai grew dissatisfied as the local comics section, which he valued most, became replaced by quizzes and other educational content (McLain 2009; Chandra 2010).
Pai would then turn to the Amar Chitra Katha series and developing it into one of the most important publishers in Indian comics culture. Despite later criticism of the ACK series, Pai expertly argued for its stories as educational and helped to incorporate them into school curricula. Through his work, what began with 20,000 issues in the three years following the first run of ACK’s “Krishna” then exploded into five regional languages, in addition to English, and beyond, as well as five million issues sold per year (Kapada, cited in Rao 2001). ACK thus laid a strong foundation for Indian comics, albeit one firmly grounded in a young readership.
The cover of Raj Comics for the Hard-Headed, by Amitabh Kumar, (Delhi: Sarai Programme, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, 2008).