Rama for Beginners – a Brief History of Folkloriness in India’s Comics Industry

Here, for your enjoyment, is the abstract, Introduction, and, oh right, the full article (!!) for the very first article that I ever wrote about Indian comics culture. I originally composed and presented this work before I had done fieldwork or met any of the many amazing comics creators, editors, and otherwise who I would encounter in Delhi. So, it’s sadly missing some of what I consider the most exciting parts of my work!

But it still covers some interesting shifts in comics culture in India, and some of the seeming ever-present epic narratives, stylistic influence, and visual storytelling traditions that one finds in the work of many comics creators. I’m not so sure that the participatory aspects I highlight really work at the corporate level of comics — but it’s definitely part of the creative process for comics makers now, even if they connect more directly with folk artists who still tell stories in traditional media (like picture scrolls).

Without, further ado, here’s the Abstract and Intro, as promised. But you could always just click the link above for a redirect to the Folklore Forum website…which is much more fun.

Rama for Beginners:  Bridging Indian Folk and Comics Cultures

Jeremy Stoll
Indiana University

Abstract:

In the boom of recent comics scholarship, the comic art of India has received little attention compared to that of other nations, the United States, France, and Japan in particular. Through a basis in religious and folk narratives, Indian comics narratives, especially those published by the Amar Chitra Katha series, have worked to update folk tales, retelling them in a modern medium. By looking at the figure of Rama in the Amar Chitra Katha and other Indian comics, this paper will analyze the process and implications of this transformation. In particular, the analysis of Rama as contemporary hero will reveal how these stories help people to deal with daily life at the same time that they affirm another, older way of understanding the world. This paper will thus demonstrate how comics creators in India have adapted the comic book to effectively re-maneuver traditional tales as a modern, folkloric inheritance to future generations.

Introduction: Revitalizing Stories

In the boom of recent comic book and graphic novel scholarship, the comic art of India has received little attention compared to that of other nations, the United States, France, and Japan in particular. Even within an especially vivid and lively visual culture, though, Indian comics narratives have taken on a special role in revitalizing traditional storytelling. Through a basis in religious and folk narratives, these stories, especially those published by the Amar Chitra Katha series, have worked to update folk tales, retelling them in a modern medium. In 1967, Anant Pai founded India’s first nationally distributed comics company with locally based artists and authors. With the name Amar Chitra Katha, or Immortal Picture Stories, Pai intended ACK to bridge the gap between a burgeoning middle class and the traditional culture that they seemed to be leaving behind in favor of industrialization. With wide circulation, distribution, and even incorporation into school coursework, ACK has become the benchmark for much of Indian comics culture. By looking at the figure of Rama in the Amar Chitra Katha and other Indian comics, this article analyzes the process and implications of this transformation from folk to mass media. In particular, the analysis of Rama as contemporary hero reveals how Indian comics creators are participating in traditional storytelling.

Each narrative not only requires the audience to have preexisting knowledge of the stories, but also exists alongside other stories, where other parts of the Hindu worldview and India’s history are provided. In addition, by relating the mythical and historical function of heroes like Rama, these comic narratives provide a ‘time out of time’ for readers, yet one that also pushes for an ever-current presence of traditional worldview. These stories thus help people to deal with daily life at the same time that they affirm another, older way of understanding the world. Through this analysis, this paper will demonstrate how, although the comics format in other contexts has lent itself to episodic, commodifiable narratives, comics creators in India have adapted the comic book to effectively re-maneuver traditional tales as a modern, folkloric inheritance to future generations.

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