A Bit More Research — “A History of the Pao Collective”

Well, the past few months have flown by — with the American Folklore Society meeting in late October and the American Anthropological Association meeting last month, as well as Thanksgiving and the wrapping-up of my Anthropology of Popular Culture course this semester. I do still have a pile of final ethnographic projects to read this semester, and I must admit that I am looking forward to it. The projects include papers on craft brewing clubs, knitting in the digital age, dance groups, and gamer culture, so how could I not?

I will miss the conversations that I had with my students in Pop Culture, but it’s time to look forward to my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course next semester. And to all the projects that I hope to finish off before I head home for the holidays! There should be a post or two coming about some projects that had to be put on the back burner this semester — namely the next Battle comic, Sadie Hawkins chapter, and a new, original comic.

In the mean time, here is a little Holiday/Winter Solstice/Christmas present for you, dear reader. I recently had an article published in the International Journal of Comic Art on the history of the Pao Collective in Delhi. I am especially proud of this piece because it fills a bit of a blindspot in research on comics in India, in terms of how Pao came to be, and because I had enough time to incorporate some feedback from the members of Pao. In any case, here are the first two sections — the Introduction and the first main point — as a bit of a spoiler.

 

Bread and Comics: A History of the Pao Collective

Jeremy Stoll

In Indian comics culture, there is a small group of five creators who have worked hard to push the medium forward. Together, they represent some of the most insightful and innovative comics creators in India today. Only one year ago, in September of 2012, this group came together with other, associated artists and authors to talk about their work, participate in live drawing, and reconnect with fellow visual storytellers at the release of their first anthology at Max Mueller Bhavan in New Delhi (Fig. 1). From graphic novels to political cartoons, strips, and other kinds of visual storytellings, the Pao Collective has set the bar for creative excellence high in Indian comics. Their anthology, Pao: the Anthology of Comics Volume 1 and the critical praise for it, as well as multiple events, publications, and even some research projects, have proven their importance, especially for long-form comics and stories about everyday life in South Asia.

In this article, I will provide a brief history of the Pao Collective, leading to and beyond their recent anthology in 2012. Along the way, I will shine a light on the main challenges and issues that Pao’s members, including Orijit Sen, Sarnath Banerjee, Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Parismita Singh, and Amitabh Kumar, have addressed in coming together as a collective. Throughout, I am grounded in fieldwork and interviews that I performed in 2010 and 2013 in Delhi, India, alongside and through the generosity of the Pao Collective and many other comics creators.[i] As a folklorist, I am dedicated to giving them a voice in my work while providing a history for their resources; as a result, quotes from interviews that I performed with them support the larger framework of this piece. In particular, I will describe how these five individuals became important figures in Indian comics, how they then came together in order to put forth a platform for comics culture, how they worked on Pao: the Anthology of Comics, and finally, what they see as the future of their community and organization.

  1. The Creators

The Pao Collective consists of five primary members working together to support comics as a medium and a culture in India. Originally, they imagined establishing an outpost of sorts for comics culture in Delhi, from which they could reach out to and support creators in other cities and areas around the country. In an article from Pao’s early days, Anushree Majumdar notes that “The flat in Saket [where they meet] is going to be converted into a studio space for members of the Collective and other comic book artists and enthusiasts to meet and talk shop. [Amitabh] Kumar is eager about organizing a residency in the hills, with revenue generated from freelance work” (2009). They discussed the creation of a studio and even a publishing house, through which comics culture could be brought to the masses. As the youngest member of Pao, Kumar described the importance of the collective to me: “Pao has a huge stake in Indian comics culture. We want a center, a physical space, where we can have an archive, a reading room, and a studio. That was always part of the plan, to have institutional support and to go do workshops around the country.” Before these plans for investing in Indian comics culture, though, the various members of Pao came together as individual comics creators. In particular, as Kumar pointed out in the above, early article on Pao, they were brought together by an understanding of the urgent need for a platform or other organized setup to promote comics stories and culture (Majumdar 2009).

The eldest member, having published one of the first long-form comics in India in 1994, is Orijit Sen. Having trained at the National Institute of Design in 1987, Sen has exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, at other venues in Russia and France, and has worked on multiple exhibitions and other projects. Along the way, he has worked as a graphic designer, illustrator, and visual artist. In 1990, Sen and his equally talented and design-oriented wife Gurpreet Sidhu started the inimitable and socially conscious design house, studio, and shop People Tree. Sen has the longest tenure in comics, from River through his illustration work for Trash!: On Ragpicker Children and Recycling (2004) and his work on IMUNG: Manipur Home Care Handbook, a guide for HIV and AIDS healthcare in that area, as well as single page comics in India Magazine and a set of short comics for the National Council for Education Research and Training. He has done work outside the normal expectations for comics creators, including walk-through mural experience modeled on the reading of comics and other public arts work.[ii] Unsurprisingly, Sen has a tendency to pull out masterpieces and other work that he has done in the past, including the cover image for Pao: the Anthology of Comics, which he originally created in the 1990s (Fig. 2 and 3). He also provides clarity in visual style and feedback – cutting to the point while framing that point within the soft blow of story, often in the same breath that he brings a sense of levity and friendly support.

Alongside Sen, perhaps the most well-known member of the Pao Collective is the charismatic and playful Sarnath Banerjee. As the creator of India’s first self-described graphic novel and, with Anindya Roy, a partner in one of its earliest publishers, Phantomville, Banerjee is also the most prolific of Pao’s members. His Corridor: A Graphic Novel (2004) established a comics shelf in bookstores, while his later Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers (2007) and The Harappa Files (2011) challenged the boundaries of the form and established him as a master comics creator long before Pao: the Anthology (Fig. 4). Banerjee is also a worldly filmmaker, traveler and storyteller, having earned his MA in Image and Communication from Goldsmiths College in London after studying Biochemistry at Delhi University. He has also maintained international connections with other media creators, from participating in the Comica: London International Comics Festival, to working with the Asia Europe Foundation in 2007 on the Lingua Comica project. In addition, he created billboards for the 2012 London Olympics around “A History of Losers” and has exhibited in venues around the world, from Sao Paolo to Tokyo, Delhi to Hong Kong, Paris and London (Gravett 2010; Regarding India 2012). Most recently, Banerjee moved to Berlin, Germany, after his wife, the talented Pakistani artist Bani Abidi, was offered a one-year fellowship with the German Academic Exchange Service. Due to continuing tensions between India and Pakistan, Banerjee and Abidi have remained in Berlin, where he currently creates his most recent work, the “Enchanted Geography” series for The Hindu, in which he returns to the character of Brighu from Corridor (“Enchanted Geographies” 2013). Among Pao’s members, Banerjee has the strongest networks in arts and culture, and he brings his persuasive charms and instinct for vivid storytelling to supporting the other members and their work.

Historically, Banerjee and political cartoonist, designer, and fellow filmmaker Vishwajyoti Ghosh originally met Orijit Sen during their college years. While Banerjee connected with him through their respective comics, Ghosh worked with Sen in the early days of People Tree, hand-painting and selling t-shirts to supplement his education at a government art college. Ghosh would go on to earn his MA in Mass Communication from Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi and then work at a television company, where he would lose his appetite for filmmaking. Retreating to work on social communications at an ad agency, Ghosh rediscovered his passion for comics and, in turn, for filmmaking, too. Afterwards, he spent four months in France as part of a fellowship, working with Guy Delisle and the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo; this work then led to an exhibition of work inspired by that trip at the French Embassy in 2006 (“Of Comic Strips and Drawings”). In the meantime, Ghosh started work with Inverted Commas, a socially conscious communications initiative, in 2004, while also working on a comics column called “Backlog” in Little Magazine and another called “Acid Test” in Down to Earth. Ghosh simultaneously maintained involvement in international comics culture, having attended the Angouleme festival twice, and with contributions to the Indo-Swiss collection, When Kulbushan Met Stöckli, as well as the anthologies Ctrl.Alt.Shift Unmasks Corruption and the collection resulting from the Lingua Comica project mentioned above. In 2009, He also published a collection of postcards, Times New Roman and Countryman, that contrasted images from popular Hindi films with excerpts from classified advertisements. Having earned a political cartooning award as a child, Ghosh was hardly new to the medium, but his renewed passion led to his continuing political cartoon strip, “Full Toss,” in the Hindustan Times, to the publication of his graphic novel, Delhi Calm, in 2010, and to his work with Pao (Fig. 5). Through all of these experiences, Ghosh provides a critical yet supportive voice that strengthens the Pao Collective while grounding their creative work in a larger social context.

The connections between these three would be strengthened by a series of events that would connect them to creators Amitabh Kumar and Parismita Singh. The events were organized by the Sarai Center for the Study of Developing Societies and the French Information and Resource Center between 2007 and 2009. The earliest event, in December of 2007, was Co-mix/Comics: A Workshop on Comics and Graphic Novels, where participants would “learn storyboarding and characterization, think about researching comic books, get a crash course in comic book culture, and get to meet and interact with graphic novelists Sarnath Banerjee and Parismita Singh” (Sarai CSDS 2007). Both Singh and Banerjee were Sarai fellows, so their presence is not surprising, and this event was followed by The Comix Workshop, led by Orijit Sen in January of 2008. The goal of that workshop was to address India’s seeming comics boom, as well as questions around how to talk about comics, share knowledge, build a practice and readership.

For many, including Sen, this series of workshops and presentations was a revelation because they created a space to talk about comics. As he described to me, “It was a process of discovering that there are other people around who are doing this, who know about comics. Until then, I was under the impression that I was probably the only one in the whole country who even thought about comics.” He describes how having a chance to talk to other comics creators and fans was something new and inspiring that people wanted to continue. Sen added: “I remember that we had a conversation at the end of the Sarai workshop about how we should take comics forward, or what we should do with comics.” As the workshops and presentations came to an end, Sen, Banerjee, Ghosh, and others all came to recognize that they wanted regular meetings with like-minded folks to talk about and push forward the comics medium in India.

By that point, comics artist, illustrator, and researcher Parismita Singh had already met Orijit Sen during a previous presentation at the French Cultural Center. She had also been working as a research fellow with Sarai CSDS, just as Banerjee had been – as evidenced by their mutual presence at the Co-mix/Comics Workshop and their individual comics publications in the Sarai Reader series. Before getting involved in the Pao Collective, Singh attended St. Stephen’s College in Delhi and produced visual narratives for Tehelka and the Little Magazine. She pursued fieldwork with children in Assam on problems with educational institutions, an experience that has inspired her storytelling and influenced her creative process. Her interest in folklore, storytelling, and young peoples’ experiences would lead to her creation and publication of Hotel at the End of the World in 2009. Singh would later publish shorter stories in Time Out and in a weekly comics strip in The Siruvar Malar, which is the supplement of the Dina Malar News Paper in Tamil Nadu, while working with Pao (Fig. 6). Most recently, she has been working on one-page stories with Manta Ray Comics’ The Small Picture, which comes out every Wednesday in the print and online version of Mint newspaper. Her multiple backgrounds make Singh a formidable ally and resource for Pao – holding members to deadlines while providing insightful criticism and support rooted in a love for visual storytelling.

Finally, but neither last nor least among the members of the Pao Collective, Amitabh Kumar is possibly the most important in the group’s history. As a graduate of the Faculty of Fine Arts, MSU, Baroda, Kumar joined the Media Lab in Sarai-CSDS, and set out to do his research on contemporary graphic novels in Delhi by performing interviews with Sen, Banerjee, Ghosh, and Singh.[iii] While speaking with each of these creators and others, Kumar noted a general need for a space where creators could come together for more collaboration and community. Through organizing the aforementioned workshops, he thus sparked the flint of an idea for a collective, of which the five most prominent members of Delhi’s comics scene could be a part. Kumar’s ambition for the medium and his critical awareness of its history in India led to his Raj Comics for the Hard Headed (2008), wherein Kumar mixes the narrative of a new superhero with a brief, historical account of Raj Comics. This same critical consciousness led to his continued comics work with his illustration of Tinker Solder Tap (2009), a short graphic novel written by Bhagwati Prasad that tells of the transition to television in one Delhi suburb. As a researcher with Sarai Media Lab, Kumar also created several murals and curated a year-long experimental art space in Sarai CSDS. He has also worked as a visiting faculty for the Srishti College of Art and Design and has curated an exhibition in the Zacheta National Gallery in Warsaw, Poland, on top of his work with Pao (Fig. 7). Over the last year, he has been traveling throughout India, working on a variety of mural projects, from Bangalore to Mumbai, including his recent show at The Guild in the latter city. Through these many routes, Kumar pushes the comics medium forward while grounding it in a creative community – a goal that unites all five members of the Pao Collective.

Fundamentally, the reason that these five creators came together to form Pao was to create a platform for comics in India. Yet, the fact that they were able to unite was, partly, a matter of luck. Parismita Singh described the role of chance to me: “It’s just lucky. Pao is just the result of the fact that we happened to be at the same place at the same time. And that we’re all nice people. You don’t think, we’re doing comics, oh my god, we need a community. You manage. You don’t really need it. But it’s great.” Even as a circumstantial development, Pao provides a bit of sanity in the chaos of deadlines, getting by, and managing their lives. The five members’ interests happened to overlap, they happened to be in Delhi, and they all happened to be up for meeting to do work together while pushing the medium forward. Even as their explicit goals changed over time. Pao’s mission remained centered on raising the bar for the quality and expectations for visual storytelling in the comics medium. The fact that they did it together was an extremely happy accident.

PIC
Figure 10:

Orijit Sen and Parismita Singh at the People Tree Studio, sitting at Orijit’s desk, with the cover of Pao: the Anthology of Comics 1 in the background. They had just finished discussing their plans after the Pao meeting for February of 2013, which I had attended, and during which Sen, Singh, and Ghosh had discussed developing a second anthology and a reader of core members’ works.


[i] My doctoral research with the Pao Collective was made possible through the generous support of a Swann Foundation for Caricature and Cartoon Fellowship, as well as a Dissertation Fieldwork grant through the Indiana University Dhar India Studies Program.

[ii] For Sen’s account and some images of the mural, see his piece from the Pao Collective blog: “A Place in Punjab: a series of details from my mural at the Virasat-e-Khalsa Museum,” The Pao Collective Blog, Available at <http://paocollective.wordpress.com/2012/07/28/a-place-in-punjab/> Accessed July 28 2012.

[iii] Kumar transcribed and posted his interviews with Sen online as a resrouce for the larger comics community in Delhi and beyond. See “Orijit Sen: In Conversation with Amitabh Kumar,” Walking, Talking, Thinking, Listening, Screaming, Dreaming Comics, available at <www.drawingrooms.wordpress.com/> Accessed December 16 2009.

 

(TO BE CONTINUED — in the article itself. Be sure to pick up a copy of the International Journal of Comic Art — a fantastic, diverse, and terrifically interesting journal. There’s a link to your left on my site, so there’s no excuse for not checking them out.)

Ta for now,

and Happy Holidays,

J

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