I’ve just got back from two and a half weeks of beautiful sunshine, curries and Kingfisher beer in India. While the beaches were very relaxing, the highlight of the trip was a visit to the ruined Hindu city of Vijayanager (aka Hampi) in Karnataka state.
This incredible site stretches over 9 square miles and is packed with ruined temples, palaces, elephant stables and so much more. Some of it was little more than piles of stone, while other buildings look just 50-100 years old. Hampi’s glory days were between 1336–1565 and it had a population of half a million, before it finally fell into wrack and ruin and was abandoned after two major sackings by Muslims.
“But what’s this got to do with sex, drugs and comic books?” I hear you cry. Well, on the first topic, one of the temples had some very interesting erotic sculptures. All manner of scenes of congress are portrayed, from masturbation to bestiality. I was surprised by their frankness on such sacred sites, but it just goes to show that India’s ancestors weren’t as hung up about sex as ours were. God knows what Victorian explorer Robert Sewells must’ve thought when he rediscovered the city in the mid-1800s. But if he was anything like fellow explorer Richard Burton, I suspect is ardour was aroused.
At the Hazararama Temple the walls are covered with the classic mythological story of the Ramayana. This epic poem was composed between 500 BC and 100 BC and recounts the tale of Rama and his brother, Lakshmana, rescuing Sita from the Demon King Ravana’s castle with the help of Hanuman and his fellow monkeys. The whole story is there to read slab by slab, creating the effect of the saga told panel by panel. This early proto-comic breaks the scenes up neatly and logically and progresses one of the sacred Hindu texts in a form most comic fans are familiar with.
The foundation story of the city Vijayanager is told in Amar Chitra Katha (ACK)’s Heroes of Hampi comic, which I picked up.
In it two brother chieftains, Hakka & Bukka, are hunting a rabbit, who when cornered, turns and snarls at them. Somewhat taken aback at this (they’ve obviously never met our rabbits!) Vidyaranya, the guru, explains that the place is very special and asks them to establish their capital city at the location. The only reference I could find in the architecture to back up this story was this depiction of a rabbit fighting two snakes in the roof of a gateway. Otherwise, there were no rabbits depicted anywhere, which seemed a tad unfair, considering it was the sole influence of founding the city there!
The Heroes of Hampi was one of several ACK comics I picked up, and I’ve been a fan of Indian comics ever since Brendan McCarthy introduced them to me, back when we were putting the Rogan Gosh collection together at Vertigo back in 1993. Many of ACK’s comics deal with classic mythology like the Mahabharata, whilst others are biographies of famous Indian leaders and gurus like Sai Baba, Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, and Sri Ramakrishna. ACK proudly claim that they’ve sold 90 million copies of 400 titles over the last 40 years, which averages out at 5,625 copies per title per year, which are small potatoes in country with a population of nearly 1.2 Billion!
ACK’s long-running children's monthly anthology Tinkle “Where learning meets fun,” has some excellent cartooning in it (better than expected), but also has Tantri the Mantri, a blatant rip-off of Goscinny and Tabary’s excellent Iznogoud series (which was released in India in 2009 by Euro Books India). Apart from having exactly the same premise (Grand Vizier/assistant tries to get rid of King/Caliph) the characters even look the same!
The Indian comics industry is going through a minor boom at the moment, but considering the size of the population it’s still relatively small. This increased interest in comics was highlighted in the first issue of aspirational lifestyle magazine ForbesLife India (Jan/Feb ’11) that featured a fully painted comic strip, Atlantis by Amruta Patil. It also had a feature, erroneously titled The Toon Collector, on 22-year-old Aalok Joshi from Mumbai who has apparently a collection of 7,000 comics and 920 graphic novels “one of the biggest collections in India.” The size of his collection may seem paltry to Western comic fans but this fails to take into account that the very act of collecting is a relatively new concept in India. There, comics are for reading and passing on, not for hoarding and double-bagging. According to the article Joshi is primarily a DC Comics and Indrajal fan who got into comics reading translations of Phantom comics (Just like Scandinavia and Australia, Lee Falk’s character is unaccountably popular in India).
What the ForbesLife India article did reveal was the cost of average comics, which range from 600-900Rs (£8-£12) for a graphic novel down to 30Rs (40p) for a single issue. That may sound like a pittance to Western eyes, but it is still quite expensive by Indian standards and still the majority of readers are rich middle class kids and adults.
With this in mind two young entrepreneurs, Bidisha Basu and Visa Shom have set up Leaping Windows, a graphic novel library (in a similar vein to Japan’s manga libaries) to allow the less well off access to a wealth of sequential art. The two are also organising fund-raising events and auctions, as Mumbai fandom finds its feet.
According to Aalok Joshi the best place to dig out second hand comics and graphic novels in Mumbai is the renowned Matunga’s Kings Circle, a book trading area similar to Delhi’s Connaught Place that was featured in the 2004 Indian graphic novel, Corridor by Sarnath Banerjee, published by Penguin Books India.
Interestingly, Penguin Books India has been ramping up their output of graphic novels of late. In 2009 they released Parismita Singh’s Hotel at the End of The World. This lovely collection of interlocking short stories is reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales, and other similar “traveller’s parables”. Set in a tiny inn in the Himalayas, it recounts how the various occupants came to be there. Singh’s simplistic art style conceals sophisticated storytelling and she generates great empathy for her cast of lost souls. Her influences range from Buddhist and Hindu myths to old Commando comics!
The most recent release by Penguin has been the sumptuous looking first volume of Prince of Ayodhya. Written by Ashok K. Banker—and based on his own best-selling prose novels retelling the legend of the Ramayana—this graphic novel is rather bizarrely drawn by an established Argentine (and DC Comics) artist, Enrique Alcatena, rather than an Indian one. But the art is very beautiful, even if the story suffers somewhat in this truncated form.Banker is a dyed-in-the-wool comic fan, stating in the forward, “…I never stopped longing to put my love for the graphic storytelling medium to use telling Indian stories for Indian readers.” Banker even funded the graphic novel, paying Alcatena out of his own pocket.
Ashok K. Banker also wrote the forward to Vimanika Comics’ slightly long-winded title, Karan Vir’s The Sixth: The Legend of Karna Book 1. Again, based on classic Hindu mythology (a very deep and rich seam to mine), Karan Vir Arora updates the classic texts to the present day and the comic feels closer to an American comic than it’s Indian peers, a deliberate marketing ploy, as the cover states: "First Indian Graphic Novel in US."
And speaking of US publishers, Marvel comics are reprinted by Kids Animation India, with titles like Marvel Adventures Spider-Man combined as two-issues-in-one, retailing for 35Rs (47p). Apparently these have a circulation of 40,000, which is enough to make many US publishers envious.
One thing to note is that ALL these comics are in English, as it is the one language that unifies the vast global diaspora of Indians, which makes the market very accessible to Western readers.
If additional proof were required that Indian fandom was in the ascendent, this weekend saw the launch of the first Indian Comic Con in Delhi and I hope it was a big success, as I’d personally like to see some cultural exchanges taking place with The Comic Book Alliance and various Indian publishers and organisations in the future.