The relationship between bareness and the scrawl on a piece of paper has always been a fraught one. Finger, nails, charcoal, pencil, ink, pen — the mark on the unremarkable, darkness on light, light on darkness, from the ‘punctum’ of the point to the ‘studium’ of the line, every paper-gesture is in itself a language that can survive without translation. The Graphic Narrative has always lived beyond the pales and pickets of writing’s official residence, triggering alarms and ruffling egos in occasional incursions within.
The Graphic Narrative is often seen from the outside as a riddle because of its alleged obviousness. And the obvious is difficult to prove. Thus, most prefer the hidden that writing with its fabled inwardness provides. The situation is even more piquant in India. Here the graphic artist works under the pall of puerility brought on by a society’s view of their work as glorified doodles, child’s play, and thus worth dismissing.
It ought not to have been so though. Given the tradition of play between word, image and music in the Ragamala paintings, the form of the Graphic Narrative should have found a haven in India. And then, more lately, in the tasveerkhana of Mughal emperor Akbar, illustrated copies of the Hamza Nama bear witness to a nuanced fugue of images and words.
In fact, the Graphic Narrative seeks to project the image as the natural apotheosis of words, a threshold beyond which that is what words become under the climate of the inexpressible that the region beyond words is always inclement with. Artists and their craft have always mulled upon and veered over this threshold.
In the West this graphic turn has been much better accepted, promoted and honoured as artistic practice. From the diaries and notebooks kept by Michel Angelo and Leonardo da Vinci to the renaissance commonplace books of Sir Thomas More and Sir Francis Bacon, this graphic turn in the western mind has had a full history.
In modern times the litany of inspiring names has flowed from a proverbial cornucopia of work — Scott McCloud, Marianne Hirsch, Art Spiegelman, Thomas Doherty, Frank Miller, Rocco Versaci, Hillary Chute, Paul Gravett, Ben Lander, Barroux, Georges Remi, René Goscinny, Albert Uderzo.
What we lack in India is a matching inspirational list of graphic storytellers, an imbalance that the Longform Collective (Sarbajit Sen, DebkumarMitra, Sekhar Mukherjee and Pinaki De) have begun addressing by editing Volume 1 of Longform: An Anthology of Graphic Narratives.
The disarming informality of the Collective’s Editorial should not lull any prospective reader into thinking that this is the long weekend ballast of moderate craftsmanship to waive away weekly ennui in a philistine world.
The Editorial, refreshingly and cunningly makes each member of the Collective a character in a graphic story of how the chance coming together of the impossible, the improbable and the serendipitous eased or brought about the cheek-by-jowl formation of the Longform Project.
It tells this story of difficulty and confederacy in the face of adversity tongue-in-cheek, in jest almost, using first names and endearing diminutives. This is the first true Graphic tale in this volume: although its sheer self-deprecating economy has consigned it to being labelled as the Editorial.
Pema Tshering’s story, that of his own artistic upbringing at Voluntary Artist’s Studio of Thimpu (VAST) and his pioneering work in setting up Thimpu Comics, reflects upon the similar task of building solidarity and awareness that the Longform Collective have instituted in an artistic field where creativity is marooned in a world indifferent to this artform and perishes by holding its breath too long in a climate that promises very measly publication opportunities.
Bhutan being not too dissimilar to India in these respects. The Longform Volume 1 is, thus, as much a clarion call to potential contributors languishing in their shallow pools of melancholy non-recognition in India as a rallying corner for all truly hard-boiled graphic artists and enthusiasts.
While we are on the subject of rallying corners and bastions of enthusiasm for the Graphic Narrative in India in an otherwise bleak landscape one needs to consider the implications of the Sandip Ray interview in the volume, Comics, Father and I, closely. It makes one imagine what might have been if the senior Ray had devoted more time to the genre than he could, in between film projects.
What might have been if his brilliant use of image syntax — that he used to outline script and shot in his films — had flowered into more sustained efforts in Sandesh and elsewhere. For Satyajit Ray these word-image interfaces were a way of honing his visual genius, a means to an end. Alas! But his enthusiasm as a collector and avid follower of the genre that comes across in the excitement of Sandip Ray’s responses as well should warm the hearts of enthusiasts and initiates alike.
Longform Volume 1 ushers us into that night of storytelling that has been primal and pervasive in our lives, in disparate hemispheres of the world. Even diurnal stories surround themselves with the thin flesh of the night. Narrating stories in ink and brush, dots and dashes ushers a visual equivalent of the closeness of the night and the intimacy of stories, half confidential, half confessional. There are of course sunbursts of colour, as in Barroux’s up-and-about sketches of Ahmedabad, Blandin’s Overwhelmed, Heeseon Kim’s The River, Venkat Shyam’s Earth Mother, Allen Shaw’s Italia, Sarbajit Sen’s Dodo and Food Fetish and Sekhar Mukherjee’s The Magical Kitchen of Maria Alfonso Caramelo Lobo, to name a few.
The styles of the graphic artists in this volume cover the full spectrum of techniques used to meld word into image: from Surrealism, to Expressionism, to graphic arcades propelled by the evocative silhouettes of noir films, to formal drawing and elaborate brushwork, and of course to the Manga.
I may be as idiosyncratic as the next person but the visual punctuation, the prick that I have felt needs articulation. Graphic storytellers leave breadcrumbs of light in each panel, the words are mere signs to the milky way of the pure unannotated image.
Heeseon Kim’s rendition of the midnight shades of blue and red between the two Koreas, and the driftage of daily lives between and beyond the barbed politics of hatred that hopes to contain it, is quite superb. It reminds us that spelling is also a person. That a word is complete when seen and heard. An image, infused in a moment’s colour, can sound and see, it can become a word.
Prakash Moorthy’s If in the Shadows a Leopard and Sarbajit Sen’s Dodo and Food Fetish are both tales of metamorphosis, failed, doomed metamorphosis, tragic and ludicrous metamorphosis. Their grip of the atmosphere around the narrative is masterly: in Moorthy’s case the riverine Malabar of centuries before, all misted and wavering between the natural and the supernatural; while in Sen’s case it is the opulent obstreperousness of modern-day Dalhousie Square in Kolkata or nostalgic flânerie in the city of the early 1980s.
Something that gave me a breath clot every time I scanned the page was a single panel out of Allen Shaw’s Italia. It was the sketch of a priest passing down the slope before the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi in Rome. The looming shadow cast by this puny figure in an unpeopled afternoon palazzo, eerily resembling the shadow of the nib of a pen that shall ultimately birth this figure in the sketchbook, reminded me of Giorgio de Chirico’s significant shadows in sunny squares. It was an image that could exist independent of words.
Promit Basu’s Fairness Cream uses the household cat, not words, as the more-than-human witness to the family’s conundrums: the return of an archetype and shades of Apuleius’s Travels with a Golden Ass. Ishita Basu Mallick’s Drift Theory seems straight out of the orphic pages of Apollinaire’s Alcools or La Bestiary, with the poet’s drools and sketches spreading across pages that suture words and images in new sororities. Debkumar Mitra’s Buli – The Unfinished Interview delves into the mind of a folk-painter as she attempts to paint the trauma of rape that she has undergone in words. A rare challenge of empathy to portray the artist and the woman’s agony.
The artists I have, and others I could not mention, because my enthusiasm for the Longform Volume 1 is boundless, but the editorial thresholds are not, bring together issues as diverse as casteism, ecological fate of cities, the antisense universe, the country and the city, urban myths, obsessions, primal fears and desires of transfiguration.
For probing academics, they tick almost every box. Star charts of our star-crossed days that are etched on the insides of the artist’s mind, these graphic adventures reflect both our outside and our inside in half-blood images that may once have been words and can be again.
The writer is a noted poet & non-fiction writer based in Kolkata