Modes of representation

Pramod K Nayar’s book contextualises Indian graphic narratives like never before, and argues passionately for the “critical literacy” that these remarkable works are helping to develop in readers

At a three-day comics symposium at Jadavpur University’s English department last month, I was presenting a 30-minute academic paper at 10 in the morning — understandably, the crowd was small but not minuscule. The paper was about eco-criticism in Indian comics, and after the paper, a long, pointed question about James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis (and its relation to the comics I was talking about) was casually lobbed at me from the third row, like someone passing the sugar. This was new: at most places where I’ve spoken about comics, the questions are mostly along the lines of “Literary Indian comics exist?”

The late-morning Molotov I received was a sign that critical conversations about Indian comics and graphic novels were indeed beginning, and that literature students were taking an interest in them. Pramod K Nayar’s The Indian Graphic Novel: Nation, History and Critique is, therefore, a timely work that shows us how Indian creators have utilised the formal aspects of the medium — as well as several other literary and artistic techniques — to comment on Indian history, identity and the phenomenon of ‘received memory’ or ‘postmemory’, as the writer Marianne Hirsch put it.

Nayar begins by noting the contribution of graphic novels to what is known as Indian Writing in English (IWE). “It adds a new dimension to narrating (…) events, contexts and conditions — the visual — so that multiple ways of telling are available on the same page: the documentary and the aesthetic, the satiric caricature and the traumatic realist.” This modal duality is especially useful in the Indian context. A majority of English-speaking Indians may not be in the habit of reading literary fiction of the kind written by Anita Desai or Amitav Ghosh. But thanks to our exposure to a range of visual stimuli (Amar Chitra Katha, Manmohan Desai films, the flamboyant print adverts of the ’70s, the magazine Chandamama), Indian creators are able to utilise what Nayar calls our “literacy in the demotic register of the graphic narrative”. Comics readers would recognise this as a sentiment aligned to Sarnath Banerjee’s, when he insisted, in a 2004 interview with The Hindu, that his ideal reader would be someone who’s “post-literate”.

In a masterly deconstruction of a page from Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s Delhi Calm, Nayar walks us through the writer-artist’s choice of technique while explaining how propaganda works. In the sequence under discussion (see picture), Ghosh plasters every panel with an Emergency-era propaganda poster, even as the accompanying text explains how this process subtly influences the thinking of the masses. Nayar writes: “(…) What we see in Ghosh’s narrative strategy of introducing paratextual elements, often in very crowded fashion, symbolising the state is a mimetic approximation where the speeches are authentic enough — as Indian readers would know from their cultural literacy of political rhetoric — for us to recognise the state’s voice.” The sequence ends with the revelation that the “voiceover” (the text that informs us about the propaganda mechanism) belongs to one of the characters from the book. Nayar argues that the voice of the individual is now indistinguishable from that of the state. “(…) The individual life was crowded with state signs to such an extent that there was no individual left anymore, given the constant bombardment with the white noise of orders, injunctions and threats. (…) The graphic narrative is perhaps the one medium in which this sense of enclosure and the carceral by signage alone can be made so directly visible.” These are critical insights of the first order.

Nayar turns his attention to almost all the other major Indian creators in the subsequent chapters — Amruta Patil, Appupen, Banerjee, Orijit Sen and so on. His reading of their works is not only razor-sharp but also self-aware in a way that most critical texts aren’t. Nayar is smart enough to realise that because there hasn’t been a whole lot of work done in Indian comics criticism, his thesis can only take off after he has demonstrated to his readers the things that only comics can do; the kind of spatio-temporal manipulation that masters like Alison Bechdel are adept at.

And in that department, Indian graphic narratives have introduced readers to the “critical literacy” that Nayar writes about in the conclusion to the book, which is not, as the author points out, merely a confluence of visual and verbal literacy. “(…) Merging public and personal histories, the combination of the documentary and aesthetic modes and the careful ‘positioning’ in panels alerts us to the mediated nature of all historical representation. Unlike the authoritative, definitive, ‘pedagogic’ histories of textbooks or official documentation, the graphic narrative tells us that there is no History outside modes of representation.”

One of the only criticisms I can make of this book is that there is little to no mention of all the rough-around-the-edges but still remarkable web comics going around in India right now, not least the redoubtable Crocodile in Water, Tiger on Land.

On the whole, however, Nayar’s work is a triumph. This book deserves to be on college syllabi and on the bookshelves of comics lovers.

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