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Sarnath Banerjee interview

Sarnath Banerjee is a writer (first novel, Corridor, a graphic novel, Penguin India 2004), artist, and co-founder of Phantomville, a comics publishing house

Q: A common misconception in countries that haven’t been exposed to good
comics is that people need less imagination to read comics than plain
text. Comment.

A: Development organisation and funding agencies clearly illustrates this vision, comics is for the challenged .

In preparing some of their advocacy materials they have turned their gaze upon comics, the new kid in the block.- a follow-up from the era of joyless puppetry and community radio. Now that these two sentinels of development communication are done to death, even by their standards, why not give comics a bash to inform middle India about enormous strides in the field of reproductive technology.

This is an error in Judgement, because comics requires a more complex (if not complicating) mode of reading. For example, the text and the image often run independent of each other, sometimes they even conflict or contradict the other, in some of the best of comics the text and the pictures are locked in some kind of creative tension, this I feel is very much the grammar of comics.

In comics the words and the pictures together create units of meanings that neither can by themselves. Then there is the gutter space that exists between panels, which is where the comics creator relies a great deal on the comprehension of the reader. In short the reader must participate in an active manner to read comics.

Therefore when someone says, “What do I read first, text or the image?” you know it is a lost case.

Having said that, I feel that comics have a great deal to contribute in the field of education. Comics can fit in a lot of complex ideas in a single page, it can create atmosphere and psychological states, a theme can be explored in all its facets and point of views. This is particularly relevant in discussing history, sociology, anthropology, natural sciences and emerging technologies, reproductive or otherwise.

Informed minds have to come together and collaborate creatively to get to this phase. “Let’s do comics because it has simple funny pictures that will instruct simple people on simple principles of watershed management is merely one way of looking at things.

Q: There doesn’t seem to be too much of a market for comics in India.
What do you think it’ll take to change that?

A: Unfortunately, I feel we have to wait till it gets filtered down from the western, particularly the American market. As Phantomville, we are trying several approaches to sell a larger number of books without resorting to violence- multiple distributors, presentations in Universities, word of mouth, keeping the price of book embarrassingly low etc. yet the progress is very slow. In France the first print run of comics is 10,000 copies even for a beginner, in India 5,000 copies is the magic number, it means you are a bestseller.

This embodies the whole phenomenon of the book trade. India is an emerging power with a vast middle class, a growing consumer economy, but not for books. Whether comics or otherwise. However I am told that self-help and management books are doing well.

Q: It’s strange that while speculative fiction (SF, fantasy, horror) is
marginalized in literary terms in mainstream literary circles abroad,
like most comics, within the field of comics ‘mainstream’ refers to
fiction that is broadly speculative (superheroes, etc) and literary
comics are the marginal ones. Why is this?

A: That is changing, historically comics reading population was quite narrow-minded, people could make an acute demographic profile of an average comic book reader. However that profile has changed already, at least in the west. It has become a cultural phenomenon since the last ten years, a lucky number of absolutely brilliant graphic novelists and a vacuumed in the reading market created this. Pundits says it is here to say, that is why the top three publishers in the world have developed their own graphic line, I am talking of Penguin, Random house and Gallimard. Other powerful words-only publishing houses have joined the band wagon. Corporations are putting money. The comics form is crossing over to Cinema and advertising. In short these are exciting times for comics.

Q: Tell me about Phantomville and its aims.

A: Mainstream publication houses work under many restrictions, one of which is the profit motive.

One Corridor is not going to change the outlook to comics. To build a comics culture in the country a lot of investments have to be made. Capital has to be spent on training and shaping comics illustrators, which is a specialised art. As you are aware that although there is no dearth of good writers is the country comics illustrators are almost insignificant. I know many talented writers including you, given an opportunity will want to do and have the capacity to do brilliant comics, but somehow are crippled by lack of visionary illustrators. In our endeavours, my partner Anindya Roy and myself have identified some brilliant visual storytellers namely Saurabh Singh and Partho Sengupta, there are more to be discovered. Our aim is to train them and publish their books.

In a royalty-oriented publishing house this is almost impossible to achieve, because the charges of a good illustrator is almost astronomical, and they tend to charge by panels. Under no circumstances would the book recover the money spent on creating it. These are the problems faced by my peers such as Rajesh Devraj, who conceived this idea of converting the Tamil cowboy, Quickgun Murugan, into comics, but couldn’t justify the capital to be paid to the illustrators. I feel your trilogy has great possibility to crossover into comics, but who will support a project of that scale? These are questions that bother us. Where will the money come from? Which marketing department will accept a proposal like that? Etc.

Q: When creating your comics, do you feel any pressure to be
distinctively ‘Indian’ in some sense?

A: As a publisher, yes. We are commissioning only Indian writers at this point with plans to branch out to other writers from the subcontinent.

One of our illustrators Partho Sengupta brings in an illustrative style which is unmistakably Indian, almost classically so. However this approach of using familiar pictures is somewhat deceptive, because his storyboarding method is contemporary and it often reflects a deep understanding of cinematic techniques.

On the other hand, Saurabh Singh, who is working on a comics based in Kashmir, has an international style. His work has echoes of Joe Sacco (Palestine), but at the same time he is fiercely individualistic and an amazing craftsman. Apart from his strong line-work and colouring he has a very intuitive undertanding of page layout and rare feeling for the tone of the narrative. (Andy will provide you with the pix).

His book is published by Phantomville end of July.

As far as my work is concerned, thematically I don’t feel pressured to be Indian, for example my next book, Barn Owl’s wondrous Capers although based in 18th Century Calcutta borrows its narrative theme from the myth of Cartaphallus, the wandering Jew who is cursed to eternally roam the face of earth till Judgement Day.

Although the sensibilities by default are Indian, and the visual culture I lean upon is Indian, but it is not my thematic concern.

Q: What comics would you like to see coming out of India? And what
should Indian comics writers/artists avoid?

A: Although clearly it can’t be avoided, speculatively there should be a five-year ban on any thing on Hanuman, for the sake of Hanuman. And while you are at it Mahabharata and Jatakas, only for five years. Let us explore some other stories. I feel these tales have done what cricket has done to hockey and what Bollywood has done to other cultural forms that could have come out of India.

About Samit Basu

Writes books, comics, films, other stuff.


One thought on “Sarnath Banerjee interview

  1. Insightful interview!
    “five-year ban on any thing on Hanuman…” is the best line!!… completely agree to that.

    Posted by kookiejar | March 13, 2007, 9:26 am

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Copyright (c) Samit Basu. Images copyright respective holders.
July 2006


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