IN THE FRAME
Graphic narratives are growing in a space where artists can communicate perspectives that may not find impetus in the mainstream, Vidyun Sabhaney, who has co- edited First Hand, tells Gargi Gupta
Few people outside Kerala today remember ‘ Nawab’ Rajendran, the journalist and anti- corruption crusader who died in 2003. There’s a Wikipedia entry on him but those are just dull details. But The Nawab, a graphic biography by Gokul Gopalakrishnan, fills the vacuum by bringing to life Rajendran’s unworldly, sage- like mien and his uncompromising courage.
The Nawab is part of First Hand, a collection of 22 short non- fiction comic narratives that tell “urgent stories of the odds against which lives are being lived, and the events and forces that are shaping them”, says Vidyun Sabhaney – who edited it along with Orijit Sen – in an interview.
How did this book come about? Would you describe the process of putting it together?
The idea for First Hand came almost two years ago. Comics have always been used to tell real experiences, incidents and ideas and place them within a larger context – whether journalistic, historical, stories of individual and collective struggle and hope, narratives of traumatic incidents, or larger social and political ideas. It seemed natural that these graphic narratives should be more commonly produced, but they weren’t.
We initially approached a handful of writers who were collecting stories as part of their work. It was meant to be an experimental zine. Later, we opened it out and invited applications. We received a number of fleshed out stories, sketches, and storyboards. We began selecting works, incubating a few collaborations, building conversations around the idea of ‘ non- fiction’ and working with contributors on narratives.
The number of artists exploring graphic narratives has gone up in India of late. How do you see the scene?
The community of creators is growing quickly and attracting people from different disciplines – this book is an example of that. The medium is being used for conventional story- telling, personal catharsis, documentation, education, etc. It is growing into a space where artists can communicate perspectives and narratives that may not find space in the mainstream. Very different from how it was five years ago.
Are mainstream publishers more open to graphic books? How large is the audience and how open?
Graphic narratives have always been a part of mainstream publishers’ programme, but today we are seeing a shift in the kinds of narratives on offer in terms of structure, style, theme, etc. For example, there was a time when the visual language of popular comics was driven by text, and today we have popular comics that are entirely silent. This speaks volumes of how the audience for comics has grown and diversified. Independent publishers and self- publishers have played a big role in this.
All the essays are in black and white. Why not in colour?
Black and white has been a common option for many creators working in the non- fiction realm, because of its stark and evocative quality. It lends itself well to the theme of the book.
The visual style here is varied but essentially western. Isn’t anyone working in Indian styles?
In non- fiction, visual style is about the narrative detail one selects and how it is highlighted to evoke the mood of the story – all the while communicating a specific reality, which is in this case is contemporary India.
Hills & Stones by Nikhila Nanduri uses motifs from Likhai woodcarving in telling the life of Gangaram, a practitioner of the craft based in Uttarakhand. The patterns used evoke a sense of Gangaram’s relationship with his work.