Thursday, 12 April 2012

Graphic novel: Sarnath Banerjee ~ Through the corridors of life

(Note: This interview dates back to 2004)

WHAT'S a human being without wit and individualism? Can ironical humour open doorways to historical insight, social commentary, and personalised communication? 

Sarnath Banerjee, creator of India's first graphic novel Corridor, triggers these thoughts during the mid-April 2004 release of his Penguin book at Bangalore's Oxford bookstore. First released in Mumbai, followed by similar launches at Kolkata and New Delhi, what does it signal? A novel talent with a quirky, subversive wit that embraces the reader bred on Marx, Barthes, Baudrillard and perhaps Mad magazine.

Set in New Delhi and Kolkata, Corridor navigates the mind spaces and interrupted, animated conversations of urban India. Its characters include bookseller extraordinary Jehangir Rangoonwala, "sipping tea, selling Asimovs, giving advice." Who are his customers? Brighu, a postmodern Ibn Batuta in search of Phantom comics, Rotring art pens, and a love life. Digital Dutta, whose life unspools in his head, torn between Marx and an H1B visa. And justmarried Shintu, who scans the seedy Delhi bylanes for the ultimate aphrodisiac. By layered degrees, the freaky tango between the frames spins into existence, focusing on machismo and urban sexuality, examining stereotypes, behaviour, and morality in post-colonial India.

The notion of a graphic novel for serious visual communication was sparked by Will Eisner's 1978 work on Jewish immigrants in the Bronx. It grew with Eddie Campbell and Alan Moore's From Hell, a taut foray into Jack the Ripper. Other classics followed - Marjan Satrapis' Persepolis, about an Iranian girl growing up amidst revolutionary chaos; Barefoot Gen, a young boy's account of being bombed at Hiroshima; and Joe Sacco's Palestine, rated by the late scholar Edward Said as one of the five most significant texts on the crisis.

Who is 32-year-old Banerjee? With an M.A. in image and communication from London's Goldsmith's College, he got a toehold into Corridor thanks to a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. That spun into an allied animation film on sexual myths and the indigenous aphrodisiac market, "Hakim Tartoosie's potency oil". His non-conformist mind has attracted grants from the Charles Wallace Trust, the India Foundation for the Arts, and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. His 1999 film about female infanticide, "God's Left Hand," was screened at Berlin's Ethno film festival and the Mumbai film festival 2002. 

Here are insights into Corridor, excerpted from an e-mail interview with New Delhi-based Banerjee:

WHY did you choose the graphic novel for your expression of Indian urban angst?

I find it difficult to write in a linear, clearheaded way. I'm flattered that some readings suggest a crisis of modernity but, to my mind, there is very little angst. Brighu isn't angsty. He's merely self-indulgent and spoilt, like precocious 12-year-olds who can't sleep at night because they worry that by the time they have done their Ph.D.s, there'll be no major riddles in biochemistry left undiscovered.

What advantages does his form have over other media, such as the comic book?

The French describe the comics narrative as multi-codeic. In the best cases, the text and image are locked in creative tension, never explaining the other, creating larger units of meaning. This allows for conflicting, simultaneous emotional states about both an event and its experience within a contained, coordinated space. I've used the multivalent interpretative possibilities to allow plots, elements, and events to overlap.

What was it in the corridors of your life that brought you to this subject?

I worked in a TV channel, where some dude would invariably say, "This quirky cut doesn't work". You begin to believe him, except he is just another idiot born into the mediocrity of television. The good thing about comics is that if you pay a guy, he'll do comics; if you don't pay him, he'll still do it. Some people might even read it.

What passages chime in closest to semi-autobiographical states of being? Why?

I feel closest to Digital Dutta. All my school-time heroes are trapped in his head.

Do you have a well-defined reader in mind for your dexterous interplay between text and image?

Comics is an art of indication, playing with the reader's tendency to connect the improbable, disconnected pictures into some form of coherent narrative, suggesting a complex interiority.

Reading comics is a complex process. Therefore, it is mostly consumed by a sophisticated reader. Art Spiegelman, the creator of the Pulitzer-winning, Auschwitz-based "Maus", has a word for them — the post literate. From where I stand, adult comics are probably never going to be for the masses. At best, they could be at the mainstream end of the alternate.

Your quirky characters seem to draw on real life folks you might have met. How long did you work on them?

They are based on people I have met, or have heard of, or haven't met but think I have. Hearsay, half conversations, oral history, imagined conversations are all raw materials. It's difficult to demystify my hidden practice of picking and choosing. But I feel you need to drink the water of Bombay to write about the city. It took me three years of false starts to get over the clever writing so many of us suffer from.

Does the image score over the word?

There isn't any hierarchy. I come from an oral/literary tradition, but it never gets to dominate the visual. Often, you start with vague sketchy images, or a set of mental photographs, or the memory of an incident. Anything that sets the tone.

For example, I listened to Coleman Hawkins while planning the Calcutta subway sequence, hoping it would affect my drawing style and layouts. Hawkins deviates sharply from the rest of the band members, travels through several twists and turns to eventually return to the main rhythm.

Why has the graphic novel been such a late entrant into the Indian market?

Most mysterious. It's a very popular, though perhaps mediocre, form in Southeast Asia and other Third World countries like Mexico. I guess they have to do comics to compensate for not having Bollywood, cricket and India Fashion week.

(The Hindu Sunday Magazine, 2004)

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