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Bengali Comics

Like many other children all over the world I grew up reading comics. And like many children all over the world I devoured and loved the same comics - Laurel Hardy, Mickey Mouse and then as I grew older Batman and Superman, Tintin and Asterix.
But recently I went to an exhibition at the Kolkata Centre for Creativity where I encountered wall after wall filled with Bengali comics.
I had no idea such a rich world existed or that it was over 100 years old. Sukhalata Rao is often called the mother of Bengali comics says Pinaki De, illustrator and member of the Comics Culture Collective which put together the exhibition at the inaugural panel.

PD1:  Sukhalata rao is regarded as first creator of bangla comics

In December 1921 she drew a strip for the magazine Sandesh - Jemon Kormo Temni Phol (As you sow, so you reap). It shows a little boy trying to douse Sidhu the milkman with water to punish him for adulterating his milk. Instead he drenches his own school teacher by mistake. It’s simple slapstick but has all the elements that make a comic strip - image and Printed words says comic enthusiast and professor of English literature Abhijit Gupta.

AG1:  Image and printed word existing in same page

But De says they found even older strip which could well be called the first Bengali comic. Much of it is up on the walls because of some comic mad enthusiasts who collected them over the years as a passion project.

PD2:   Santana Dutta who is here fanatic comics collector asked me if Exhibition of Bengali comics possible in gallery space

As they pored through the collection, some of it falling apart, some riddled with silverfish, sourced from people’s attics and old book stores, a world opened up. Of artists like Kafi Khan and Narayan Debnath who produced thousands of comics but never got any respect from the art world says De.

PD3:they never got their due, they were never exhibited in a gallery space

In the Dressing Room of Europe, artist Kafi Khan only needs a few strokes to transform the same figure from Mussolini to Hitler to Stalin.

It’s not all serious. There are comics about the antics of Bantul the great, a short boy with broad shoulders and spindly legs. And Handa and Bhoda or Dumb and Dim.

The artists were obviously aware of the greater worlds of comics around them. The exhibition shows Laurel and Hardy heading off on a nautical jaunt in the 1940s. Characters that look very much like Mickey Mouse pop up in 1938. The chipmunks Chip n Dale get Bengali avatars in 1961. The influence might be American but the ethos remains fully Bengali says De.
There are comics about freedom fighters and Alexander the Great. There are pulpy detective comics like one where a svelte woman in a sari brandishes a revolver and thunders “You dirty fox”. In Mayukh Choudhury’s Agantuk (The Stranger) from 1960s, the alien hero has retractable talons long before the Wolverine says comics enthusiast and literature professor Abhijit Gupta

AG2: because he also Retractable nails. Nails come out . Much before wolverine.

He says it was thrilling llooking at the closeups and mid shots of epic comic strip battles.

AG3: Fight between two martians. Greatest fight in Bengali comics strip.

And comics didnt just tell stories. They sold stuff. A famous science fiction writer and an artist teamed up to sell Benzytol soap through the story of a fierce demon queen trying to find a soap that will protect her precious daughter from germs.

Pinaki De says comics meant for a Bengali audience was not viable as a livelihood.

PD4: money is not much. Very difficult to run a house with just comics

Illustrator Debashis Deb it was hard work hand drawing comics. Its a demanding medium. Long before computers they had to make sure every character looked the same, the proportions remained the same no matter what the angle. Its an intense medium and you have to care for it he says.

DD1: U have to be extremely caring. Bhalobastey hoy. Comics ekta otynoton intense ekta medium bojha jaay na.

Most of these artists were commercial illustrators. Comics was just part of what they did to bring in the money. They could never devote themselves to one strip like a Tintin or Asterix. In fact the golden age of Bengali comics ended when magazines started carrying international strips like Tinitin and Tarzan in translation.
The homegrown Bengali comics struggled to compete against the cosmopolitanism of Tintin and Asterix, They were literally lost in translation.
But for a little while they were back in the limelight in Kolkata.

This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata for KALW