I was commissioned by Livres Canada Books to write a report on the Book Market of India for the Canadian publishers. Canada will the Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2020. It is a report that may be of interest to other publishing professionals too since it gives a bird’s-eye view of the Indian publishing landscape. It is a report with over a 100 footnotes, innumerable links embedded and a directory of contacts — publishers, literary agents, distributors, publishing associations etc. The India Market Guide 2018 may now be downloaded from the Livres Canada Books.
The information gleaned for the market guide was based on extensive research that entailed number of interviews and meetings with the Indian publishing industry professionals. I am grateful to all of them for their support.
Pan Macmillan India announces the appointment of Prasun Chatterjee as Editorial Director
Prasun Chatterjee sets to join Pan Macmillan Publishing India Private Limited as its Editorial Director this September. With over 12 years’ experience in the industry, Prasun brings in a rich editorial experience, having worked with publishing houses like Oxford University Press and Pearson.
Prasun started his career in publishing in 2005 as an Editor for history books at Oxford University Press India. His last assignment was as Senior Commissioning Editor at Oxford University Press where he acquired a diverse portfolio of books in areas such as history, politics, religion, and philosophy. During his two five-year terms with Oxford University Press, he has worked with some of the renowned scholars across disciplines.
Among the many writers Prasun has published are Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, Richard Eaton, Ashis Nandy and Sudhir Kakar. In 2015, several of his commissioned works received national and international recognition at major conferences, including awards at the American Historical Association, Association for Asian Studies, and the Indian History Congress.
As an Editorial Director, Prasun will be responsible for the imprints under Pan Macmillan India, including Picador India, Pan and Macmillan. He will be working closely with Jeremy Trevathan, Publisher, Pan Macmillan UK, to shape the Editorial list. Reporting to Rajdeep Mukherjee, Managing Director, Pan Macmillan Publishing India Private Limited, Prasun starts with the company on 15th September, 2017.
Prasun Chatterjee said: ‘I find this shift symbolic of the increasing convergence between academic and non-fiction publishing; two streams which will draw upon each other even more closely in the coming years. From the works of V.S. Naipaul to Ramachandra Guha and the books by Patrick French to Pankaj Mishra, the range of non-fiction from Pan Macmillan has the timelessness and quality of a mature publishing programme. I would like to contribute to this list of distinguished, yet accessible writing.’
Jeremy Trevathan said: ‘I’m delighted to welcome Prasun into the Pan Macmillan fold. Our local publishing in India, across both fiction and non-fiction, is key to our international strategies for growth going forward. As the distinctions between academic and commercial publishing continues to blend, Prasun brings a wealth of experience and a strategic thinking to our publishing in the sub-continent.’
AMITAVA KUMAR’S The Lovers is about Kailash, born in Ara, Bihar, who moved to the US in 1990. At college he met his mentor Ehsaan Ali when Kailash enrolled in his ‘Colonial Encounters’ class. To earn a few extra dollars, Kailash worked in a university bookshop. Some of the women he met on campus became good friends, some his lovers. With every woman— Jennifer, Nina, Laura, Maya and Cai Yan—he learned a little more about himself as a man, a lover, a student, a reader and of his culture, whichever one it may be at a given moment. The Lovers works at multiple levels. Superficially the novel explores different shades of love— puppy love, sexual love and marital. At another level it is the platonic and nurturing love between teacher (Ehsaan Ali) and student (Kailash) that is the bedrock of the novel. Ever so slowly and gently, the promising student Kailash blossoms as a teaching assistant and later, writer. ‘The main questions now were about the fiction of the past, the idea I had of myself as a person, and what it meant for me to become a writer.’ The narrator relies heavily upon memory to plot his journey and define his identity—tough since ‘he had become a translated man, no longer able to connect completely with his past.’
The Lovers is an autobiographical novel documenting the trajectory of Kailash aka Kalashnikov or AK47 or AK from the burning plains of India to an intellectual in America, a path very similar to that of the author himself. Kailash may not be Stephen Dedalus but he certainly grows in confidence, wherein his tastes in literature are concerned. It is evident in the structure of the novel. Over the years, from being an Indian student unsure about the literary canon he grew up with, Kailash becomes familiar with examples of international literature such as Gramsci, Tagore, Wittgenstein, Hanif Kureishi, Luis Borges, Agnes Smedley, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Judith Butler, Virginia Woolf, Nazım Hikmet et al. Slowly he incorporates desi writers such as Ismat Chughtai too. He realises that the India he left in the 1990s has changed to become a new India which is disconcertingly unrecognisable and is now part of the global village.
The immigrant novel is in a category of literary fiction which straddles two cultures—the author’s land of birth and adopted country. In The Lovers, despite having had the privilege of getting an American citizenship, Kailash continues to feel lost in his adopted country. ‘My father had grown up in a hut. I knew in my heart that I was closer to a family of peasants than I was to a couple of intellectuals sitting in a restaurant in New York.’ He tries to fit in, but falters at times. Even world literature that exposes him to various cultures fails to help, and leaves him yearning for the holy grail of the ‘hybrid culture that groups of people scattered across the world, removed from their roots, have created in response to alienation and a kind of collective loneliness?’ This is unlike his adventurous friend Pushkin Krishnagrahi, a Brahmin from Gwalior, a member of the new India who was now at home anywhere in the world.
It is significant that The Lovers has been released in the 70th year of Independence for India and Pakistan. As with two lovers, there is an intensely passionate relationship between the two countries which has historically been hostile. In the novel the two countries are represented by its citizens —Ehsan Ali (Pakistan) and Kailash (India) who away from their countries do not harbour any ill feelings towards each other and live in harmony. Ehsan Ali is probably modelled upon the intellectual Eqbal Ahmed, a prominent anti-war activist.
The Lovers is extraordinary craftsmanship, charting the blossoming of a timid new immigrant into a confident writer.
India has a tradition of fine women writers, and some of the earliest established names among them were also pioneers in fields beyond literature. Roekya Sakhawat Hossein (1880-1932) was a leading Bengali feminist in at the turn of the 20th century. Her sci-fi utopian novella, Sultana’s Dream (1905), was decades before her time and is a delight to read even now. Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954) was both the first woman to read law at Oxford, and the first Indian national to study at a British university. During her career as the first female lawyer in India, she advocated for women in purdah and children. She wrote a dozen books including her memoirs, India Calling (1934). Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) known as the “Nightingale of India,” was not only a poet, but also the first female governor of an Indian state, and the first woman president of the Indian National Congress. Her debut collection of poetry, The Golden Threshold, was published in 1905.
Despite our strong tradition of women writers in the early 20th century, to my mind it was the 1974 publication of the “Towards Equality” Status of Women in India Report that marked a watershed moment for women’s movements, and in turn, women’s literature. Though Indira Gandhi, the first woman prime minister, had been in power for years, it was the Report that gave more women a voice and an opportunity to express themselves.
Another literary turning point came in 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and thousands of Sikhs were massacred in retaliation. For the older generations, this violence brought back memories of the 1947 Partition of India; young writers and social activists including Urvashi Butalia began recording their stories. Butalia eventually wrote a seminal book, Other Side of Silence (2000), based on these oral histories as well as her own family’s story of moving to India from Lahore, now in Pakistan. Around the same time Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin’s groundbreaking Borders and Boundaries (1998) was published, documenting women’s experiences of Partition, about which until then it seemed a collective amnesia had existed.
1984’s violence and revisiting of the past coincided with a maturation of the Indian publishing industry. In that year, Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon set up the first independent women’s publishing firm in India (and indeed, in all of Asia), Kali for Women. They looked at a range of literature from fiction to non-fiction, including reportage and oral histories. Kali for Women, and its founders’ subsequent projects, Zubaan Books and Women Unlimited, have published many women writers in original English and in translation, such as the brilliant short story and spec-fic writer Manjula Padmanabhan (Three Virgins, 2013) food and nature writer-cum-illustrator and delightful storyteller, Bulbul Sharma (Eating Women, Telling Tales, 2009), environmentalist Vandana Shiva (Staying Alive, 1998), and numerous other writers, historians and freedom fighters.
Along with independent publishers, little magazines were on the rise, while multinational publishers like HarperCollins and Penguin also began establishing offices in India. Meanwhile, a growing recognition that the work of women writers had sales potential meant more opportunities for them to be published. In 1992, Oxford University Press (OUP) India published an unprecedented memoir by a Tamil Dalit Catholic nun, Bama, who had left the order and returned home. Karukku proved to be a bestseller, and has remained in print. At this time OUP India also published the seminal volumes on Women Writing in India: Volume 1: 600 B.C. to the Early Twentieth Century(1991) and Volume 2: The Twentieth Century(1993), a collection of hundreds of texts representing the rich variety of regions and languages in India.
Indian women’s writing hit a new high when Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize for her 1997 debut novel, The God of Small Things, exploring forbidden love in Kerala.(Roy’s second novel, 2017’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, addresses some of the most devastating events in India’s modern history. It has enjoyed a global release with enviable media hype, further demonstrating the remarkable progress in how women’s writing is received by critics and the public).
Soon, an increasing body of women writers representative of groups that have been marginalised on the basis of sexuality, language, caste, and religion began to be published. These included Urmila Pawar(The Weave of My Life, 2009), and Tamil Muslim poet Salma whose memoir The Hour Past Midnight (2009) was made into a documentary (Salma) and screened at the Sundance festival. Once housemaid Baby Haldar’s memoir, published in English 2006 as A Life Less Ordinary, became an international bestseller, many more memoirs and biographies began to be published—including those of novelist and entrepreneur Prabha Khaitan, academic and activist Vina Mazumdar, actress and singer Kana Devi, trans activist A. Revathy, and activist and actress Shaukat Kaifi.
Such robust publishing by and for women has ensured that the contemporary generation of writers is far more confident of their voices, experimenting with form as they explore a range of issues.
A number of women writers are addressing family and domestic issues with humor, notably Manju Kapur with Home (2006), her Jane Austen-like novel about family dynamics; Andaleeb Wajid with My Brother’s Wedding (2013), a gorgeous novel about the shenanigans of organising a Muslim wedding; celebrity Twinkle Khanna with Mrs Funnybones (2015), based on her delightful newspaper column; and Veena Venugopal with a powerful collection about The Mother-in-Law: The Other Woman in your Marriage (2014).
Meanwhile, other authors have been exploring the theme of the strong woman in harrowing—though by no means unusual—circumstances. Samhita Arni retells the Mahabharata war saga from a woman’s point of view in Sita’s Ramayana (2011). K R Meera’s multi-layered novel Hangwoman (published in English in 2014) is about a woman executioner who inherited the job from her father. Meena Kandaswamy’s autobiographical novel When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife (2017) reveals devastating and isolating violence in a marriage. In the same vein, Malika Amar Shaikh’s aforementioned I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir explores the horror of living with a man who in his public life spoke out for the rights of the oppressed, but showed none of this humanity at home.
Building on the tradition of more than a century, today there is a long list of women writers in the Indian sub-continent who are feisty, nuanced in their writing and yet universal in many of the issues they share. They are fully engaged with themes such as independence, domesticity, domestic violence, professional commitments, motherhood, parenting, sexual harassment, politics, and identity. This is undoubtedly a vibrant space of publishing, and this article has just about explored tip of the proverbial iceberg.
For more recommendations, please explore the Related Books carousel below. And as always, please join the conversation: use the comments section to add any further books to the list.
GST has been implemented as of 1 July 2017. It is early days as yet but GBO is organising a roundtable on the topic. I will be moderating it. Here are the details.
Greetings from the German Book Office!
In the view of the current GST regime, publishers and printers have many questions about the taxation purview. German Book Office cordially invites you to participate in the Round Table on GST at JUMPSTART 2017. This is an open round-table especially designed for clarifications on the matter of GST, to be held at India International Centre, New Wing. It will be moderated by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, International Publishing Consultant.
1. Mr. Sujit Ghosh, Partner at ADVAITA Legal
2. Mr. Sanjay Garg, Partner- Indirect Tax, KPMG India
Agenda: Book publishing and printing – GST Do’s & Don’ts
Who should attend?
– Publishing professionals
The Publishing & Print Industry is in a state of dilemma with the new tax structure affecting the business. Come join us in this open house discussion while we decode GST.
4 August 2016
4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
India International Centre, New Wing, New Delhi
To confirm your availability please contact the following number: 011 49120951. By invitation only.
Recently I have come across two articles about what is a writerly life. The first one is by well-known Australian writer, Frank Moorhouse, in Meanjin entitled : “Is Writing a Way of Life …and if so, what is the writerly life?” He has been a published author for more than fifty years. It is behind a paywall but here are a few relevant lines from it. It is a long article, well worth paying to read it.
Literary writers who eschew sales as an ultimate validation live by the legends of those writers who were wrongly dismissed by critics, whose first book was rejected by 100 publishers, and cherish the belief that their talent will be recognised after death. It is also a characteristic of many literary writers to be ignorant of the economics of our vocation—some have a disdain for concerns with copyright, even publishing contracts or publicity.
The objective in all writing is to connect with an authentic readership (this may not happen quickly). Another characteristic of the literary author is the influence of the work on other writers and on other art forms because the literary author is sometimes working at the innovative edge either in thought or form and has a degree of originality either in form or coming from the personality of the author expressed through unusual style. How-ever, some important writers work within the recognisable conventions of form and genre.
Ultimately writers and readers accept that in writing there are many different categories of ‘success’. Some of these categories sound better in French: succès d’estime (reviews, scholarly interest); succès de commerce (sales); succès de scandale; succès de culte. Others include: to be named as a leading regional writer; ‘best of her generation’; best gay, best Greek-Australian; ‘our most interesting young writer’; best ‘emerging writer’; one of our ‘eminent’ writers; a ‘much loved’ writer; and as a serious writer with a small but devoted readership. There is nothing we can do to determine how we are evaluated at any given time. It is a bona-fide, continuous, affined readership (not necessarily a large one) that the literary tradition seeks. And of course, some books remain as a valued part of the reading life of the society and ultimately go on, over a lifetime or longer, to outsell the sometimes ephemeral bestsellers of the day (although not all bestsellers are ephemeral and some are considered literary). As Milton put it in Paradise Lost, ‘Fit audience find, though few.’ But how few?
He argues for public patronage to encourage writers.
Some form of public funding will always remain necessary not only for the encouragement of new talent but also for mid-career and late-career talents—older writers sometimes also require ‘encouragement’ along with financial support. The concept of social rights relating to the special nature of serious writing was absent until the introduction of public lending right (PLR) for payment to authors for the use of their books in public libraries (in 1974, through the initiative of Colin Simpson and the Australian Society of Authors); the reform of the Copyright Act to provide payment for multiple copying of their work and the establishment of the Copyright Agency Limited in 1986 through the initiative of Gus O’Donnell and the ASA; and education lending right in 2001 through the initiative of Libby Gleeson and the ASA for the use of their books in educational libraries. The beauty of these payments is that they are directly tied to the use of the author’s work by the community: the ugliness is that the rates paid are decided by the government of the day and have depreciated over time. Most authors would be happier with the funding of writing if it depended less on schemes ultimately controlled by the government of the day and committees and was based instead on a legislated economic mechanism out of reach of those in power. These sorts of payments, by their nature, protect the author from political discrimination, the problems of peer review and from attacks by those opposed to public funding of the arts.
The place we give the book as a culturally important artefact is evident in our strange economic arrangements for it—a treatment unlike other ‘products’. First, 70 years after the death of the author the work enters the public domain. Second, through compulsory licensing, setting in examinations and teaching by educational institutions and other uses can occur without the author’s consent (though, now, not without eventual payment by one mechanism or another). Third, the fair dealing provisions of the Copyright Act allow people to quote from and copy the author’s work for scholarship and research work without payment. Finally, the work is available to the community free of charge through the free library system.
The book is important because so much of the activity of the world and the other arts depends upon the book for knowledge and ideas, for the exploration of intricacy, and we depend upon the telling of stories for our personal growth through imaginative delight, enquiry and engagement and for our stability as a person and as a society.
Nine years ago Indian writer, Madhulika Liddle, who gave up her 9-5 job to devote herself to full time writing says in
This fact – that you do not require a certificate to call yourself a writer – gives the average non-writer the impression that this isn’t a profession to be taken seriously. But, given that literature festivals multiply like rabbits and every year throws up yet another clutch of celebrity writers, it seems obvious (to those not writers themselves) that writers make a lot of money.
The reality, though, is far more mundane and far less glorious. Writing is hard work (and rework – there’s a lot of rework involved). Research is time consuming, creativity is hard to sustain and the entire process needs a lot of discipline. It takes years to write a book, and more to edit it up to the level that you would like to see in print.
What’s more, for the bulk of writers, the earnings from books are abysmal. Let me offer an example: my Muzaffar Jang series, launched in 2008, has so far sold only about 6,500 copies. That includes all four titles, and it includes physical copies and e-books. If you take into account the fact that I get a royalty of 7.5% on each physical book and each book costs somewhere between Rs 300-400, you can easily calculate how little money I’ve made off these books. Also, piracy has drained away some of my potential earnings.
Most of us have to find avenues other than just writing books in order to stay afloat. Articles for publications, both paper and digital, can bring in income. So can editing assignments, contributions to anthologies and the sharing – through lectures and workshops – of the skill and craft of creative writing. Self-publishing, despite the flak it often draws, can pay significantly higher returns than traditional publishing. Plus, a book with staying power can, as long as it is in print, go on bringing in royalties.
All of that helps me keep writing. That, and the knowledge that the greater my body of work, the greater my chances of increasing my readership. The more books I write, the more I get recognised. Most of all, though, the more I write, the more I realise that my decision to leave the corporate world wasn’t a bad one. Writing is fulfilling in ways it is hard to fully communicate. The research itself is intriguing, digging into a world that you thought you knew, but can still surprise you. Then there is the creation of characters, and the world that they inhabit. It becomes a part of you, and you fall in love with it to a certain degree. It is that love that you share with your readers. I will never be rolling in wealth, and making ends meet will probably be difficult for as long as I only write, but at least I will be content.
The bottomline is that a writer’s profession is a hard one, usually without the advantage of a regular income to keep body and soul together. It may seem glamorous but it is not. Yet as is evident from the two articles that writers make their choices.
Two more articles of interest about the writerly life:
Elizabeth Strout ( ‘If I ever return to a small town, I want you to kill me’ The Guardian, 7 June 2017 )
Laila Lalami ( ‘Laila Lalami on the public writer vs. the private self’ Los Angeles Time, 30 March 2017)
Colson Whitehead ( “Write the book that scares you shitless” LitHub, 23 November 2016)
23 April is celebrated as World Book and Copyright Day. According to UNESCO “23 April is a symbolic date for world literature. It is on this date in 1616 that Cervantes, Shakespeare and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega all died. It is also the date of birth or death of other prominent authors, such as Maurice Druon, Haldor K.Laxness, Vladimir Nabokov, Josep Pla and Manuel Mejía Vallejo. It was a natural choice for UNESCO’s General Conference, held in Paris in 1995, to pay a world-wide tribute to books and authors on this date, encouraging everyone, and in particular young people, to discover the pleasure of reading and gain a renewed respect for the irreplaceable contributions of those, who have furthered the social and cultural progress of humanity.”
It is befitting to mention Create, Copyright and Disrupt: India’s Intellectual Property Dilemmas by Prashant Reddy T. and Sumathi Chandrashekharan. The title itself a play on the slogan “Create, Protect, Innovate” that has been adopted by IP agencies and IP conferences worldwide. It gives a good overview on the patent history in India particularly for the pharmaceutical industry, the impact of the Berne Convention the publishing industry in India to the recent amendment to the Copyright Act ( 2012) brought about at the insistence of ex-Parliamentarian and prominent lyricist Javed Akhtar and finally the Geographical Indications of Goods Act [Registeration and Protection] Act, 1999 illustrated with the famous Neem and Basmati rice cases. The essays are written lucidly with a view to being accessed by the lay person and not necessarily mired in legal speak.
This is a good manual to have handy to understand how IPR works particularly since it revolves around the discussion and recognition of copyright as being a right to reproduce the work, communicate the work to the public or to the right to incorporate the work in another format such as a sound recording. This is dependant on recognising the author’s intellectual capital and compensating them adequately for it through licensing fees, time period of which varies from nation to nation. There are variations to this in the issue of first ownership of the copyrights particularly in the case of music and lyrics where the creator has been in the employment of the firm and been compensated for the work done. IPR conversations are critical since they link the creativity of a human mind to that of a right, the protection of whose onus falls upon the State, thereby ensuring the author/creator can earn some money of it. And it gains more significance when so much information is available digitally and where content is viewed as the oil of twenty-first century!
Prashant Reddy T. and Sumathi Chandrashekharan Create, Copyright and Disrupt: India’s Intellectual Property Dilemmas ( Foreword by Shamnad Basheer) Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2017. Hb. pp. 372 Rs. 850
Seagull Books has been publishing exquisite books for some decades now. What is truly remarkable about their publishing programme is that they do accord equal respect to their readers worldwide. So it is immaterial where you may purchase a Seagull title but the quality of production will always be the same. Seagull Books have now signed a contract with Pan Macmillan India to make Seagull World Literature available in India.
The founder of Seagull Books, Naveen Kishore, believes in publishing what he wishes to as he told me in an interview ( 2013). In fact for his work he has been awarded the Goethe Medal. Every year the publishers produce a fine catalogue which is a collector’s item by itself for the author contributions and Sunandini Banerjee’s incredible designs. Take a look at the current Seagull catalogue ( order form). It is delicious!
Today the Hindu carries a front page photograph of a woman devotee at devotional gathering on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram. This is for Attukal Amma or the people’s Goddess as she is popularly known. According to Lekshmy Rajeev who has written an illustrated book ( HarperCollins India) on the goddess Attukal Amma is Bhadrakali, the all-pervading and protecting Mother.
The book blurb says:
Legend has it that the Goddess chose the spot at Attukal, near Thiruvananthapuram, for an abode. Millions of women devotees the world over repose their unalloyed love and trust in Attukal Amma, and they throng Attukal during the annual Pongala festival. Attukal Amma: The Goddess of Millions familiarizes the reader with the Bhadrakali cult in Kerala and provides a ringside view of the Pongala festival and the various rituals associated with it, even as it raises doubts about the authenticity of the myth of Kannagi, the heroine of Chilapathikaram, associated with the temple. The pages of this book are interspersed with rare photographs and paintings, some of them depicting candid moments of the awe-inspiring rituals of the worship of Goddess Bhadrakali. It introduces the reader to the esoteric world of rites and rituals of daily worship at the temple.
( On 3 December 2016 the New Indian Express published a feature article on graphic novels in India by Catherine Gilon and Jayanthi Somasundaram in India for which I was interviewed as well. I have c&p the text below.)
In a dark and stormy night, a dark knight rises, silhouetted against a moonless sky. Gods prepare for war a few thousand years in the mystical past. A goddess manifests herself in a young woman who has been raped and takes revenge. In the more recent past and in the now, history is retold through nostalgic strips of art. Sholay and Shivaay splatter across four-colour pages.
But the one that everyone’s waiting for is yet to come. S S Rajamouli’s breathtaking world of Baahubali promises to change India’s perception of graphic novels forever.
These heroes are not guardians of Gotham City, Metropolis or New York. They are in our own Indian backyard, spawning out of graphic novels, embedding themselves in the hearts of those who grew up with Batman, Superman, Spider-man and their league of super heroes. Artful pictures that tell tales of valour, humour, sex, gossip, introspection, despair, darkness and light—graphic novels are making a bold and in-your-face impression on paper in four colours.
A mix of photographs, drawings and text bound together in a slim book brought out the colours and darkness in the lives of three men in Delhi in 2004 in Corridor, which leapfrogged its author Sarnath Banerjee and the rise of the graphic novel movement in India. It took Sarnath three-and-a-half years to complete the story set in the corridors of Connaught Place and Kolkata, capturing the essence of urban lives in all its madness.
V K Karthika, who was then senior editor at Penguin Books, took a huge risk by accepting his manuscript. “There was no commercially available graphic novel available in India at that time. She must have spent hours trying to convince marketing. Today, most publishers want to do graphic novels,” says the 44-year-old artist, whose work represents the rapidly-changing Indian lifestyle.
But graphic novels are not new to India. What is new is the themes they depict. With the success of events such as Comic Con 2016, people have come to view the genre of graphic novels in a different light. Visually strung-together powerful stories by 14 women in Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back, published by Zubaan Books last year, reiterate that the realm of sequential art and graphic storytelling is here to stay.
“Amar Chitra Katha presented mythological tales in an illustrated format to readers all over India,” explains S Vijayan, the 49-year-old editor of Lion Comics, a pioneer in regional comics in Tamil Nadu. “Today, there are some young Indian comic book publishers who give an imaginative twist to our mythology for the English and Hindi audience. We need to keep pace with and embrace the changing times. That is why more space is now being created for graphic novels in other Indian languages as well.”
The term ‘graphic novel’ was coined in 1964, and the Amar Chitra Katha comics were launched in India in 1967. The country welcomed the world of comics with open arms. Initially, they focused on retelling the epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana. The reality of the power of graphic novels struck us much later when Orijit Sen penned his River of Stories in 1994. Published by Kalpavriksh, his pioneering work focused on how the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada river in Gujarat would impact locals. It was India’s first
attempt at cartoon journalism and, perhaps, India’s first graphic novel.
“I didn’t grow up with graphic novels as there weren’t any then,” says Sarnath, who was exposed to comics in a Bengali magazine in episodic forms—Indrajal, Amar Chitra Katha and even Tintin. “I was drawn to them because it was like staging your own play,” says the Berlin-based Indian graphic novelist.
Vijayan believes people need to accept that there is a thin line of separation between comics and graphic novels. “Comics in general are an all-encompassing genre, with awesome variety to suit all readers—young and not so young. Comics can mean fun-filled cartoons for kids, superhero stuff, mythology and more. On the other hand, graphic novels are a bit deeper, depict real life and target a mature readership,” he says.
Even though the last decade has seen the rise of more realistic stories, our hunger for superheroes has not gone down. “What has made superheroes and our genre of storytelling so successful is that great superheroes have for generations been reflective of larger societal narratives. They deal with serious storylines through characters that are flawed and go through a story of transformation and growth,” says 41-year-old Sharad Devarajan, co-founder and CEO, Graphic India, a publishing house.
Most readers will admit that the endless retelling of the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics still remain their all-time favourites. Adapting these deep-rooted classics by new-age publishers often see the use of latest technology—sharper, cleaner and refreshing strokes of Ram, Lakshman, Sita, Hanuman and their clan.
Sarnath says graphic novels should reflect both mythology and reality. “There’s a lot of mythology that is created in real life, whether in politics or society. At the same time, mythology could be an inroad into understanding contemporary life. Comics with their multi-layered narratives and natural ability to play with parallel realities have a natural advantage,” says the author-illustrator, who was shortlisted for the Abraaj Group Art Prize 2015 at Art Dubai.
Even as some graphic novels look for inspiration from our yesteryear ethos, some look at present-day pathos. New York-based filmmaker Ram Devineni took up the case of rape survivors in his first novel, Priya’s Shakti. “I was in Delhi in 2012 when the December 16 gang-rape happened,” he says. “I participated in the protests that followed. I was horrified. The problem of sexual violence in India was not a legal issue, it was a cultural problem. For about a year, I travelled around India and Southeast Asia learning from poets, philosophers, activists, talking with rape survivors.”
During his journey, Ram realised how difficult it was for them to seek justice. On a parallel journey of understanding, he began researching Hindu mythology and discovered the many rich stories. “Often a disciple would call on the gods for help during dire situations. So I began formulating a new mythological tale where a mortal woman and rape survivor seeks help from Goddess Parvati. I wanted to create a new Indian superhero, Priya, who is a rape survivor,” he adds. What he did not expect was the stupendous success of the novel, which received so much acclaim that the World Bank approached them for Priya’s Mirror, an edition on acid attack victims. It was released in India in October at the Mumbai Comic Con.
Ram chose to work in this genre because he grew up reading Amar Chitra Katha, which influenced him hugely. “I first learned about Hindu mythology through their comic book series. Comics are an important part of our culture and hugely popular with teenagers and young adults,” he says. Ram explains how comic books have entered the commercial mainstream, major Hollywood releases are based on comic book characters and they fetch enormous box office returns. “Comic book characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman have become modern mythological icons. Other stories such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus address important historical events. We are using existing constructs that are familiar to everyone in India, but presenting them in a fresh and original way.”
Gaysi Zine, compiled by editor Priya Gangwani and art director Sreejita Biswas (aka Solo), is another success story that shocked conservative India. The country’s first graphic anthology with over 30 contributors visualising the gay Indian community is wacky, vibrant and brilliant. Solo from Bengaluru says she did not imagine its raging success. “The response was amazing. Starting from the successful crowdfunding and ending with the books selling out in the blink of an eye, it was quite the journey to be a part of,” she says. “When Gaysi Zine came out last year, a friend’s father called me to apologise for being homophobic and turning his daughter out of the house when she came out as a lesbian. That has been the biggest achievement for us.”
The making of a graphic novel involves a lot of hard work and intelligence. “It’s a great way to communicate with people across all ages, with people who can’t read, and overcome language barriers. It’s the cheapest way to make a three-headed alien having an epic space fight to come to life,” laughs Solo.
While many were exploring graphic novels to break stereotypes, Orjit used this format as a journalistic tool. He tried to narrate the voices lost in the 24-hour breaking news format with First Hand: Graphic Non-Fiction from India (2016). Vidyun Sabhaney, 29, who co-edited the book with Orijit, says: “First Hand came to us as an idea two years ago. We felt there were hardly any comics that told contemporary narratives. Comics that told urgent stories of the odds against which lives are being lived, and the events and forces that are shaping them, were missing. This understanding most often comes to us as reports, or in the form of books, but rarely as a visual story that can bring them alive with details, characters, location, etc.”
The Girl Not from Madras (perhaps the most poignant story from First Hand) takes you straight to the bricks of the police station, reluctance, apathy, et al. The Gurgaon-based writer recalls that when they put out a call for entries for the anthology, they got over 50 applications, many with preliminary sketches, storyboards and plots.
Vidyun agrees. “The community of creators is growing very quickly and attracting people from different disciplines. First Hand is an example of that. This is very different from how it was five years ago, when there were just a handful of comics creators. The medium is being used for many purposes—conventional storytelling, personal catharsis, documentation, education, etc.”
Graphic novels and comics have always sold well in India, says Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, an international publishing consultant in Delhi. “Characters such as Bahadur, created by Aabid Surti, are very popular. It is a familiar form of storytelling, and the Indian audience is receptive to it,” she says. But graphic novels require heavy investment. “When released, it must be affordable, and a substantial number of units must sell. It’s a Catch-22 situation. There is a lot of potential in this genre, but publishers will be wary of experimentation unless it is a tested author.” She cites Malik Sajjad’s Munnu as a remarkable graphic novel that narrates the story on J&K, with the Kashmiri Hangul stag anthropomorphised. “That’s an incredibly powerful book, but it was not published in India, though it was distributed locally,” she adds.
Sarnath points out that the international publishing world for graphic novels is dominated by the white middle-class male, with some designated spots for women, coloured writers and some easy-to-digest identity politics. The politics it represents is not as sophisticated as the form. “The story is different in India. A lot of bright people do graphic novels. It’s a better bet to work within the Indian sub-continent and look for markets outside the West, such as South Africa, Egypt and other non-Western regions,” explains Sarnath.
While working on the Gaysi Zine anthology, Sreejitha says she found that people want to read and know more. “The awesome thing about comic book lovers is that we actually want to keep reading new stuff from new places by new people.”
There seems to be a tremendous amount of illustrated stories in the graphic novel format, straddling a variety of genres, both fiction and non-fiction, for a varied age group, from six years to infinity, believes Rashmi R D, 40, editor of Blaft Publications in Chennai. She agrees that comics with fictitious super humans with super powers thrived in the early years. But today, there are some amazing, hard-hitting non-fiction graphic novels for readers available in India.
Blaft Publications’ first graphic novel was Moonward by Appupen, which released in 2009. In 2011, it was selected for the Angouleme Festival, France. Reviewed as vicious, dark and brutally honest, Appupen created the world of Halahala, named after the poison generated through the churning of the primordial ocean and swallowed by Shiva. He brings to light the absurdities, idiosyncrasies and poisons of our own world through his debut novel. “Moonward knocked our metaphoric socks off at so many different levels. The world that Moonward was set in was so off the wall. It was what we wanted to get behind one hundred per cent,” recounts Rashmi. “First, it was Appupen’s art style; the second was that more than 70 per cent of the book was ready.”
Graphic novels have also arrived in the world of education. “The creation of a graphic novel is essentially storyboarding, just like a movie script. This similarity leads to a visual delight for young readers,” explains Girija Jhunjhunwala, 45, director, Campfire Publications, Delhi. Since their launch in 2008, they have published over 100 graphic novels. She admits that Campfire has faced several challenges, of which the first was to find authors, illustrators and editors in India.
“When we started out, graphic novels were a new format and several authors we approached were not able to help. It was an uphill task to find and convince artists to join Campfire, although several young artists that we recruited loved the idea of using their talent for something unique and new,” says Girija. “Booksellers tend to stock graphic novels at the back of shops where customers cannot see them. I am hoping that with the success of events like the Comic Con, the growing reader fraternity of graphic novels will one day convince book shops to bring graphic novels to the forefront in their displays.”
Vijayan agrees and underlines that the world over, graphic novels are an accepted entertainment format and have stunning sales numbers. “In India, there is a slight mental block and we tend to connect kidstuff to reading comics. One picture can convey what a hundred words can fail to. You will be stunned to discover the depth and volume that both comics and graphic novels offer,” he says.
With over 10 of their titles recommended by CBSE and 13 titles recommended by Kendriya Vidyalayas, Girija believes that graphic novels are a suitable medium for engaging young, hesitant readers who may find textbooks boring. “Keeping that end in mind, we have published graphic novel adaptations of well-known Western classics and historical events, biographies of famous persons (Mother Teresa: Angel of the Slums and Steve Jobs: Genius by Design), and tales and legends from Indian and Greek mythologies,” says Girija. “A graphic novel, when used as educational material for young readers, is essentially information disguised as entertainment. In today’s context, time is at premium for the young and graphic novels are indeed ‘instant coffee’ for young readers.”
Like all genres of books, graphic novels also face the brunt of digital revolution. But some use this to up their game. Ram uses augmented reality to elevate the reading experience. “Augmented reality is a major part of our comic book, and by scanning the book with the popular augmented reality app Blippar, you can view animation, real-life stories, and interactive elements pop out of the pages,” he says. Working on his next, Priya and the Last Girls, with Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an NGO working to end sex trafficking, Ram hopes to define new frontiers of integrating books, exhibitions, and public art with augmented reality.
For a nation that grew up with stories and later movies, it makes perfect sense to merge the grandeur of film-making with the in-depth storytelling nature of graphic novels. In the past, the likes of the Bollywood blockbusters Sholay—and more recently, Shivaay—were made into graphic novels.
The upcoming graphic series Baahubali: The Lost Legends is set before the Kalakeya invasion depicted in the movie, when Baahubali and Bhallaladeva as young princes of Mahishmati vie for the crown. The animated series will explore characters such as Prince Baahubali, Bhallaladeva, Kattapa and Sivagami as well as a dozen new characters as they reveal hidden secrets for millions of fans. The series will follow the relationship between the two cousins as they journey across the kingdom of Mahishmati, solving hidden mysteries, overcoming ancient terrors and defending their people from danger.
Sharad Devarajan from Graphic India says, “When Rajamouli revealed the depth of the characters and the world he created, we knew fans would love to go deeper than what could be shown in the films; comics and other transmedia storytelling experiences would allow for these opportunities. In the same way that Star Wars reshaped US cinema and sparked transmedia in the West for generations thereafter, Baahubali will be the pivotal moment we see that similar change emerge here in India.”
Are creating graphic novels an exciting and lucrative career option? “Graphic novelists are paid the same as any author’s royalty, usually 8-12 per cent of the book price. However, it’s a financial nightmare if you want to live on your books,” reveals Sarnath. Sreejita adds: “The payment a graphic novelist receives entirely depends on the publisher. Without a guild to help creators, there are no fixed rates. They can make as much as `5,000 for a page
or as little as `100.”
There’s another factor that publications consider. “In Blaft Publications’ early years, we’d get a lot of queries from people who had ideas and concepts for comics and graphic novels. Having an idea and having a volume of completed, original work ready to present, that’s crucial deciding factor.”
Characters Who Connected With Us
From super heroes to chaiwallahs, here are some characters who struck a chord with readers while presenting stories from India
Jehangir Rangoonwalla (dispenser of tea, wisdom, and used books), Ibn Batuta (looking for obscure collectibles and love), Digital Dutta (who lives in his head, torn between Karl Marx and an H1-B visa), and Shintu (the newly-wed).
Amar Chitra Katha
Suppandi is the most popular toon of Tinkle Comics, created in 1987. He is based on the Tamil folklore character chappandi, who is a total goof and makes you laugh with his silly antics.
The Gaysi Zine
Priya Gangwani and Sreejita Biswas
A collection of stories written and illustrated by artists captures the truth, from personal experiences, expressing values that are felt deep down to the core.
Munnu: A Boy From Kashmir
Seven-year-old Munnu presents an insight into everyday life through evocative graphics.
Astra, the Immortal
After creating superhero Chakra with the legendary Stan Lee, Graphic India will recreate the magic with Amitabh Bachchan. The story revolves around mythical superhero Astra, played by Amitabh’s animated version, taking on supervillains to rule the galaxy.
First Hand: Graphic Non-Fiction From India, Vol 1
Orijit Sen and Vidyun Sabhaney
Gujarat riot victims as first-time voters, trafficking and forced marriages in Haryana, a vegetable vendor from Kolkata who becomes a world-renowned artist, and 20 other stories.
Suhas Sundar and Deepak Sharma
Odayan is a superhero with a dark side in the backdrop of feudal Kerala. He amasses wealth and builds a criminal empire. The green Kathakali-inspired mask strikes closer to home in both the visual realm as well as contextual.
Saurav Mohapatra and Sayan Mukherjee
The story set in 1909 is about Shankar, a middle-class Bengali village boy who is expected to get a job and take on more responsibilities. But Shankar’s heart is full of wanderlust and he wants to venture into the wilds of Africa.
Nirmala and Normala
Niveditha Subramaniam and Sowmya Rajendran
Nirmala and Normala are twins separated at birth. One becomes an actress, the other a normal person. Their lives run parallel to each other, bringing out the stark contrast between reality and movies.