In September 2013, Delhi-based art consultant Raj Kamal donned the role of a guide to show his old friend the sights and sounds of India. Among other things, this friend, better known as Batman from the fictional city of Gotham, was then seen eating cotton candy at India Gate and going for long drives in Kolkata’s famed yellow taxis.
Post a series of photographs which used figurines from the Batman series, Kamal wondered what it would be like to have a Bengali superhero with a sweet tooth, a superhero who called Delhi’s Patel Nagar his home, or one who boasted of a south Indian identity. And thus came about the series called “Superheroes in India”, a growing collection of illustrations that are available online.
“I studied at the Government College of Art & Craft in Kolkata. For five years, I’d sit on the railway station and watch people as I worked on hundreds of character sketches on a regular basis,” says the 36-year-old data visualiser/ art consultant who’s been working in Delhi for a decade. All those years of doing character sketches has materialised into making Indian versions of 14 American superheroes. So while the green monster, The Hulk, is a sanskari Tam-Brahm (Tamil Brahmin), Kamal’s Spiderman is a mischievous sardar.
“Many feel that the Indian Spiderman is inspired by Manmohan Singh, but he isn’t. My work is influenced by family and friends. But certain features are essentially just plain Indian, like the oily hair sported by a Bengali Superman,” he says.
His banyan-clad, body hair-showing Wolverine poses with forks; Batman has a well-kept moustache and Wonder Woman gives the air of an empress. “Flash (Gordon) would be my favourite. He’s the first one I drew,” says Kamal. Flash, who sports a Gandhi cap, is inspired by the dabba-wallahs of Mumbai. “Before he discovered his powers, Flash would always miss his train. But never since then,” says Kamal.
Kamal’s grandmother gifted him his latest Batman figurine, which goes into his collection. “My intention was never to make a point with either Batman in India or Superheroes in India, but I believe there’s a superhero and a supervillain in each of us,” he says. But some of his illustrations do make a statement. While the one with Batman’s sidekick Robin kissing another Indian man is more subtle, the Joker in this series is more forthright. “Why so religious?” he asks. On view on Facebook, Flickr, BuzzFeed and other sites, the latest in the series is Captain America as Captain Ahmedabad, a dhokla/ thepla-loving Gujju bhai. It’s not hard to spot Kamal as he goes about observing people — wearing fluorescent green glasses and pink shoes, carrying a camera, and a bag filled with superhero figurines, ready to strike a pose.