One Plate Pao Bhaji

From Orijit Sen’s dream sequence to Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s immigrant menagerie,Pao packs a riot of visual styles

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Published: September 8, 2012 12:23:20 am

Book: Pao: The Anthology of Comics 1

Publisher: Penguin

Pages: 301

Price: Rs 799

India’s oldest comic art is the patachitra of Orissa and West Bengal,which is believed to be associated with Puri’s Jagannath Temple and Kolkata’s Kalighat. It has a narrative form,a scroll which is unrolled frame by frame as the storyteller sings the tale. That’s roughly the technique used by Iram Ghufran,Ikroop Sandhu and Mitoo Das in “The Afterlife of Ammi’s Betelnut Box”,where the story is accompanied by images that lie in the shadow land between illustration and fine art,done in mixed styles recalling Mughal miniatures,the Arabian Nights,Soviet-era fairy tales,MC Escher and maybe even Prem Singh.

From this adaptation of an ancient form to the utterly modern two-colour look of Amitabh Kumar in “Helmetman in Zamzamabad”,which betrays the influence of the Batla House encounters and the demonisation of Azamgarh,Pao sports a dozen different styles,one from each contributor. Graphic fiction is regarded as a genre but it defies categorisation. It marries the speed of cinema with the hallucinatory lucidity of the freeze frame,the ceaseless flow of narrative with the heart-stopping power of poetry. And the beauty of the form is that at its best,the feast it lays out for the senses suspends rationality and defeats criticism.

So a comic book should not be theorised about. It is meant to be eaten,drunk,inhaled,bolted down greedily before it’s borrowed or stolen. And this book is so damned attractive it’s doomed to be stolen. In fact,booklifters will steal it from prior booklifters in an endless chain of grand larceny. Even though it’s a steal at Rs 799 cheap,as Alfred E. Neuman would put it.

Orijit Sen’s cover is a treat — the elder Bruegel,Hieronymus Bosch and Sukumar Ray in equal parts,executed with amazing attention to detail. But the reader’s mileage will vary among the 12 authors/ artists presented here. Comics speak directly to the pineal gland and yours is not the same as your friend’s,and not the same as it was 20 years ago either. I was turned off by “Hindus and Offal” by Ambarish Satwik and Pia Alize Hazarika (not an anti-Hindu text,so you can put that trishul down now),but it’s a gut response. I may have liked it if I was 20 years younger. Salil Chaturvedi and Priya Kurian’s “The Pink”,about an insurance agent morphing into a flamingo,seemed a little forced.

But overall,this anthology refreshed parts of me that only comics can reach. Samit Basu and Orijit Sen’s “Plasmoids” is a pleasant reminder of silver age sci-fi and noir. Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s “RSVP” is a withering satire on his own community,using the style of Kalighat paintings. His panels are peopled by the largely immigrant menagerie which produces culture and funds its production in Delhi. Regulars on the circuit will sight friends and associates here. Most easily recognisable is a guy in a sari with a close haircut and stubbled chin.

The most unforgettable contribution is by the man who started the Indian graphic novel rolling in 1995. Orijit Sen’s “Hair Burns Like Grass”,an exploration of the legacy of Kabir in modern Varanasi,is a superbly rich dream sequence in monochrome. So rich that you can’t merely consume it. To borrow an astonishing turn of phrase from I. Allan Sealy,you can only embezzle it. Sen has taken the genre of superheroes and supermice,slapstick and long-perspective swagger,and forged his own monochrome style to tell a deeply human tale.

In 2009,I first heard that an anthology of Indian comics was being brewed up. The Pao Collective was morphing from a secret society of comic mad scientists to a mainstream mentoring group,a crucible of cooperative creation in this long-neglected and highly collaborative narrative form. At that time,Pao was focused on the most difficult problem in independent publishing — how to remain free while seeking mainstream audiences.

The riot of visual styles,narrative techniques and subjects in this anthology is tangible proof of Pao’s independence. If mainstream publishing had been in charge here,this would have been a sausage factory product. Penguin has done well to give the collective elbow room. But dear Penguin People,you need a better printer for comics. My copy fell apart in one reading,devastating potential booklifters.

Having protected its independence,Pao is almost there. Pao means bread,as seen in Irani cafes. To use an unforgettable Bushism,the collective’s name expresses the desire to put food on the family by doing comics alone. But all of Pao’s core members have day jobs — Orijit Sen,Amitabh Kumar,Sarnath Banerjee,Vishwajyoti Ghosh and Parismita Singh. Maybe the next anthology will fix that (see paocollective.wordpress.com for updates). As for me,I’m hungry for more already.

(Disclaimer: The reviewer has published the early work of Sarnath Banerjee,Vishwajyoti Ghosh and Parismita Singh,but has no links with their present projects.)

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