Jan 6, 2010
If I had a rupee for every time I’ve heard the sentence, “This is about the battle between good and evil”, I’d be a multi-millionaire. I could bet that every book that tells a story from Hindu Mythology has this sentence somewhere in its pages. It is a cliché I have truly come to hate, because it grossly and erroneously oversimplifies the truly complex stories of Hindu Mythology. So I was pretty dismayed when this phrase showed up as a tagline for a recent exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Luckily, “Heroes & Villains: The Battle for Good in India’s Comics”, is a forgivable case of inappropriate titling. I completely sympathise with the exhibition’s curators, Julie Romain and Tushara Bindu Gude. Coming up with a title that bundles together Chitrakathi art from Paithan, Miniatures from Guler, Amar Chitra Katha, Wonder Woman, and Ramayan 3392 AD and Devi from Liquid Comics, must have been a pretty uphill task. But once you get past that unfortunate title wall, painted so stereotypically in fuchsia pink and orange, the richness and diversity of the material on display gives lie to any one-liner analysis of the fascinating development of comics in India.
The focus of the exhibition is definitely the artwork for Liquid Comics’ Ramayan 3392 AD and Devi, released between 2006 and 2008. The exhibition begins with a series of pages from both these comics, which are astounding in their nuances. There is no doubt that Abhishek Singh, Saumin Patel and Mukesh Singh are not only among the finest comic artists in India, but also talented illustrators with a very strong sense of the contemporary Indian imagination. The post-liberalisation Indian psyche has at its disposal an excitingly democratic range of visual references. Abhishek Singh’s re-imagination of the epics makes full use of this arsenal. Every frame contains within it a heady mixture of India’s tradition of visual narratives coupled with heavy contemporary referencing. If his Vishwamitra looks suspiciously like Gandalf, it is only a mark of the times.
Some other visual influences are also immediately apparent: Amar Chitra Katha (ACK), for instance. This comics giant from the 1970’s defined the visual language for Hindu Mythology for at least two generations of young Indians. Certain scenes from the epics - The killing of Mahishasura, Ram and Sita in the forest, Hanuman at Ravan’s court and the Breaking of the Bow - have been visually codified by ACK to such an extent that it is difficult to frame these visuals in a different way without making them look alien. Pages from ACK’s comics Valmiki's Ramayana and Tales of Durga find due place in this exhibition, allowing the knowing viewer to draw interesting comparisons with more contemporary work.
It has long been my contention that Bollywood has defined Indian notions of masculinity in more ways than one. Now it looks like there are parallels in Indian comics as well. In 1978, Ram on the iconic ACK Valmiki's Ramayana cover by artist Pratap Mullick is a muscular thickset man with features that are unmistakably from Uttar Pradesh: much like Dharmendra, the superstar action hero of that era. Abhishek Singh’s Ram for Ramayan 3392 AD is more like today’s Bollywood heartthrob Hrithik Roshan, with sharp exotic features and an impossibly V-shaped torso. But add messy dreadlocks (Pirates of the Caribbean?), fabulous sword (He Man? Lord of the Rings?), and mysterious eyes under a brooding forehead (Batman?), and you have a truly 2008 Indian Superhero.
The exhibition reminds you that the tradition continues far beyond ACK. The idea of telling stories in action-packed panels is as old as the hills in India. The Chitrakathis from Paithan (c.1850) are fairly recent, but this visual device is used in many older Indian art forms: the temple murals at Lepakshi and the Pabuji no Pad, for instance. However, the truly Indian way of visual storytelling is to seamlessly meld many sequential actions in a single panel. The exhibition has only one example of this: a Kangra painting titled Sugriva Sends Emmissaries (c.1830). This is strange considering how prevalent this device is in the contemporary comics. The finest example from this exhibition is probably Kalanemi Transforms into Asura by Abhishek Singh, a breathtaking treatment of a comparatively minor episode from the Ramayana.
To represent the international influence on Indian Comics, the curators have showcased a rare gem. In 1999, DC Comics ran a Wonder Woman series titled Godwar. The series is about Wonder Woman teaming up with gods from other cultures. Unsurprisingly, when she comes to India, she chooses to team up with Ram. While the pages on show are truly delightful in their obvious ACK inspiration; (“Behold! Mount Mandara”, Ram says in one panel) they also pave the way for the treatment of Indian Heroes in the true tradition of the comic book Super Hero, complete with wrist bands and bulging muscles.
This exhibition also pays due diligence to the development of the Super Heroine, by tracing the journey of the Durga Icon. First, there is the Devi Mahatmya painting from the Guler tradition (c.1750), showing a nubile Durga in Mughal armour. Then there is Souren Roy’s brilliant imagination of Durga for ACK (1978), which is essentially a Bengali Durga with muscles, achieving curious shades of masculine aggression in a very motherly goddess. Saumin Patel’s Devi (2006) is all Comic Book Woman, complete with oversized breasts and tight leotards. Catwoman is an obvious influence, and he certainly likes Halle Berry. But when you are confronted with the illustration Devi Vanquishes Bala, you realize that the history of the Durga icon is too strong to shake off. As she plunges her spear into the chest of the demon, she is so unmistakably Mahishasuramardini! The weight of a 1500-year-old art heritage lends a pulsing, melodramatic quality to this image, and indeed to most of the illustrations on display.
Unfortunately, this larger-than-life quality of the comics is not reflected in the design of the exhibition itself. The museum’s in-house design staff is possibly too ingrained in the tradition of the art gallery. Thus all the exciting material described above is mounted in frames, and hung on the walls like so many paintings. Some of the pieces, such as Abhishek Singh’s illustrations, are powerful enough to transcend this bad choice, and to speak beyond the frame. But the pages from ACK and Wonder Woman seem rather uncomfortable being confined to the straight-jacketing conventions of High Art. The design team has made a feeble attempt to counter this by painting the walls bright fuchsia pink and cobalt blue, but all that they pull off is a colourful art exhibition. As it stands, the design adds nothing to the message of the exhibition.
This message is also not very clear at times. A viewer familiar with Indian art and mythology might easily be able to make some sense of the exhibition, but I wonder if it provides a sufficient introduction to those who are not already initiated into the mad world of Indian popular culture. The text is inadequate, providing only broad descriptions and too few comparative insights. Another serious oversight was to leave out the narrative content of the comics themselves. Amar Chitra Katha, a name long synonymous with comics in India, literally translates as 'Immortal Picture Story'. With its skewed focus on the art work rather than the narratives, this exhibition is all picture and no story, in more ways than one.
But in splitting these hairs, one must not lose sight of the sheer ambitiousness of the exhibition. It is true that ACK has been receiving a lot of critical attention in recent years, but ACK is easier to analyse because it has been at least two decades since it has produced any original comics. The truly great challenge is to deal with contemporary popular culture with any sort of critical distance. The work of Abhishek Singh, Saumin Patel and Mukesh Singh looks like mature art, highly developed in the fluency of its language. But the fact remains that the contemporary comics industry in India is still in its early years. The curators of this exhibition bravely attempt to catch this form as it develops, and to provide a flexible critical framework within which to view this development. Given the difficulty of the task, they have been surprisingly successful. This exhibition has made one thing, at least, crystal clear. As far as the quality of the artwork in Indian Comics is concerned, the Battle for Good seems to have been won.
'Heroes and Villains: The Battle for Good in Indian Comics' is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art till February 7, 2010.
You can view the collection online here.