The Indian Who Came before Wolverine

The sixties were a glorious time for Bengali sci-fi comics. The Comic Book Project is bringing these back to life
Comics
BORN AGAIN  Agantuk, created by Mayukh Choudhury in the 1960s, has a character uncannily similar to both Wolverine in X-Men and...
...Na’avis of the Film Avatar

Right about the time in the late 1970s when my pre-teen mind was devouring Tintin and Asterix comics, I chanced upon a copy of Shuktara—a Bengali monthly magazine for children. Still in my early days of learning the Bengali alphabet, I hungrily lapped up the first few pages of comic strips. In those pages, my abundantly curious mind of a kid discovered Baatul The Great.

With a body that resembled a spinning top with chopstick legs, Baatul was always dressed in a sleeveless vest (usually pink or orange) and tight black shorts. Most of the time, he was barefoot. But his superhuman feats have got imprinted on my mind. Baatul could ward off bullets, stop trains, run through concrete walls, hurl military tanks in the air and have a whale for breakfast—while effortlessly sending local crooks to their hapless fate. Baatul, essentially, was the Bengali child’s Superman.

Now,  Baatul and other characters —Handa Bhonda and Nonte Phonte—created by the reclusive artist Narayan Debnath are getting a fresh lease of life through the Comic Book Project. A joint initiative of the School of Cultural Texts and Records, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and the British Council in India, it aims to locate, collate and digitise Indian comics strips that appeared in periodicals starting no later than the 1950s in four languages—Bengali, Malayalam, Hindi and English. Abhijit Gupta, a 43-year-old professor of English at the university, is at the helm of this project.

“It could be the first step towards restoring some of the missing heritage of graphic narratives in India,” says Professor Gupta, adding, “It could eventually act as a one-stop gallery of current work and more contemporary graphic narratives.”

It is interesting to note the preservation factor in the project. Unlike Baatul, or Malayalam cartoonist Tom’s impish characters in Bobanum Moliyum that became household names among Malayalam Manorama readers, few other Indian comic strip characters have survived. While Dennis the Menace, Phantom, Peanuts or Garfield hog our comic supplements, their Indian counterparts in Aabid Surti’s Bela Bahadur, Inspector Azad, Shuja, Dabbujee, or Manjula Padmanabhan’s Suki or even Neelabh and Jayanto Banerjee’s Gardhab Das are now just memories. Ask The Times of India cartoonist Ajit Ninan of the absence of a truly Indian comic strip in the newspaper, and he will tell you of another popular character that has gone missing. He happened to create it himself: Moochwala (from the days of Target magazine) and his dog Pooch who would use his gadget KKK (Katchem Krime Komputer) to nab crooks.

“Moochwala was a hell of an idea,” he says. “The bugger was well before time. He would be so relevant today in this age of crime and noise. I would love to draw him again.” In 1995, much to the disappointment of Target readers, The India Today Group shut down the magazine in order to target an older age group. Moochwala and Pooch were thus consigned to history.

Now,  Gupta and his team, in their own superhuman effort, have collected more than 5,000 pages of such comic strips. These will soon appear on a website along with fascinating facts and information about their creators and publishers. Take the man behind Baatul, for instance. An artist from Shibpur, Howrah, Debnath’s superhero gathered an aura of invincibility around the time of the India-Pakistan war of 1971. A recluse and an octogenarian now, he continues to live in his ancestral home in Howrah. In the late 1940s, Debnath got a job as an illustrator for Deb Sahitya Kutir, a leading publishing house in Calcutta. He was quite happy with the odd illustration job and payment then—Rs 3 for a black-and-white image. For, here, he got the chance to work with his idols—comic artists Pratul Chandra Bandopadhyay, Shailo Chakraborty of Domroo-Charit, Balaibandhu Rai, Purnachandra Chakraborti and detective comics specialist Tushar Kanti Chatterjee.

“The editor liked my work and let me stay on. Gradually, all the stalwarts moved on, and the baton was passed on to me,” he stated in a rare interview, to The Telegraph. Thus were born two of the most famous Bengali youths to appear in Shuktara, Handa and Bhonda, characters who, Debnath confessed, were in the Laurel-and-Hardy mould. Its huge success with kids inspired Debnath to start a series with two young girls, called Shutki-Mutki (skinny and fatty).

By this time, Shuktara had realised the potential of Debnath’s characters. He was once again asked to create a new strip with a difference. This time, the editor wanted it to be printed in colour. This was how Baatul the Great, the great Bengali comic strip, was born. Later, he would also create other lovable characters such as Kaushik, Bahadur Bedaal and Nonte Phonte.

In the early 1960s and about the time Debnath’s Handa and Bhonda came into being, comics strips in the vernacular media were appearing sporadically. Only Jugantar newspaper’s Sheyal Pandit, created by Kaafi Khan (aka Pratulchandra Lahiri), and Amrit Bazar Patrika’s Khoonro continued unaffected.

But around this time, something extraordinary happened. More than a decade before Wolverine of X-Men comics bared his adamantine claws, a sci-fi storyteller from Bengal named Mayukh Choudhury created Agantuk—a graphic narrative that appeared in the Bengali periodical Deb Sahitya Kutir in the 1960s. The comic strip featured a humanoid extraterrestrial creature, not exactly a mutant, but with ears very similar to those of Avatar’s Na’vis, who grew deadly claws at will. The similarity is uncanny.

Fans of Bengali comics still mourn the death of Agantuk with the decline of Deb Sahitya Kutir in the 70s. Gupta is one of them. But with the Comic Book Project, he’s reliving the lost years.