Layers Upon Layers: The Art of the Graphic Novel-Amruta Patil

Junoon was established in Mumbai in 2012 by Sameera Iyengar and Sanjna Kapoor in order to celebrate the arts, its diversity, and to bring to the fore the artists associated with various artistic projects and engagements. 

 

While Junoon conducts a plethora of activities under its umbrella, it also strives toward greater engagement with the people. Mumbai Local is one such initiative that brings together artists and scientists three times a month at three different venues to deliver informative talks about their work. Their sessions are also video recorded and uploaded online. So in case you miss them, you are sure to catch them online. 

 

Layers Upon Layers: The Art of the Graphic Novel by Amruta Patil was one of the sessions for November conducted on 10th November, 2019 at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai as part of the Mumbai Local series, initiated by Junoon. Amruta Patil’s talk centred on themes underlining her works, her graphic novels and speaking about her latest work, Aranyaka, which was created in collaboration with Devdutt Pattanaik. 

 

Her presentation was divided into Six Layers as she called them. Through each layer, she explored personal and thematic aspects of her work which provided greater insights into what went into the making of her graphic novels. It was quite eye opening for fans of her work and would have definitely compelled others in the audience to read her works. 

 

Before going into the details of the talk, let us look at her books to get a better sense of her work. Her first graphic novel was Kari which chronicled the life of the eponymous heroine and delved into her relationship with Ruth and her city, Mumbai; though the city is not referred by its name.

 

After this initial book, she turned her attention to mythology and retelling stories. Her second graphic novel, Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean, is a beautiful retelling of the Mahabharata. Her third book, Sauptik: Blood and Flowers is a sequel to Adi Parva. On the other hand, her latest book, Aranyaka, is a tribute to the Indian forests and Indian rishikas or female hermits. 

 

She began her talk with her first layer, describing the form of graphic novels and calling the medium itself queer. Her definition of this medium is an attempt to address the debate between highbrow and lowbrow literature. Graphic novels are forever stuck somewhere in between the categories of comics and literature. Hence, making the medium itself queer.

 

Her second layer spoke of the use of “Outlier Sutradhars” in her books as a means to “fill the missing gaps in who gets to tell the story.” In the first graphic novel, Kari, the protagonist, Kari, is an outlier in all senses because she is dreamy, hare brained and a lesbian. Her other graphic novels similarly engage with outlier narrators or sutradhars. The only difference is that they are mythic outlier narrators. This brings to focus the need to retell stories and interrogate ideas of who narrates the stories. It is also a part of the very contemporary interest among literary and other scholars to engage with different strands of Indian mythology. Her latter works are similarly involved in such a pursuit. Patil explained how her refashioning of stories not only involved choosing alternate sutradhars but also changing visual representations of characters commonly seen in Indian comics. Through this, she challenges the norms of our imagination and visuality that reflect our deeply embedded stereotypes and prejudices as well. For example, the dichotomy of fair and dark skin is ever present in our comics, advertisements, and movies. Dark skin is equated with evil and fair with goodness. She challenged such representation in her work. She gave the example of the representation of Hidimba in her work and how it was markedly different from how Hidimba has usually been portrayed in comics.

 

Her third layer focused on Prakriti or nature, stating the need to be in sync with the world around you and not to look at nature as something apart, as something to be experienced somewhere far away on a trek in the middle of the Himalayas. She detailed how all of her characters are deeply aware of the surrounding they belong to. She gave an example of Kari who documents the city through her senses and is deeply perceptive of it. 

 

Her fourth layer was a beautiful personal anecdote about how Patil has been bereft of any patronage and lineage in the arts and since there are very few people in India creating graphic novels, there is no literary or artistic heritage that you can look up to or pay tribute to. Thus, she went on her own journey in search of masterpieces and works she could connect and relate with. Through her presentation visuals, she showed the audience examples of how varied her artistic inspiration and tributes have been in her works from Frieda Kahlo to Nicholas Roerich to Indian miniature painting. 

 

Layers five and six described how her characters and artworks merged seamlessly with the world or ecosystem around them in her novels. She draws her visuals in such a way that the characters assert their connection with the ecosystem they are intrinsically part of. 

 

She also spoke at length about other artistic techniques in the talk such as the icon of the prominent elongated eyes (much like the ones painted on Buddhist stupas) used frequently in her novels. Through the emphasis on the eyes, she tries to focus on the idea of “darshan” or really “seeing” someone in totality. 

 

The talk was accompanied by stunning visuals from her graphic novels and their rough drafts, peppered with personal anecdotes and tidbits about the effort that goes into the making of these graphic narratives. Layers Upon Layers: The Art of the Graphic Novel was indeed a well layered session, much like a “baklava”1.

 

Footnote:

  1. https://www.bdlmuseum.org/explore/performances.html

References:

 

 

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Joe Sacco's Palestine Cover Image

Palestine by Joe Sacco

For years cartoonist Joe Sacco had been watching and reading the news of the Palestinian uprising. Are all Palestinians terrorists or victims? He would ask himself as he saw the news flashing across his TV screen. What about the average guy with routine concerns like food on the table for his family and getting to work on time. Where was that guy? Dissatisfied with the media’s portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, Joe decided that he needed to see it for himself, from ground zero.
In the winter of 1991-1992, he made his way to the region and parked himself in Jerusalem. For two months, he crisscrossed across the borders between West Bank, Israel, and the Gaza Strip. He met labourers, refugees, ex-prisoners, soldiers, volunteers…all the different people who were a part of the fabric of this troubled region. He met children who had not seen any other way of life and geriatrics who had lived in peaceful times much before the 1948 Palestine War. His companion on this travel was his trusty notebook for his doodles, cartoons, and observations.
This notebook would later take the shape of Joe Sacco’s graphic memoir – Palestine.
The novel, both written and illustrated by Sacco, is divided into nine issues, each one divided into multiple chapters. The story is built through anecdotes that he gathers as he travels across the region. In towns like Nablus, Ramallah and Hebron in the West Bank, he visits market places, hospitals, schools and local homes. He meets Palestinians who have spent multiple terms in Ansar III, the largest detention centre in the world. He travels to the extreme west to the Gaza Strip where he spends a week in the Jabalia refugee camp and witnesses first-hand the living conditions.
While his witty remarks often elicit laughter, the underlying tone of empathy for the helpless situation is starkly evident. For instance, his visit to Nablus, where a milkman he encounters in the market insists on playing tour guide. He drags Joe to the local hospital and tows him from bed-to-bed, introducing him to the casualties and listing the details of their injuries. The patients are not all rebels. Many, including children, are wounded by army bullets that zipped into their homes or school compounds. The situation is grim, but the writer’s presentation of the hospital as a tourist spot and himself as a tourist makes one laugh out loud.
The author’s intent is not to trivialize the Palestinian situation. Sacco’s use of humour manages to evoke discomfort in the reader, engrossed in the story from the warmth and safety of her home.
A chapter on Sacco’s interaction with the detainees from Ansar III highlights the fact that incarceration was an accepted fate by Palestinian men at the time. The story of the prisoners brings out nuances of life inside a detention camp, many of which are astonishing. For instance, the formation of committees among the prisoners to oversee seemingly mundane tasks like the equitable distribution of tea. And, the organization of lectures by the prisoners on topics like Einstein, philosophy and split-up of the Soviet Union. As also, their strategies based on the careful study of the soldiers’ routines, such as planning contentious activities just before the weekend, when the officers are looking forward to heading home.
At the end of the two months, Sacco visits Tel Aviv, the capital of Israel, on the insistence of two tourists he meets in Jerusalem. They want him to see ‘their side of things’. During those few hours in Tel Aviv, the writer sees a different side of the region, meets people who remind him of people he meets in America and Europe. He concedes that yes there is an Israeli side of the story which he has neglected in this novel, but that calls for another trip. This trip was an exercise to uncover the Palestinian perspective, largely disregarded by popular media.
Sacco alternates between playing narrator and protagonist. As the narrator, he shares with the reader his reflections on the people, their situation and the policies that govern this region. He also includes nuggets from history to help understand how events have evolved to reach the current status quo. With regards to the other characters, he is matter-of-fact, presenting them without over-dramatization and allowing the reader to draw conclusions.
The illustrations are monochromatic, and Sacco strikes a balance between vacuity and busyness in every box. Some bits are filled with fine lines, squiggles and other patterns, which enhance the starkness to the blank bits in the box. His drawings acquaint the reader with a close-up view of a land that has primarily been seen only through the long-focus lenses of reporters.
‘Palestine’ drives home the power of stories – they engage and thus, affect. And they stay with the reader, much after the news has been relegated to the archives.
Image – Joe Sacco’s Palestine