January 16, 2014
“You know that strange feeling that life is somewhere else,” says Sarnath Banerjee during a Skype conversation from his home at Berlin, Germany where he now lives with his Pakistani wife. This was in the middle of a conversation about his days and life in Delhi but this in-between sentence is a very integral theme that defines Banerjee’s work, right from his first graphic novel Corridor (2004) to his latest innovative series ‘Enchanted Geography’ for The Hindu newspaper which features Brighu, the now older and darker character from Corridor (described as a restless investigator of the ordinary in the tradition of Fernando Pessoa, Charles Baudelaire and Khalifa Harun al-Rashid), whose memories are constantly travelling back and forth between various cities including his present real life in Berlin.
In the second episode of the series, Brighu casually mentions that “There was that familiar feeling that the party was somewhere else…” while walking with his friend Mandy in the bylanes of Delhi looking for a quiet place to drink. Reminiscing about his days in Delhi, Banerjee adds, “There was this feeling of stumbling about in the city, waiting for things to happen, like the characters in the book Corridor. We all had this strange feeling that life is elsewhere. There was a sense of melancholy and this sensation that there are great things outside, while you are walking on the Ashoka Road. The evening would fall in Connaught Place and your mind would fill with expectations that something would happen, but nothing was going to happen and you were just going to go back home.”
While Banerjee has lived in a lot of cities across the world, one city that shrouds his consciousness the most is definitely Delhi. He is nostalgic, romantic, fascinated and slightly bitter towards Delhi, where he spent most of his formative years. It is a place where most of his inspiration was born and nurtured. He has often referred to himself and his characters as “hustlers” in Delhi. “Delhi continues to be the single most influencing city despite moving around so much. Despite of growing up in Calcutta (now Kolkata), I have never been much influenced by it; it is a city which is deeply entrenched in my imagination but the real Calcutta is very different. Delhi, on the other hand, is very real. I had all my early experiences there. Hearts were shattered; proposals were made; businesses started; friendships broken; vices acquired and life partners met. Delhi can also bring me to great bouts of anger.”
He confesses that he hasn’t met the kind of people he met in Delhi anywhere else — sellers of aphrodisiacs, Mr. Mukesh who wants to raise the rent every year, a man doing haatha yoga across the street to increase his sexual prowess, two brothers who had an editing studio by the day which magically became a shady modeling studio by the night, a carpet manufacturer who wanted to fund music videos etc. “So there existed a very colorful world. You just had to step outside and there were stories waiting for you in each and every corner.” Most of his characters and stories do emanate from these corners.
Interestingly, he clarifies that a lot of people from other cities (especially Mumbai) see Delhi as almost a dangerous city. While he agrees that Delhi does play with you a little bit, but if you go there with all this baggage, you are doomed, he clarifies. “If you happen to have a sense of humour and the right spirit to handle Delhi, it can be extremely rewarding.” This sense of humour (very subtle) and a slight caricaturing of his characters is something which is fundamental to his work. “I don’t think I have a sense of humour personally. I don’t feel compelled to be funny. However, humour is the language in which I speak, it’s my accent.”
Talking about his expectations when Corridor was published, he says, “Delhi is a city of entitled people — very ‘Karan Uncle–Nalini Aunty’ kind of a city. We were migrants there. When I wrote Corridor, I had absolutely no expectations. At that time, there was a floating population of people with great ideas, intangible great ideas. It was somewhere important for my own credibility to achieve something. Beyond this I had absolutely no expectations.”
At that time, nobody knew what ‘graphic novels’ were and many publishers thought they had something to do with pornography, chuckles Banerjee. He had to get foreign references and do con jobs like getting a friend from MTV to write a fake document saying that they will buy 100 copies when the novel is published. After its release, the book really picked up in about six months and the rest is history. It was considered to be the first graphic novel of India for a long time; of course, the title was later bestowed upon Orijit Sen’s River of Stories (featured in the first part of this series). Post this, Banerjee has published The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers in 2007, followed by The Harappa Files in 2011 (which features Brighu again), both well appreciated and well received. He is also a well known artist and documentary filmmaker.
Banerjee started a publishing house for graphic novels, Phantomville, along with his friend Anindya Roy which eventually shut down. “The idea of Phantomville was about collaboration between great photographers, artists, writers etc. We wanted to have tightly curated comics/novels. While it was a great conceptual idea and had power, imagination and conviction, it was slightly misguided. We managed to publish a few cutting edge graphic novels including Kashmir Pending and The Believers but we were not very good businessmen and gradually, the company drifted away.” Neither of them owns the company anymore but Banerjee believes that he is now in a better position to do it all over again. “We will be better at everything now. I am still quite committed to the genre but I am more interested in other people’s vision now. I wish we could still have the name Phantomville. It had a very evocative quality.”
Banerjee feels that the graphic novels space in India is marvelous currently. “I have lived in different countries including England, France and now in Germany. I am connected with many ‘picture storytellers’, as they call themselves. But what I have observed is that what is happening in India is very unique.” He believes that whatever graphic novels have come out in India are outside the world of graphic novels, they are very non-traditional. The subjects and techniques are complex and there is no history or baggage of a genre, so most of the work is perfectly original. “Indian graphic novels will show people around the world how to do graphic novels.” However, he also warns that since publishing graphic novels has become so easy now, it can directly affect the quality of the content. “There are a lot of bandwagonists now. Earlier, there were about 4–5 publishers who were aware of and actually understood the genre. Now there are a lot of people bagging onto the “coolness” of it. Thus, the challenge is to get a high quality; doing graphic novels on the subjects which are difficult and the corresponding quality to that work is the big challenge.”
His current piece of work is the above mentioned 24-episode series ‘Enchanted Geography’ for The Hindu where he is writing the uncanny history of Berlin, transplanting memories in a city of which he has no memories. He calls it a work of reverse orientalism. Talking about the series he says, “My protagonist Brighu from Corridor is now older, cynical and slightly damaged. The sense of fun and cockiness is gone now; he is unsure of himself.” Brighu is in Berlin, moving about and giving different descriptions of what he is doing there and what his profession is. The form of the series comes from the 1920s when the Communist Party used to give handouts to public. The design of those handouts has become Banerjee’s template. He says that he is enjoying this project at many levels. It is allowing him to have a conversation with Berlin and also to look at India from a distance. “As an author and a chronicler of society, when you are too much of an insider and have been practicing something unique for a long time, you feel slightly elevated. You tend to become the majority, acquiring chelas (disciples). All this stops you from being vulnerable and that sense of vulnerability is very important for an artist. In Germany, I am like one of the thousand artists around. I don’t know the culture and speak the language badly. This makes me vulnerable and it is good for me as an artist.”
Banerjee has been greatly influenced by the ancient medieval manuscripts and not by contemporary arts. His biggest inspirations include William Morris and William Blake, whom he calls the patron saint of all graphic novels. Even though he is doing the series for The Hindu now, Banerjee has publicly declared that he has kind of hit the wall with graphic novels and we might not see another graphic novel from him. “I have achieved what I can with communication through graphic novels but I can’t go beyond that. As an artist and a writer, my adventure with the genre has come to an end. I don’t want to draw anymore; I just want to describe the drawing or the idea.”
This piece was originally published in Kyoorius Magazine 17.
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