Anyone who thinks picture books are simple storybooks for children needs to think again. In the age of the graphic novel, the offer ‘shall I draw you a picture?' doesn't necessarily imply simplifying the issue. So when Anindya Roy, who runs Manicmongol, which brings out graphic novels besides animation and films, decided to get a bunch of artists from India and Switzerland to tell illustrated stories of their experiences in each other's countries, he was not aiming for your usual travelogue series.
In fact the only brief he as editor gave his artists was to avoid the conventional travelogue mode and topics. The result was “When Kulbhushan Met Stockli: A Comics Collaboration between India and Switzerland”.
We start with Christophe Badoux's tale of a Swiss visitor who decides to get to know Delhi by driving around in an autorickshaw — as foxed by the laws of surviving the traffic as by the rules of cricket. We have Orijit Sen, who recreates the missing bits from the lives of his neighbours in “The Yellow House”, a Zurich apartment building whose windows give him tantalising bits of half information.
And among many others we have Roy's own narrative in collaboration with Rajiv Eipe — “My Swiss Warm Up”, whose protagonist proudly tells his Swiss hosts India must have at least 30 million football fans but no team to boast of any international exploit.
There are stories that read like conventional comics and others like richly illustrated novels. Still others defy categorisation. What Roy calls a high level of “experimentation” looks to the conventional reader like a concentration of confusing images with text thrown about.
The confusion, for some, starts right from the cover. Never mind Kulbhushan meeting Stockli, we never get to meet either. The two cows on the cover, presumably representing Kulbhushan and Stockli, don't figure in any of the stories.
“A lot of people complained about the cows,” recounts Roy. “I told them this was just symbolic. Cows are celebrated in both the countries in a very different way.” It's not for nothing we were always advised not to judge a book by its cover. But a book so full of images and one that can just about be read from any direction presents complications of its own.
“In terms of understanding of their comic culture,” he says, the project “was a very rich experience.” Noting that the graphic novel evolved in the West, he calls this “a slightly more elevated concept of reading stories; it's more visual — we are more narrative.”
This approach to storytelling is new for Indians, feels Roy. He describes it as an acquired taste — “like when we saw French cinema for the first time we thought, what the hell is he doing!” — and feels the medium needs to be given more time.
So even as he admits, “If I don't find the balance of the text and the visual right I get very irritated,” and selects one of the simpler presentations as his idea of a “clean” narrative, he adds that Vishwajyoti Ghosh's story “The Lost Ticket”, which resembles a multimedia collage of drawings, photographs, various fonts and narrative techniques, “requires a different way of reading — but some things should challenge you too.” And while he maintains “pure text will remain pure text,” ruling out comparisons between the two mediums, he points out, “We're not very adventurous till now with reading.”
Meanwhile, to tempt adventurous eyes, Roy has on the cards “an anthology on food in comics”. Manicmongol's book “The Parables” is ready for a 2010 release, and he is making an animation film on it. He hopes to do more projects like “Kulbhushan…” moving beyond the travel genre. “I think we can complicate the narrative more,” he adds. “Kulbhushan…”is a Harper Collins joint venture with The India Today Group, and the Indo-Swiss project was initiated and financed by the Swiss Arts Council.