There are many ways to tell a story – visually, orally or through text. But even those who have just a casual engagement with literature would know that the publishing industry has a sacred dependence on the written word.
The emergence of brightly coloured graphic novels offers a parallel narrative. India's first widely marketed graphic novel was published only in 2004. While the readership remains niche, the variety and diversity of themes and forms being explored by graphic novels have rapidly increased. Pure text will soon start facing stiff competition from graphic novels, say publishers.
Ashok Rajagopalan, a graphic novel artist, says that there is wide degree of acceptance and the form is being given some prestige now. “A number of Chennai-based publishers have started experimenting with illustration-based books.”
He identifies two reasons behind the increasing readership for graphic novels. “People are getting lazier. So publishers are experimenting with short visual-based reads. In airport bookstores, for example, you won't find 60,000-word classics. Secondly, print is slowly going out of fashion. The medium is changing due to the Internet and devices such as the Kindle. People are engaging with literature differently.”
He adds that just like the movie industry is fighting cable TV by giving a “grander and better experience”, graphic art is about bringing readers back to books. Lakshmi Priya, faculty at the Department of Fine Arts, Stella Maris College, says that it is a natural transformation from the world of text to images as authors explore newer forms of storytelling.
While there has always been an audience, she says that artists are only now learning to effectively tell stories visually. “We have always been a visual culture. Graphic novels have evolved out of the children's illustration in books such as the Amar Chitra Katha series. The fascinating aspect of this trend is that the target audience is largely adult.”
Gita Wolf of Tara Books, which used the graphic novel medium to popularise tribal art forms, says “We have a tacit bias towards the written word. It is a hierarchy of communication that we are familiar with, and accept as a matter of common sense. This is a pity, because an image has its own language and grammar.”
When words and images work together well, they don't just say the same thing in two different ways, she says. They amplify each other, creating an experience that is altogether distinct. “We've experimented with picture books not only for children, but for readers of all ages, trying to widen the experience of literature,” she adds.
Though Tara books has published a number of award-winning books illustrated by Patua artists from Bengal and Gond artists from Madhya Pradesh, thereby giving them recognition, the limiting factor for wider reach seems to be the cost. Most graphic novels cost between Rs.5,000 to Rs.10,000 per page to produce. The retail price of the novels ranges from a few hundreds to a few thousands.
Rakesh Kumar Khanna, editor of Blaft Publications, says that movie franchising and encouraging vernacular language graphic artists can change this scenario. Blaft recently released Tamil Pulp Fiction-II, which has an entirely illustrated story ‘Karate Kavita'. It was widely popular in the 1970s. “Regional language comics are getting lost sitting in some libraries. They should be revived,” says Mr.Khanna.