Architect Gautam Bhatia has used Rajasthani miniature paintings to illustrate his just-released graphic novel Lie: A Traditional Tale of Modern India. Excerpts from an exclusive interview:

Flip through the pages of Lie: A Traditional Tale of Modern India and you’ll see hundreds of colourful drawings. But this graphic novel, written by architect-author Gautam Bhatia and drawn by miniaturists from Rajasthan, is a relentlessly dark and hard-hitting work that lampoons the unsavoury aspects of contemporary Indian life, including the class divide and the apathy of politicians. Bhatia discusses the book in an interview:

In addition to being an architect, you’re an acerbic social commenter and a prolific writer. How do you find the time to juggle these disciplines?

Writing for me was an activity that grew out of architecture. Seeing how some clients had strange fetishes and dreams – demanding baroque villas and Venetian mansions in south Delhi’s Greater Kailash, for example – it was much easier to write about architecture than build it!

Time is always available. Buildings go on forever, people run out of money during construction, or projects don’t get approved because the building agency has not received the bribe. Anyway, most of my writing is a reflection on the visible state of things. It can be done at bus stops and railway stations.

Tell us about the genesis of Lie. Did you conceptualise and write the narrative first, and subsequently work with the artists?

Lie was initially an unwieldy 600-page book called An Indian Story. It was written for the project Desh Ki Awaaz, an arts collaboration between traditional, popular and graphic artists. I was the odd man architect in the group. This bigger story weaved together elements and themes from contemporary life, including politics, film, religion, cricket and family life.

By using subjects to which everyone could relate, the idea was to explore the moral and social dilemmas that dominate Indian life – corruption, dowry, dysfunctional families, gender inequality, caste prejudice, communalism and other areas of conflict. Real and fictitious characters – ministers, movie stars, bureaucrats, underworld dons, migrant workers, child labourers, government teachers, cricket players, business executives and a range of other personalities – moved in and out of the story. Lie was the shortened version of An Indian Story.

Why did you decide on Rajasthani miniaturists to draw the story?

The miniature form of painting most effectively lends itself to the size of a book. Miniaturists can cram a great level of detail in a small area. They are like watch makers, very comfortable with a square inch of canvas and extremely confident that the entire battle of Kurukshetra can be depicted on it. I was also intrigued by the complete and uninhibited use of the most brilliant colours. Sometimes the entire colour palette of Rajasthan is visible on a single page.

It took a lot of free hand sketches and verbal exchange to convince the artists of the plot, its insane and outlandish characters. For people who have spent a lifetime painting Gods in reverential poses, the idea of portraying a minor being raped in a police station wasn’t easy.

The book’s structure is very complex: non-linear and moving between a number of characters. Is this intended to reflect the chaos of the modern Indian experience?

It was not intended that way but certainly the Indian urban experience is so chaotic it defies any structure. The interweaving was the result of two parallel stories that connect briefly in the end. On the one hand, there’s Alibaba, a farmer in a small Bihar village, whose physical world is destroyed by famine. And Bhola Mishra, born to privilege, is the urban stereotype. Corrupt, greedy and loaded with the symbols of success, his life is a parody of India’s urban rich. The rest of the moving back and forth in time, across characters and terrains reflects the standard divisions of India – between urban and rural, poor and rich, corrupt and evil, rotten and really rotten.

There’s a lot of surrealism here – the deliberate exaggeration of situations, the compression of time and space. What do you find useful about this mode?

Exaggeration and subversion are all intentional, to make the point more effectively. Real life itself is an exaggeration. In India when things are bleak they are really bleak; when things are good they are sublime. Sometimes you write an exaggeration of a real-life situation, thinking it is so absurd and outlandish it can only be read as farcical; then you read the same piece as a news story in the papers the next day. The absurd and the farcical are ordinary news. Compression of time and using the familiar – as in fashioning a character’s biography from Mahatma Gandhi’s, or making another character look like Laloo Yadav – makes identification easier.

Is it easy to be a satirist in India, given that some of our realities are already so twisted?

There is no satire in India. Satire really has no role to play in places that are wracked by fear. Freedom of exaggerated expression is central to satire. If each time you write something you are looking over your shoulder to see if a mob is going to lynch you because you thought you could write freely about religion or cricket or caste…well…

The book’s view is relentlessly cynical. Do you believe there’s any hope for the common man in India?

I think the common man is the only hope for India. But unfortunately he too will sooner or later be afflicted by middle-class addictions. The privileged classes have been granted far too big a stake in running the country. Owning industries and land is no eligibility for leadership.

What, in your view, are the biggest problems facing the country today?

I am hardly in a position to answer that – I live a privileged and pretentious life, like others of the middle class. But I think our most serious cultural flaw is the inability to think for ourselves and work out our own future. I am forever designing buildings already built in Europe and America. Left to the present lot of decision makers, we will be a smaller, poorer America within the next decade.

Are you working on any more graphic novels?

No, it isn’t a medium that I can control. I am not entirely comfortable in elaborate collaborations. I am working with a few others on a small film script on the Uselessness of Religion but, given its content, I doubt it’ll get beyond a word file on the computer.


Through a glass, very darkly April 3, 2010