Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty meets The Pao Collective, a clutch of Delhi-based comic book artists trying to spread the genre in a country which still brackets it as light reading for children

I climb up to the People Tree studio on the third floor of a building in a back lane of Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village, expecting a pulsating, animated adda. I am not disappointed. Arguments and agreements fill the room as several cups of chai are consumed in cheap glass tumblers. After all, I am sitting with a clutch of artists fiercely talking about their art, in their own den, the studio.

The topic is, growing up on bad Indian comics in the ’60s, ’70s and the ’80s. And the people discussing this with me are some of India’s best known comic book artists — Orijit Sen, Sarnath Banerjee, Vishwajyoti Ghosh, and promising young minds like Amitabh Kumar and Parismita Singh.

All five of these largely Delhi-based artists have their individual trajectories that follow different styles of the same art. But by coming together like this, by brainstorming on how best to communicate with words and images and how to sustain a platform for the genre, they call themselves The Pao Collective. The Collective is a self-funded, self-driven effort to convey that comic books or its new avatar, the graphic novels, are more than just light reading for children.

Sitting behind his work desk at the studio, People Tree co-founder and senior Pao Orijit Sen says, “The Collective is a process, a beginning.” To start with, it has brought out an anthology of comics (Penguin India), pinning together the works of some 20 artists and writers.

Vishwajyoti calls the Collective “an amalgamation of five unlike-minded people who make comics that are quite different from each other’s, learn from each other and then go back to make comics in their own distinct style, only more so.” “It is a very modern way of practicing art,” adds Sarnath.

As the discussion heats up, the topic of bad comics returns. “When we were kids, reading comics was considered an act of rebel. Being caught with a story book in school was different from being caught with a comic book,” says Sarnath. “I would like to look at it in another way, they were doing what they knew best,” says Vishwajyoti on the level of Indian comics in those days. “Even today, there are still a lot of bad comics around,” says Orijit.

Why Pao? “Pao is the Portuguese word for bread which has been adapted into several Indian languages. Alongside, pao has also acquired very distinctly Indian manifestations such as vada pao and pao bhaji. The same could be said about modern printed comics which originated in Europe as well and is now in the process of acquiring its own unique culture and form in India and south-Asian countries,” he says.

Today, with the rise of graphic novel type of comics in India, mainly in the cities, Orijit sees the potential to bring fresh ideas and possibilities to the world of comics. Though here, the artists underline that earning your pao (bread) by making comics alone is still a distant dream. Orijit is the only one to clearly state that comics contribute to a small share of his bread and butter. Amitabh works for the Raqs Media Collective while Vishwajyoti is associated with Inverted Commas, a studio that specialises in social and development communications. “I live simply and manage somehow,” says Sarnath. “I pay my rent mostly through doing things other than comics,” adds Parismita.

The subject that bobs up next among them is what comes first to mind for a comic book artist: The drawing or the story idea? “I usually draw and write my own stories (“The Plasmoids” story with Samit Basu is an exception). I imagine them visually at first — as sequences. The story starts like that and then I begin to write alongside at some point. Image and text share a very complementary relationship in my work — each one altering, amplifying and contradicting the other,” says Orijit. In the case of “Hair burns like grass”, published in the anthology, Orijit says he strived to capture a certain mood and quality that Kabir’s poetry evokes in him. Vishwajyoti too says image comes first to him. “There is a symbolic value to the images. If you take away the images, you take away the symbols,” he says. “Sometimes, I am more comfortable using only images. But then what is one to do with all these words? They are difficult to escape,” says Parismita.

To Sarnath it is the theme that visits him first. “It comes in garbled bits. It is exactly the way I see a musical composition. Both the sound and the notes drawn on the paper are important. Whenever someone asks me how should I read a comic book, see the images first or read the words first, I know that the guy has missed the plot.” Orijit blames this on the education system which hardly teaches a child to imagine what he reads.

With The Pao Collective, they hope to make a difference. They are already working on the second part of the anthology plus a couple of short stories. Says Amitabh, the youngest in the group, “We will eventually have to get into translations and also into distributing the books we produce.”

Through the collective, they are keen on throwing up opportunities to collaborate with other artists and writers too if it captures interest. “Someday, I would like to collaborate with a biologist,” says Sarnath, thus giving a hint of the boundless possibilities that comics embrace.

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