Political cartoonist Sharad Sharma tells Pheroze L. Vincent why the caricature is mightier than the word or the sword

Imagine a world without news. No power to run the TV, no news agent or news kiosks and if you did get your hand on a newspaper you aren’t literate enough to understand everything. Even if you could, there is no news about your village or even the neighbouring village. Now imagine if someone gives you the power to create your own newspaper at no great cost, in a language you and your neighbours understand, with news you care about. That someone is Sharad Sharma. The language he teaches in is that of comics; its grammar is speech and thought balloons. He runs an NGO called World Comics India which spreads comics journalism to areas which are misfits to the mainstream press.

After working for a while as a political cartoonist and animator for newspapers and TV, Sharad got involved in a literacy campaign in Rajasthan in the mid-’90s. “We were trying to target neo-literates to get involved in spreading literacy. But the agency running the programme had books and manuals in text format, which were not appealing to the locals. The problem with the development sector is even when they hire artists, they do so from studios. They create glossy books for distribution in places that have no connection to the content culturally or aesthetically,” he says.

Using permutations of the letters ‘O’ and ‘T’ Sharad started to teach people how to draw comics. “Anyone can draw. We teach them the basics like stick figures and postures. In half an hour they can create a comic. We’ve developed guides on creating comics after many workshops. Today there are 2000 comics trainers in South Asia alone,” he reveals.

The literacy campaign was a hit with characters like the turbaned father with a twirling moustache, the wide-eyed mother and the eager daughter clinging to her books. “People could see themselves in the story. The style, the expressions and humour vary greatly across India. This non formal approach allows people to tell their stories, stories that appeal to the population in that area,” he explains.

In 1996, Sharad landed up in Guwahati with just Rs.100 in his pocket, he says. “I hitchhiked and lived off the kindness of friends. Most national publications and agencies had just one reporter in the North East. All the press would report were the bomb blasts. There are no real stories of people, even after TV has come.”

Sharad found people interested in comics journalism, especially peasants, small traders, health workers and so on. Anyone who wanted to get news out, news on modern agricultural practices or infant mortality. The format is simple. Most comics have four boxes, spread out over two A4 sheets. A4 sheets are used as they can be easily photocopied and stuck together to form A3 size comics newspapers. These are pasted on walls and makeshift notice boards.

“We teach people the basics of drawing and journalism. They study a news point, analyse it, collect data, record interviews and draw on the spot sketches, write stories and convert it into a visual narration. The important thing here is the perspective of someone who is closest to the spot. Most comics are firsthand narration,” Sharad explains.

In Ukhrul, a Naga dominated district in Manipur, individuals draw two comics a day on an average. “Due to the blockade, papers from Imphal don’t reach there. The power cuts deny them TV news and even when the power supply works, the only news they get is of the insurgency. The local papers are rags, which focus on opinions on the conflict. But you will find wall comics everywhere on education, water, power, vehicular traffic and development issues.”

On a trip there in 2011, Sharad walked in a procession led by cartoonists to promote their work. This was during a curfew and they suddenly found themselves surrounded by armed police led by the district superintendent. “To my surprise he bought all the comics. He and his wife wanted to attend the comics workshop but couldn’t, due to the curfew. He wanted to engage comics trainers to spread awareness on traffic issues, through such comics.”

In Mizoram, MPLADs funds are used to erect boards displaying comics in educational institutions, public places and government offices.

“In a state that’s almost entirely literate, people still turn to comics for their power of telling stories and reflecting local culture. There are many regular printed comics over there now on HIV-AIDS, education, women’s issues — topics usually not given much coverage by the mainstream press,” he reveals.

Sharad finds that comics however, usually appeal to those who need the art the most.

“I don’t do workshops in elite schools nowadays. They have so many media that they don’t see the value in a less sophisticated format.” He recalls, “I conducted a workshop in Guwahati for mass communications students and farmers. When I came back six months later I found the farmers had taken to it in a big way to inform people about modern agricultural practices. The students however preferred traditional media to report in.”

The toughest places for comics to survive are single-party ruled countries.

“During workshops in Vietnam and Laos, the organisers were permitted to teach drawing to select individuals but prevented from asking them about daily issues which affect their lives. After spending some time there, the students admitted that they were interested in human rights and environment issues but would face censorship. You can’t simply go and stick a comic in a marketplace there.”

World Comics volunteers venture into new areas with the help of local organisations.

Sharad explains that in the beginning, artists are advised to create comics that do not give rise to conflict. “This is a clever media. Once it gathers support from the public it can take on systems which are unjust.”

In Sonapur market near Dispur, the market committee has allotted notice boards for comics. Comic newspapers are popular there for agriculture and development related news. One comic about a shopkeeper who had beaten his wife led to people boycotting his store. Such is the power of two A4 sheets stuck together.

The Barmer Stereotype

During a female literacy campaign in Barmer, Sharad found his workshops filled with men. When he objected, some schoolgirls too were brought in. Together, the class came up with 22 problems faced by girls and they drew comics on it. “These were displayed in a tent by the road. Around 2000 people came for the exhibition. Many wanted to buy the comics. These are people who were willing to read the glossy NGO manuals which are free. But they were willing to pay for something so rustic,” said Sharad. Some time later when he visited the district he found comics in many villages. All of them were on issues of the girl child. His Barmer class of men and schoolgirls had taught others. Many had seen the comics on walls and taught themselves. “On asking people why there were only girls’ issues on the comics, they innocently replied that they did not know they were allowed to draw on anything else. They thought that comics could only be on girls,” he reveals.