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More than humour

"Comics for social development" are a powerful alternate medium to tackle social evils. NIMI KURIAN

COMMUNICATING the evils of dowry, alcoholism, bride burning, female infanticide and such can be a difficult proposition. More so when it is believed that a girl child is "unfortunate" or it is the man's "right" to beat his wife. Taking on this tough proposition Leif Packalen of World Comics Finalnd (WCF) and Sharad Sharma of World Comics India (WCI), decided to "talk" to the people through the medium of comics.

Everybody likes a good comic, says Packalen. It is humorous and light hearted and there is a story to it. The story would be of more interest to the reader when it touches issues close to or familiar to him.

Different interpretations

So these "comics for social development" are a powerful alternate medium of communication, according to Sharma. Comics also have the potential of having different interpretations. Suppose says, Packalen, you do a comic on land rights, then the landless and the landlord will read the same story differently.

Packalen has worked in Tanzania for a number of years in the field of development cooperation. A Tanzanian dairy cattle extension worker wrote to him asking if there was any literature to popularise scientific knowledge.

He searched everywhere but could not find anything of interest. Then he came across a comic strip in which the process of building a shed was shown. "This is brilliant," he thought and from then on there was no looking back.

WCF works with different groups in a variety of cultures. They have worked on issues of corruption in Tanzania and Morocco, rights of the disabled in Mozambique, mental health in Lebanon, child labour in Benin, HIV/AIDS in Tanzania and Mozambique, immigrants rights and anti-racism in Finland and many more.

But to say that comics are only about humour is not true, as this medium has been used very effectively in the U.S. with the underground comics, says Sharma. WCI has done an underground comic about the Meira Peibus Movement in Manipur. It reaches a wider audience and is more effective than other media.

"I find humour can be used to express serious issues more effectively, as they can be stimulating and thought provoking," says Sharma. He has named his creative endeavours "Developmentoon".

Sharma's first brush with comics as a tool for communication was with the literary campaign of the Bharat Gyan Samiti. He incorporated art in the campaign textbooks to not only evolve but also to sustain interest in non and neo-literates. The impact and response was overwhelming, he says.

Grassroot comics are low-cost and have a limited circulation and they are used by NGOs or any community-based organisation that feels it has something to say. The comics can be distributed as wall posters or booklets using low-tech printing.

Direct communication

These stories are not abstract or theoretical and they communicate a local opinion directly. It is the story and the drama, not the expertise of the drawing, that matters. Once it catches the eye, of say, an illiterate person, then he/she will ask someone to read it to him. With pictures depicting characters and backgrounds familiar to them understanding is easier and the message stays in the mind of the reader.

Packalen's first workshop in India was with the Village Community Development Society (VCDS) — a human rights organisation in Villupuram, Tamil Nadu in 1997. Since 2002, WCI and WCF have been partners and they concentrate on promoting the grassroots comics concept. World Comics India networks with many organisations within the country and has been involved in more than 40 comics workshops.

Mass appeal

The major advantage of comics is their mass appeal, which lies in the simplicity of the visual rendition of stories. This has the potential to reach a large audience and all serious issues are simplified so that everyone can understand them.

World Comics trains non-governmental organisations and activists to develop the skill of telling people stories through comics. It is not necessary to draw well and over the years WCI has identified some people and have trained them as resource persons to carry on the training.

The host NGO usually identifies the issue and the participants for the workshops. The comics that come out of the workshop are first shown to the group to get their feedback and then displayed in public areas.

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