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Sarnath's wondrous capers

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FASCINATING STORYTELLER Sarnath Banerjee
FASCINATING STORYTELLER Sarnath Banerjee

The graphic novelist's multimedia presentation highlighted his impossibly eccentric characters and his alternative ways of telling tales

`The dark armpits of history' turned out to be rather fascinating. Or maybe it's just artist-writer-filmmaker Sarnath Banerjee's way of telling stories. Launching his new graphic novel, `The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers' at Landmark, Sarnath spoke passionately about alternative ways to tell tales. "In Rajasthan, storytellers take an oil lamp, carpet and violin, and travel. That's a cool approach to the whole thing," he says. Navin Jayakumar's method of introducing the book was equally inventive. As the comic strips flashed on the screen behind him, with dramatic cuts and close ups, Navin read extracts, in time to a flurry of cinematic sound — forceful music working itself into a crescendo to accompany a chase scene and cheerful court melodies, as dandies in ornate wigs clink wineglasses.

Note of high drama

And although the action moved rapidly from a dark mysterious forest to a cheerful French court, to an illicit afternoon in a Kolkata hotel, the experience was immersive enough to take the audience along on the journey. Small touches, like a Hindi song, altered to sound like it is coming from an old fashioned radio outside the window, or the powerful echo created for the voice of Christ dying in Golgotha, added a note of high drama, complementing the book's storyline, which constantly teeters on the brink of delightful melodrama. It helps that all Sarnath's characters are almost impossibly eccentric, like the Bengali babu's uncle who delights in breaking expensive glass ("The more expensive the glass the sweeter the sound") and imports Ming Dynasty Bone China from Shanghai, Belgian mirrors and French wine glasses for his hobby. Or the monk in the forest who guides lost travellers, gliding over grass and twigs. They seem so alive on the pages, drawn in black and white for the most part, with photographs in between; it's difficult to imagine these same stories told with just a block of text.

Inspired by Kolkata

Yet, when Sarnath tried to sell his graphic novel, nobody really took the genre seriously. "Comics were always seen as a low class form. It was not literature, and people would hide it and read... almost like pornography!" He says that no one thought there would be a market for a novel of this sort, "Seven publishers rejected the story. They would say `Four people will read this in Kolkata and two in Kerala, so buzz off'," he says, adding with a laugh, "And the four in Kolkata will probably share one copy!"However, his first novel `Corridor' created a shelf for the genre, and introduced the country to the graphic novel. "Those comics that seem to have a literary bend, either an aspiration. Or perhaps a pretension." Drawn with affection, a lot of the stories and characters in "Barn Owl... " are inspired by Sarnath's Bengali roots and Kolkata, and are woven together with irreverence, dark humour, wry wit, sex and violence. Very international in some ways, and yet, very Indian. Specifically Bengali. "Well, Calcutta was the second city of the empire. So Armenians, Jews, Zoroastrians... They all flooded the city. It was very European." And between them all there was the fascinating Bengali. "Drinking his milk of magnesia after dinner, and talking about bowel movements... ," says Sarnath, "They love talking about their health. Most Bengalis you meet are case studies." Growing up in a culture so colourful did inevitably influence his work. "It's about using very local stuff to tell very global stories," he says. Now living with one foot in the Black Forest in Germany, and the other in Delhi, Sarnath is writing the libretto for an opera called `The Bachelor of Dreams.' Of course, it is peopled with his trademark characters, "Monty of unfinished screenplays, and a psychic plumber who believes that buildings' personalities depend on their plumbing." SHONALI MUTHALALY

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