The first graphic novel on Bhagat Singh unravels his enigma

Ikroop Sandhu’s work, the first graphic novel on Bhagat Singh, attempts to demystify the revolutionary’s character

June 25, 2022 12:38 pm | Updated 08:05 pm IST

Ikroop Sandhu

Ikroop Sandhu

On the last day of her artist residency at Preet Nagar Ladi, near Amritsar, in March 2019, illustrator-author Ikroop Sandhu (40) was offered an opportunity to work on a graphic novel on Bhagat Singh. The publisher of Yoda Press, Arpita Das, had piqued Ikroop’s curiosity about the venerated revolutionary’s ideology. . Though much has been written about Bhagat Singh, he still remains an enigma. Ikroop’s predicament primarily was to demystify his character — while constantly connecting the narrative to his uncompromising ideology, the question of violence and the depiction of machismo — through words and art.

With only four of his original photographs as reference, a few scholarly articles, his own writings and an array of literary works on him, Ikroop’s three-year journey of discovering Bhagat Singh resulted in Inquilab Zindabad: A Graphic Biography of Bhagat Singh, the first-ever graphic novel on the freedom fighter (published by Simon & Schuster India in association with Yoda Press).

“When Das approached me, I was already reading a British gazette published in 1919. Throughout the residency too, I was reading up about the state and had made a booklet on Punjab. Das left me with not just the offer, but also a book on Bhagat by S Irfan Habib. I read it and then I read a few more books and articles. I was deeply inspired by Chris Moffat’s account of him and it reflects in my book too. Strangely, I didn’t come across a single book about Bhagat written by an Indian woman,” begins Ikroop, who lives in Dharamshala.

In almost all the books she read, Ikroop encountered the image of a hyper-masculine hero, which she says Bhagat wasn’t. “I wanted to bring in a woman’s perspective. Nothing about violence was interesting to me. I was more interested in his ideology. Bhagat was against erratic acts of violence,” she says. To further her point, Ikroop states her book does not show Bhagat regretting anything that he had done. Her book includes excerpts from his writings. “My intention was to get people to understand that Bhagat had a strong mind. He was astute. His plan wasn’t mindless violence. There was intellectual rigour to everything he did,” she explains.

A bigger challenge was to recreate the era that reflected Bhagat’s ideological evolution. Among the four original pictures of Bhagat , one showed him as a child wearing a small turban; in the other he poses with his college drama group, the third one was taken when he was arrested for the first time and in the fourth one, he dons a hat. “His pictorial accounts make you swing between two perspectives: one where you perceive him as a Sikh icon in a turban and the other where he emerges as a Communist icon with a hat on. Actually, he was all those things. I feel today we need to understand that everyone has to go through an evolution in their own journey of being. In my book, Bhagat stops wearing a pagri after his first arrest.”

To ensure that her art reflects the era of which the book is set in , Ikroop deliberately chose to stay away from colours and used pencil sketches instead. “The illustrations in the initial pages show Bhagat’s youth. They’re drawn in pencil and are raw. Subsequently, when Bhagat grows, the illustrations become starker, the inking gets darker. His eyes become sharper. By the end of the book, there’s a lot of grey as most of his time then was in jail. I steered clear of making it look cartoony because this is not a comic,” she says.

Ikroop feels that graphic-novel form has come a long way in the last decade. “The variety in stories has grown, from books like Sarnath Bannerjee’s Harappa Files to Malik Sajid’s Munnu, to the newly launched comics anthology Longform to the webcomics available at Bakarmax, there is something for everyone. The notion that comics are for children is also changing. I feel we will see more diverse voices and content from creators and I am very excited to see the future of comics in India,” she signs off.

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