Review of Panchali: The Game of Dice & Longform 2022: Picturing the apocalypse

A pair of books of graphic tales — Panchali: The Game of Dice & Longform 2022 — that deftly combines research and visual storytelling also provides a sharp commentary on our times

Updated - December 09, 2023 11:31 am IST

Published - June 17, 2022 12:56 pm IST

A panel from Noor in Longform 2022

A panel from Noor in Longform 2022

Graphic narratives seem to be the flavour of the season. Two recently released volumes — one the second instalment of a purported pentalogy and the other an anthology of recent graphic stories — deliver a sharp comment on the times though the stories they deal with are vastly different.

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A jewel encrusted foot that descends down the length of a page. Rhinos fleeing a burning forest. Lord Shiva on a giant yak. Panchali: The Game of Dice, a graphic adaptation of the Mahabharata by Sibaji Bandyopadhyay and artist Sankha Banerjee, abounds with such visual inventiveness. Years in the making, this graphic novel on the life of Draupadi follows up on their earlier collaboration, which was about Sage Vyasa.

Cover of Panchali: The Game of Dice

Cover of Panchali: The Game of Dice | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Contrasting rhythms

Bandyopadhyay’s script shifts register from the language of kings to the imagined street slang of that time, carrying echoes of everything from pulp fiction to Shakespeare; for example, Hidimba describes Bhima as “this lustrous fella” and Yudhisthira talks about ‘casing the joint’ while inspecting the house of lac. Though the focus is on Draupadi, it is Shakuni, a gaunt, bearded figure rather like an evil grand vizier straight out of The Arabian Nights, who has the best lines and steals the show.

A panel on Shakuni in Panchali: The Game of Dice

A panel on Shakuni in Panchali: The Game of Dice

Banerjee’s art constantly sets up contrasting rhythms, such as a panel on the pomp of the building of Indraprastha set alongside a close-up of one of the construction workers. Text and art come together spectacularly in a bravura sequence around the game of dice, tying it to the “the ceaseless change of yugas” and going on to say about our present age that “three-fourth of the activities conducted during kali (yuga) are gross and vile”.

A panel showing the construction workers in Panchali: The Game of Dice

A panel showing the construction workers in Panchali: The Game of Dice

The graphic stories in Longform 2022 also lend credence to such a view of our times. In its introduction the editors write about the trauma of the last two years, but add that these are also “times when artists bring out their best”. Contemporary upheavals inspire a “rich tapestry” of graphic narratives by artists and writers from India and abroad in Longform 2022.

A panel from The Tail in Longform 2022

A panel from The Tail in Longform 2022

Alendev Vishnu explores the idea of ‘searching’ for that somthing we lost ‘somewhere’

Alendev Vishnu explores the idea of ‘searching’ for that somthing we lost ‘somewhere’

While the sample set is small, it does seem that anthologies are favoured in the Indian graphic novel scene. In the last decade there have been several releases such as the The Obliterary Journal from Blaft Publications, the Pao Collective’s Anthology, Yoda Press’s non-fiction books, Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back, which grew out of a workshop for women artists, and This Side, That Side, a collection of Partition narratives.

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Longform 2022 can be seen as a follow-up to Longform Volume 1, which came out in 2018. This predilection towards compilations makes sense, because the lived reality in India is so kaleidoscopic that only a multitude of voices and perspectives can make sense of it all. So an anthology such as this is like a CT scan of the state of the nation that shows up scar tissues in the form of fears and anxieties.

Kinetic scenes

For instance, Pavan Rujurkar’s Noor follows a boy whose life is torn apart by communal violence. The text is spare and combined with classic clean lines. The colour red is itself a character, sometimes a flame consuming the family home, sometimes the narcotic that makes living bearable and sometimes something precious, like a fragment from childhood.

Cover of Longform 2022

Cover of Longform 2022

The anthology has 18 stories, with the four editors chipping in with illustrations and short pieces. The stories range from reportage to surreal fantasies. In Solo and Oz’s Chimera, we follow a character through rain-drenched, neon-lit panels, as both the narrator and the narrative are refracted and shattered and put together again.

In Sudhanya Dasgupta and Manisha Naskar’s Patient No 259, Dasgupta scripts a moving recollection of her mother in the aftermath of her stroke. The piece combines comics, illustrations, photographs and artefacts (the ID of her mother is reproduced, for example) to catapult the character back into the past, into post-Partition Calcutta.

Milad Thaha in the wordless Kallan (Thief), plays up to the strength of the medium, with deft panel layouts and swirling linework building up tension, all leading to a kinetic chase scene as the eponymous character is hunted down.

Bose vs Bose by Arghya Manna looks at the life of pioneering scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose, imagining his persona splitting as it is drawn between the poles of science and faith. Manna’s script telescopes time and scale, leaping from the macro to the microcosmos, and is ably supported by the vibrant art. The author’s bio says that Manna “explores the historical perspectives of scientific development” to bridge “the gap between academic research and visual storytelling”.

Panchali narrows that gap too: while Bandyopadhyay is a scholar and writer, Banerjee is a professor at the department of Multimedia and Animation Comics in St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. But then, perhaps it is in the nature of comics to bring together streams and genres. The French call it the ‘9th art’, drawing from all the mediums that have preceded it, like film and poetry, but with a magic all its own. Such a protean medium is served particularly well by the form of anthology.

Longform 2022: A Collection of Graphic Stories, edited by Pinaki De, Debkumar Mitra, Sarbajit Sen & Sekhar Mukherjee, Penguin,₹1,499

Panchali: The Game of Dice; Sibaji Bandyopadhyay, illustrated by Sankha Banerjee, Penguin, ₹799

The reviewer is a freelance journalist and graphic novelist.

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