In India, grassroots comics rule where media cannot reach
Devender Ojha was a student in high school when he created a comic strip about a headmaster who used to turn up to class drunk. The teenager made copies of his work and displayed them in his village in Uttarakhand. It wasn’t long before it got noticed.
“After that, that headmaster was sacked from the school and new headmaster came there,” said Ojha, who is now 24 and has turned his adolescent doodling into a career as a newspaper cartoonist.
Ojha was trained at a World Comics India workshop and is one of thousands of volunteers working with villagers in India’s heartland. They organise workshops where people learn to draw and depict topical issues — such as genetically modified cotton or radiation exposure — on A4 sheets joined together to make four-panel strips. The organization’s founder, Sharad Sharma, describes them as “grassroots comics“.
“What I realized working in mainstream press (is) that 80 or 90 percent of the population, their issues are not reflecting in mainstream press,” he told India Insight on the sidelines of Delhi’s annual Comic Con over the weekend.
Sharma said his team of volunteers uses “the power of comics” to give marginalized communities a voice, holding around 150 workshops every year in regions such as India’s remote northeast or Maoist-hit states Jharkhand and Odisha. Workshop participants draw comic strips on paper — often giving themselves a starring role — before splashing photocopies on walls, lamp posts, trees, or distributing the leaflets for free. Some readers prefer to pay for the comics.
“Just imagine if a person is telling his or her story, they will take it to 200 people, which means you don’t need somebody who is (an) activist sort of person who will spread out some social message,” said Sharma.
In Rajasthan’s Barmer town, a series of workshops on issues such as female foeticide led to the launch of a 2005 campaign called “Aapri Dikri Ro Hak” (Rights for our Daughters). Another comic strip focuses on students from the Northeast and Kashmir facing discrimination in New Delhi, an issue recently highlighted by the death last week of Nido Tania, a 20-year-old student from Arunachal Pradesh reportedly beaten by shopkeepers in India’s capital.
World Comics India has also released two development anthologies that were sent to India’s policymakers and judges. Some of their work is syndicated to smaller newspapers in states such as Rajasthan, Mizoram, Assam and Uttarakhand.
Sharma said his organization does not seek funds from the government or corporate firms. Volunteers, including Sharma, have day jobs. As for the participants, all they need is paper, stationery and a story to tell.
“They have a story to share. They are illiterate (but) they can draw,” said Sharma.
A 2011 BBC report on the Indian comic books industry paints a discouraging picture, with plunging sales, weak distribution networks, high pricing and increased exposure to the Internet and TV.
But the grassroots comics are a “cost-effective medium” that could offer a fresh perspective on regions not covered by the media.
The trainee cartoonists have no prejudiced notions or pre-drawn conclusions that may exist in the mind of a traditional journalist, Sharma said, referring to what he said was skewed media coverage of India’s Northeast.
“Last 15 years, my work in Northeast, we have only 1 percent stories on conflict. But you can take all the media reports, 99 percent stories are on conflict,” he said.
“Wherever people want to share something, I am there with comics,” he said.
Sharma’s one regret is that urban readers and mainstream publishers haven’t yet embraced grassroots comics.
“They want manga,” he said, referring to the Japanese comic books that are popular among youngsters worldwide.
(This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)