Indian cartoonists are lining up to bring down the system
In Modi’s India, artists are painting a picture of a country in the fray of a battle for its soul. ‘Fangirl’ meets Ita Mehrotra and Appupen, two visual storytellers using political commentary – and wit – in the face of intolerance and repression
Like a multi-limbed Kali of change, Ita Mehrotra is as pragmatic about destroying certain structures as she is about building others up.
In December of 2019, when a handful of women from Shaheen Bagh – a Muslim-dominant area in Delhi – blocked off one of the city’s major arteries in a gesture of non-violent protest, Ita Mehrotra was already elbow-deep at another protest raging a short distance away. “I heard while being at the protests at Jamia that there’s women gathering… Somebody was going and I was like okay, can I come too?”
Her gut response led to Ita’s being present right from the get-go at what became one of the most significant movements against India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which fast-tracks citizenship for non-Muslim immigrants who arrived in India before 2015 from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh – all Muslim-majority countries.
Her participation in the more than three-months-long sit-in, spearheaded by the mothers, grandmothers and young women of what is commonly described as a Muslim “ghetto” led to her graphic novel Shaheen Bagh: A Graphic Recollection.
The protest was radical, in the sense that one of Delhi’s vital arteries – the highway connecting the city to its shining new tech hub, Noida – had been appropriated by women, in a protest led by women, filled by the discourse of women. For someone like Ita, who popped out of the womb practically a full-blown feminist (she’s the daughter of a member of the revolutionary feminist movement that swept through India in the 80s), it was electrifying. “From the first day it was, okay, so these women are up onstage talking about not just anti-CAA, but also what democracy should be.
“My head was buzzing with things that I have to put down. I had to do it, there was no other way.”
This sequence of events is Ita’s usual modus operandi. Her graphic stories begin with engagement – in her community, through activism or her work as programme director at Artreach India, an NGO which aims to affect change in marginalised societies through art. “It’s going to these places first and experiencing what people are saying that leads to the response of drawing,” she says.
“It’s really material I can do, which is responses to something that’s ongoing, and quick responses so that it can also engage with ongoing movements.”
Ita is a reminder that the word activist comes from the Latin, “actus”, a driving, or doing. She’s a thoughtful listener and observer who, with remarkable dexterity almost immediately translates thought to action. Her illustrations are painstakingly unpretentious, sketched out with brief, urgent lines reminiscent of a street artist scrawling out their message before the cops roll along. “It’s important for me to have that story right there, I don’t want to annotate the artwork, or have an art historian talking about it. It’s reportage.”
While Ita’s work with Artreach involves listening to the voiceless and, in teaching them to draw, giving them the tools to tell their stories, her graphic narratives serve to amplify voices which are already robust, but ignored. Shaheen Bagh began as a series of call-to-action posters Ita began sketching during the protests and sharing via social media, at a time when nobody outside of the immediate environs knew about Shaheen Bagh. “When I look back at them I don’t think they’re very good, honestly, they’re drawings with purpose. There’s a lot of purpose in them, intent of telling people to come. What’s strong in them is what the women are saying.”
They’re drawings with purpose.
This sense of purpose is present in all of Ita’s work, from one-off illustrations of a swollen-eyed healthcare worker in Covid-ravaged India, to the crescendo of her graphic novel Shaheen Bagh, which describes the thoughts, words and actions of the Muslim women who formed the protest against Modi’s drive to define citizenship according to one’s religion. While sharing many of the same concerns, Ita was hyper-aware of the responsibility of telling the stories of women whose experience of being Indian is very different from her own. During the making of the book she shared her work with them and made sure they were, quite literally, on the same page.
Want to learn more about the face of dissent in India? Ita recommends reading:
Alana Hunt’s archival book-as-memorial about lives lost in Kashmir, Cups of Nun Chai
The Wire’s ongoing coverage of the Delhi farmers’ protest
Malik Sajjad’s graphic novel Munnu: A boy From Kashmir
The result is a form of reportage that comes across like a newsreel from the 1950s, before technicolour fireworks and special effects rendered the news entertainment. The characters we meet in Shaheen Bagh are familiar – Ita’s monochrome pen-strokes are deft and direct, reveal noses, mouths, kurtas, glasses; but what she really draws is the humanity of the people she encounters. From the main protagonist Shahana, whose family chose to remain in the “ghetto” even when they could afford to move away, and a young mother camped out in the bitter winter nights with her infant, to defiant grandmothers and housewives rallying up rations, Shaheen Bagh offers a street-view of a movement which has changed the Indian consciousness of citizen rights.
Covid gave the government the excuse to end the sit-in in early 2020, and replace it with lockdown. And a spate of lock-ups. “It was really shameless, as there was this emergency with the health crisis there was arrest after arrest, and that’s exactly when Yoda Press was like, ‘Okay so now let’s do this book’.” Shaheen Bagh came out during the second wave, a time of sagging spirits in the country, and served as a locator for a multitude of struggles that were ongoing before lockdown. Referenced by different movements – NGOs operating in Shaheen Bagh, a jailed student union leader – the book has expanded into a consciousness of other experiences overlapping with the ones contained within its pages. The sort of thing that gets you in Modi’s crosshairs, something Ita brushes off with the same equanimity she brings to everything she does. “If they’re all getting arrested then jail sounds like an okay place to be. If everyone’s sitting there, then yeah, let’s all draw and sing there.”
Far from bureaucratic Delhi, in tech-boom Bangalore, comic artist Appupen tackles dissent from a more whimsical point of view that mirrors the phantasmagorical changes his city has experienced since it became India’s Silicon Valley. It’s Appupen’s world, we’re all just living in it.
The world of Halahala is a mindgasm of a multiverse comprising of four graphic novels – Moonward, Legends Of Halahala, Aspyrus and The Snake And The Lotus – and the Rashtraman comics, is a fever-dream of gruesome machines, hapless mortals bludgeoned into a stupor by technology and consumerism, fantastical beasts, desolate landscapes, and an unremitting nature. It’s a fitting reflection of Appupen, an artist with much to say, and an even more fitting reflection of the man he is that he chooses, largely, to say it without words.
Having worked in advertising for many years, he’s wary of “messages” being bottle-fed (a recurring visual in his work) into the greedy mouths of the masses.
“In advertising we don’t want the audience to think anything else than what we intend,” he says. “In art, you allow exploration.”
While we live in an age where the image is the most blatant message there is, and language has become obfuscated, what Appupen means when he uses words like “message” and “exploration” is clear. Wordplay, because of his dexterity with it, is spoon-feeding, and illustration, which he is constantly experimenting with, is exploration. This is evident in the Halahala graphic novels, none of which are in the exact same style as the other. What they do have in common is fastidious linework, minimal use of language, and precise palettes ranging from faded industrial pastels in Legends Of Halahala and Aspyrus, to the sensual black-and-white monochrome of The Snake And The Lotus.
“The job in the silent story is to create those kind of guidelines so that you don’t fall off when you tell yourself the story. You’re still within that frame as you go down the story and I will ensure that those barricades are there so you don’t fall off. Within that it’s your telling.
“But in advertising if I do that I’m a failure. I cannot leave any space for you. I have to get you straight to my product or my message.”
In art, you allow exploration.
Appupen’s insistence on visual storytelling crescendoed in the last Halahala book, The Snake And The Lotus, where his dark, glistening illustrations pay homage to Lynd Ward’s wordless woodcut novels. In fact, he was well on his way in his pursuit to bite his tongue and allow his reader the freedom to create their own message.
Cut to 2014. Enter Modi. “There were clearly some signs that did not look very healthy, even to an untrained mind like mine. I’m new at looking at political things but I can tell there’s something wrong when people are making temples to the prime minister, and the prime minister is like, Hey, what to do, people are making temples to me.” One of the most popular children’s comics is Bal Narendra, which, in the tradition of Indian comic books outlining the exploits of Hindu gods, recounts stories of Modi’s bravery as a child. “Bal is going around saving alligators and stuff. It looked like they were trying to build a demon.” And no, he doesn’t mean to say god. “I think both are the same, actually.”
It’s this ability to refract reality so that it becomes both itself and a subversion of itself that is Appupen’s genius, a state of mind that is undeniably Indian, a yes-no headshake of being. In Hindu lore, Halahala is the name of the poison churned up from the sea in a misguided attempt to create the nectar of immortality. It is Shiva – the destroyer – who drinks the poison and saves the world from certain toxic destruction. The political situation served as a kind of telephone booth into which mild-mannered, freedom-of-thought loving Appupen disappeared and Super AdMan emerged, the Shiva to Modi’s Brahma. With Rashtraman: Guardian Of Rashtria (rashtra means nation in Hindi), Appupen’s Rashtraman comic series burst onto the scene in a circus of colours and swirling puncrobatics.
The series follows Rashtraman, a pec-thrusting, funhouse-mirror image of the superhero prototype as he whizzes around India defending the master plan of a pocket-sized, sometime-levitating Modi with vim and certitude, long-standing requirements in the canon of superheroes. Accompanied by his dishevelled paramour Lady Justis, misfit Cowboy, Bat-manu the muscle, guardian of public morality Vigil Aunty, Propagandhi, Win Diesel and Rashtrabot, Rashtraman lurches across a different dimension of the Halahala mindverse, one that is recognisably the India of today.
Want to learn more about the face of dissent in India? Appupen recommends:
Watch: Peter Brook’s epic film The Mahabharata
Read: Lynd Ward’s wordless novel Gods’ Man
Read: Economist and social reformer B. R. Ambedkar’s essays on caste
Whether it’s the “obfucksitization of data” and the “Kow Klux Klan,” mediaspeak or interfaith relations, consumerism or the constitution, there is no aspect of Modi’s India the series doesn’t eviscerate. With lol-worthy wordplay, eye-candy graphics and unrelenting political critique, by combining deft brushwork with his innate verbal dexterity, Appupen achieves a near-perfect work of art in the Rashtraman series.
Unfortunately, sarcasm happens to be lost on totalitarian regimes. After not playing the national anthem in cinemas was made a punishable offence, Appupen depicted Modi as a gun-toting robocop. It went viral because, it turns out, it was being shared by Hindutva groups chuffed by the image of their strongman Modi.
“We can call out what things are happening, we can have new numbers and new sides to it but I think we pretty much know where to draw the line… Why do we have to keep pointing it out or reestablishing that nature is good or plastic is bad? I mean, everybody knows it, right? So it comes down to not just the messaging, it comes to how the message is being taken, or processed.”
What’s so good about this?
In a time when democratic countries around the world are falling prey to the machinations of surveillance technologies, unconstitutional laws, lies and brute force, it would not be far amiss to say, “We are all India.” Dissent, in one form or another, is the only way to protect our freedoms; it’s either that or the silence of lambs led to the slaughter. “I’d like to be a sheep,” said nobody, in the history of ever. Speak up. Have a laugh at the strongman’s expense. Listen to narratives which are not your own; spread them like they are.
Meet the writer
Fangirl kicked off her undistinguished career on the art direction and writing teams of Pakistan’s first glossy fashion magazines. This led her like a bat out of hell to L.A., where she downed a near-lethal cocktail of reality TV, Tupac and Paul Bowles. In pre-techbro San Francisco, in between day-drinking and working illegally as a Mexican waitress, she squeezed in a masters degree in creative writing before ending up homeless in an Italian village. She’s written coffee table books about resorts she’s never been to, spent summers working the kitchen at reggae festivals deep in the redwoods of Humboldt County, lived in Paris as a fake-it-till-you-make-it “artist,” and trained as a psychotherapist. After dabbling in amateur photography, collage, and blogging, she discovered other people do everything ever so much better than her, and has dedicated her time to fangirling ever since. She currently lives and fangirls in Barcelona. (Profile art: Rafia Malik)