"Comics help bring out a common man’s debate"

Cartoonist Sharad Sharma, who now has to his organisation`s credit the first comic anthology on development of India, shares his journey.

He is among the rare breed, who have the courage to chuck a well-paying job to follow their dreams. Not only did he take the bold decision, but also accepted a period of struggle. The rewards have been more than satisfying. Cartoonist Sharad Sharma now has to his organisation’s (World Comics) name the first comic anthology on development of the country. He shares his journey this far with Akrita Reyar of Zeenews.com.

Akrita: World Comics has released India’s first comic anthology on development. Tell us about your project and what was the idea behind it?

Sharad: ‘Comics Reporting on Development’ - The word development is often used synonymously with evolution, growth or advancement. Whatever else it may connote, development is a magic word for politicians, but a rather tricky one for the common man.

Over the last many years we have trained a multitude of people as trainers and professional comics’ artists. Four years ago, I decided to collect stories of how the common people of India perceived development; what it actually means to them, or if it has any significance for them at all. Initially, I had thought that within a couple of months I would be able to collect all the stories, but it took me four years to do this. The biggest challenge I faced was of converting these stories into the visual form.

These stories collected from Jharkhand, Assam, Kashmir, Rajasthan and many other parts of the country present a reflection of the ‘accomplishments’ of development there. Be it the story of the fisherman from Assam or the helpless woman from Kashmir; the deleterious effects of tourism in Goa or the consequences of Uranium mining in Jaduguda; the tale of the Kolkata tram or the tribals of Jharkhand, we have endeavoured to portray the picture as realistically as possible. They are Comics Journalists! You may like to refer to: www.devpcom.blogspot.com

Akrita: What have your wide travels to India’s hinterland taught you?

Sharad: Once one of my employers asked me, "Why do you want to travel, you are a cartoonist and your job is to sit in studio and draw." I think travel is the most important thing for a cartoonist. When I look back, I realize whatever I have learnt in life is through my extensive travels spread over the length and breadth of this country. I also travelled to the NE states, which are hardly explored by the media and then to other part of South Asia.

This helped me understand the normal day-to-day life of people of the NE, beyond the image of conflict-region. The state with the second highest literacy in the country, Mizoram, can probably teach a lesson or two to rest of the country on issues like peaceful and clean election campaigns to gender equality.

These travels also helped me understand the ground realities of the country. How 70% of the population lived and survived, a reality which never finds space in mainstream media, but is equally important and needs to be addressed.

My visits to Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal were eye openers. I realised how different and diverse Sri Lanka and Nepal are from India (I didn`t know how I got this idea that all South Asian countries are like India) and how similar Pakistan is to India (despite all the hatred). During my three-week stay in Pakistan, I didn`t hear a single negative comment about India. I walked through the streets of Lahore and Rawalpindi just like a local.

Akrita: Tell us about the documentary you made in Pakistan?

Sharad: Please check the details here: http://chittihatia.blogspot.com/

Akrita: You have spoken in England often. You have probably made the most visits to Finland, which has been partner country on your cartooning projects? Besides, you have travelled to other parts of Europe and Africa too…

Sharad: Yes, I visited an Institute working on Media in Oxford. I also gave a talk at Cartoon Art Trust, London, and also exhibited my work there as well as at the London School of Economics. But the most exciting experience was to run several comics workshops in Manchester, Salford and Whythenshawe. I helped local organizations form a group called "Community Comics - UK", dedicated to spread the idea of comics as a communication tool.

People asked me what "Grassroots Comics" is doing in a country like the UK! Of course, common man`s point of view is never reflected in the mainstream media, whether it is India or the UK; hence this "tool of communication and self expression" was received very well. Last year, I also introduced it in Comics Schools in Sweden and exhibited my work at the Comics Festival.

In Finland, I have conducted several workshops. One of my favourite was in 2008 at Rovaniemi (Arctic Circle); it was attended by Sami indigenous people, who are spread over the Arctic circle of Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway. They made comics on the issue of cultural assimilation, education and how mainstream Finns make fun of their tradition and dresses.

I also did a workshop in West Africa. But my most memorable trip was in 2007 to Brazil. There, I introduced Grassroots comics to several organizations, people`s movements and in universities. I travelled across Brazil and got a chance to understand the country, which was quite different from the perception we have and which is limited to just football and samba. I learnt about how the indigenous people there have been pushed to Amazon forest and are away from development. I also visited their most infamous slum, "City of God", before watching the eponymous film. This is the Brazil, which needs to be introduced to the Indian masses. I have plans to make a graphic travel diary on it someday.

Akrita: Tell us about a particular incident that has moved you, tickled you or surprised you during your cartooning ventures with the common man?

Sharad: The participation of the people has been overwhelming in campaigns we have done so far. You can refer to http://www.halfworld.blogspot.com/ (Girl Child Right Campaign), http://www.cpcwci.blogspot.com/ (Corporal Punishment Campaign) and “Ab Shasan Humro Hoi”, a comics campaign on Children`s Participation in Local Governance -

Akrita: How receptive are the unlettered people when it comes to sketches? And how difficult has it been to reach out to say women when you work in villages?

Sharad: Since we mostly work with organisations and people`s movements, so it is rather easy to approach them. Most of the activists are used to workshop atmosphere and an outsider resource person. Yes, it is difficult when we deal with people living in diverse cultures. But I think there have been no such experiences when we faced any real problems.

I must say there is some magic in this tool, that after 30 minutes or an hour’s time everyone feels comfortable with drawing, as also in the workshop atmosphere.
It is not just about the drawing you see, but about stories of their day-to-day life, which they love to share and after easy-to-learn drawing sessions, they convert them into comics. What they need is just an A-4 size paper and something to say.

Akrita: Do people perceive cartooning to be an enriching and creative experience or more of fun and leisure activity?

Sharad: Workshops are fun, but the final output is not just creation of comics. Comics help bring out a common man’s debate in the open. Once they finish their comic sketching, they make 3-4 photocopies of each one of them and take them to villages or some market and distribute them and also gather feedback from the community. This way these comic wallposters open up a debate in society and the later leads to change. Many of them even adopt this technique as trainers and run similar workshops locally.

Akrita: How effective has cartooning been to put across social messages?

Sharad: It is simple, easy, non-threatening and can convey a powerful message. But it is not just World Comics India, which is using comics/ cartoons to deliver social messages, but across the world several organisation are doing the same. The difference is they have done the same job by hiring artists, and we have done it by teaching common people. Since the common people are the ones who produce them, so the 100% ownership of the content is theirs. They know the artists living next door. It is not for mass distribution, but for local use – so they produce say 20 copies.

Akrita: What would you say to the new found popularity of graphic novels?

Sharad: I think we still have only English language novels so far. This is still an unexplored medium in India, though there are huge possibilities around.

Akrita: How sustainable is a career as a cartoonist? What are the challenges? And are a lot of young people choosing it as a career option?

Sharad: Hmmm....I must say that if cartoonists are ready to experiment, no one can stop them. I feel that we are becoming a more intolerant society, and hence there is very little space for cartoonists. Or is it that deliberately our editors are killing cartooning in India, what they need is just someone who can sketch NICE LOOKING drawings, but not put that punch. That’s the reason that we have illustrators around, but not many cartoonists, a sad state indeed.

I believe there are thousands of alternatives (TATA factor); I am now working on Comics Journalism curriculum, which will soon be introduced as a 6-month diploma in few universities. This shows that there are huge possibilities in this medium in the future.

Akrita: What prompted you to chuck a regular job and plunge into something as financially uncertain as freelance cartooning?

Sharad: The discrimination, unequal opportunities in our society made me frustrated, while sitting in a TV studio. I too used to think that we are the one who are running this country or at least we have this illusion that everyone is watching us. Once we travel outside Delhi and meet the common man, we see a completely different world. I realize that the mainstream press, though doing a good job, has its limitations and we must find alternative ways to address those issues. How can we sleep if 50 people have died because of starvation; and we simply keep boasting about our 9% growth. I realised that this was not my cup of tea, and after 12 years of doing a job in mainstream media I decided to quit. Though it was difficult to survive initially in Delhi without a job, I believe that money always follows if you have good idea and an honest approach.

Akrita: How tough or satisfying has the entire experience been?

Sharad: Not tough, but it was an enjoyable journey. I love to travel and so I have enjoyed a lot. Meeting people, getting to know about new cultures, learning many new things and sharing what I could...yes, it has been a most satisfying experience.

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