Synthesis of Text and Image: Sarnath Banerjee’s Graphic Fiction
Is it likely that contemporary Indian graphic novelists draw inspiration from medieval Indian artists who composed illustrated manuscripts? There is negligible research on the transference of Indo-Persian artistic practices in the works of modern and contemporary artists in India. One of the causes maybe the disadvantage concerning scholars familiar with Urdu and Persian languages, limiting access to the literary and art historical discourse in circulation, during the early twentieth century. Scholars researching modernism in the art of Muslim South Asia, however, have attempted to address the issue; but more studies are awaited.
Mughal artists in the sixteenth century practiced the art of assembling calligraphy and image, narrating a sequence of events in single folios, in continuation of an earlier Persianiate tradition. The art of Indian graphic novelists who apply the text-image formula to fashion their narratives, finds resonance with the muraqqa (album), particularly the amalgam of assorted texts and images arranged into elaborate compositions. Much like the muraqqa, the graphic novel invites the “beholder” into a gallery of images, to try and perceive multiple layers of narrative by bridging gaps between ‘what is said’ and ‘what is seen’.
Sarnath Bannerjee, an acclaimed Indian artist with several publications, credits his growth and success as a storyteller after his encounter with illustrated albums. During his early career, Bannerjee had found inspiration from European, American and Japanese literature, art and cinema. However, when he chanced upon illustrated manuscripts, he fathomed that the “readability” of images, which was the essence of densely packed compositions in Indo-Persian manuscripts, was the ideal he was seeking. Bannerjee’s novels navigate temporal and spatial territories, richly embellished with commentaries on the social, historical, political and cultural matrix of the times. Memories of his childhood and youth spent in densely populated spaces of Kolkata, his training years spent in educational institutes in London and Japan, research in Brazil and residency in Berlin, find expression in his carefully constructed hand-drawn folios. Bannerjee’s drawings are no doubt, rooted in his local experiences, but his encounters in the global world, allow him to weave a rich tapestry of fragmented ideas into a pastiche of interconnected images and dialogues.
Excerpts from a conversation with Bannerjee, Berlin, November 2019, where he recounted many incidents, encounters and memories that has helped shape his art in the past, and his peripatetic life that has allowed him to aim for newer expressions in the present.
On the interpretive possibilities of comics
I’m a little reflective about the genre of graphic novels, because it has become a fad, and has arrived at a mechanical and stiff juncture. Earlier, I used to love the form, because I felt it was one of the finest, a most sophisticated way of telling a story, where text and image, without losing their individual personalities, try to create, neu erschaffen , “create something new” which neither of them can do by themselves. So, in that sense, it harks back to an almost chemical change; like, sodium and chloride are both poisons, yet when they mix, salt is produced! Just like Persian texts inserted within images in an illustrated folio, the viewer can engage in multiple narratives, relishing the poetics between image and text. So, I’ve always been interested in the interpretive possibilities of comics.
On expanding his horizons
The inherent restrictions that the medium itself brings – working inside grids, the limitation of inserting text within an image, writing dialogues, etc. has challenged me into expanding my horizons. This transition has been evolving over the last 8-9 years. Many conversations were swirling in my mind. Visual, textual influences, the Shāhnāmā, Jahangirnāmā … while working for the Dutch, I encountered illustrated manuscripts, the Malabaricus Indicus. I wanted to do research, and unselfconsciously include these ideas into my work. After reading these books, I became keen to break out of the limiting comic book format. I was keen to bring about an interaction between image and text. Image confuses the text, text confuses the image; but at the same time in the image, there are clues about the text and vice versa.
The first journey
I wrote a book called Harappa Files, which was like a comprehensive encyclopaedia of people, things and places, which existed, because I knew there was a great change that was going to happen. This was written before the big neo-liberal leap that India made. I suddenly had this instinctive feeling then, that I should record everything. That, such ‘types’ of people also existed – a distributor of industrial solvents, emerging out of the subject of Chemistry, and hither-thither, somehow having passed his Chemical Engineering, started his own business, and then subsequently, either the business succeeded or failed; or a train allergy, Caluminex, which affected people only on particular trains, with the antidote being sold only on those trains, as the clientele was already present; or, basically, tracing the indigenous modernity with which we grew up – and to write small, small forms comprising these memories and encounters. This was my first journey.
Finding newer ways
This process of mining everything – my journeys, my literary and cultural preferences, my choices, my encounters and interactions; encompassing all my experiences, has amalgamated into my latest novel, Doab Dil. The narrative sometimes takes you to 17th century Baghdad, to contemporary Kolkata, then suddenly you can find yourself in Karachi. I felt the need to write my will – that I have visited these places, done these higgledy-piggledy things, and lived these experiences. The urge to translate a complex idea into a simple form has perhaps drawn me to collaborate with experts from other fields, with economist and Nobel laureate, Abhijit Bannerjee; with Vikram Patel, Global Health and Social Medicine, Harvard University. In the project with Vikram, I may cite and adapt the style and form of illustrated manuscripts like the Shāhnāmā or the Akbarnāmā in an attempt to find newer ways of telling my stories.
Bannerjee lives in Berlin with his son, Mir. His new explorations include a series on mental health, the re-working of a Tabrizi illustrated manuscript with an Iranian historian, and the Karachi Tales, a series of bed-time stories narrated to Mir.
Sarnath Bannerji has published five books of graphic fiction published by Penguin and Harper Collins. In 2019, Sarnath received the Belknap visiting fellowship from the history department of Princeton University and CAST award by Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
 Iftakar Dadi, Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia, The University of North Carolina Press, 2010