Thursday, September 25, 2008
G Aravindan’s Small Men and the Big World: Re- Defining the ‘Comic’ in the Strip.
The referrals of Fun and Comic have taken definite turns by the postmodern advent in the global culture. Comics, for instance, no more need to be ‘comic’ i.e. hilarious. The case in point focuses on this divorce of certain senses from their corresponding fields, by locating one of the very popular comic strips in Kerala as one of its kind in dissociating ‘comic’ from its mere lexical implications. The reference is to G Aravindan’s comic strip Cheriya Manushyarum, Valiya Lokavum (Small Men and the Big World) which appeared in the Mathrubhoomi Azhchapathipu, from 1961 to 1973. The strip split its readers into two equally enthusiastic categories: while many appreciated the strip for its thought provoking, understated, subtle kind of humor there were as many readers who derided it for not being “funny”. The translated version of Walt Disney’s Funny Animals was the only other cartoon that this premier journal carried at that time. And it was indeed part of a general trend to envision comic strips as well-animated good-time laugh gags. Cartoons and comic strips only meant good-time humor: they ought to crack a laugh or two before they could be forgotten by the reader. Naturally, Aravindan’s strip opened to mixed response in the readership.
Aravindan needs to be considered a pioneer in the graphic narrative for recognizing the medium’s potential for narrative complexity and the ability to deal with mature subjects and current affairs, as early as 1961. In the US it took the underground comix movement and prolonged counterculture experiments of the latter half of 60’s, to construe this potential. The comix artists and the head shops were still fumbling with tentative creations in the US, slowly mapping the field, and trying to outline what would eventuate as one of the most powerful currents of popular culture. Given that the medium was still inchoate in its ideological foundations with no tall history of such graphic narratives to lean back upon, it becomes absolutely significant therefore, that Aravindan could put behind him a few couple of years of work of similar nature, and contemplate a strip of such deliberation in a mainstream Malayalam literary magazine.
Cheriya Manushyarum Valiya Lokavum began as a series that revolved around Ramu, the protagonist who kind of represented the archetypical middle class Malayali with ambitions of upward social mobility. Ramu, at his political best, was an idealistic, educated, unemployed Keralite male with a qualified taste in literature, music and cinema. Ramu’s unemployment and his constant struggles to find himself an opening were the main subject matter of the earlier strips. As years limped by, sustained musings over the meta-physical implications of stranding such a situation in the Keralite society started to surface in subtle tones of satire and a qualified bitter humor. Instead of keeping Ramu suspended in a never-changing world as is the usual practice with long-running strips, Aravindan let him age, love, lose it, think, struggle, find a job, climb up the ‘social ladder’ and finally turn into a manipulating business magnate, crushing in that process the pure idealism and the innocence bordering on naivety that characterized him in the beginning.
A collected edition of these strips was first published by Bees Books in 1978 and subsequently by DC books in 1996. These collected editions (not definitive editions, only two third of the strips were included) proved to be a huge success and save for the abrupt ending reads much in the mode of the later varieties of graphic novels achieving the sort of ‘culminative effect’ that Charles Hatfield identifies in certain successfully serialized graphic novels(Hatfield, 154-155).
Perhaps this prompted E P Unny, editorial cartoonist with the New Indian Express, to label Aravindan’s work as the ‘First Indian graphic novel’ (‘officially’ India’s first graphic novel is Sarnath Banerjee’s Corridor. New Delhi: Penguin, 2004.) Unny comments so:
Cheriya Manushyarum, Valiya Lokavum is the closest we got to a graphic novel. A true forerunner in the 60s and 70s. It certainly wasn't a pre-set novel, in terms of having a worked-out plot. What gave it the extra dimension are the ageing characters and all that went with it. The gradual shift in their relationships and changes in their lifestyle - suggesting a real life parallel. For the first time the Malayali reader sensed time in a cartoon strip.
The collected edition provides us with an understanding of the strip’s evolving visual narrative. When he started out, Aravindan adopted a wide-angled panel construction cramming in every possible detail into these panels.
The panels are crowded with people, automobiles, buildings and text balloons and the strip (see Fig 1)invariably inhabited a public space with the events mostly taking place in parks, libraries, railway stations, offices, schools, restaurants, shops, roads and other such spaces with Ramu remaining inseparable from the fabric of the society he lives in.
As the strip progressed and entered the 70’s, there occurred a gradual but striking transformation in its visual language. The background of the panels got totally stripped of any details.
The story now shifts from the old, familiar public spaces to such exclusivised, private spaces like Ramu’s air-conditioned cabin or the elite club which he is a member of(Fig 2).This withdrawal to self and individual (ironically, Ramu achieves greater social acceptance in the process) is accentuated by the close up shots and proves a case of the form mirroring the content; the text balloons that once dominated the panel space shrink, the text itself becomes sparse and characters are pushed into corners of the panel frames, often to the extent of nearly disappearing from the panel altogether.
While the earlier strips are more or less constructed on the lines of conventional paintings keeping the ideas of perspective and vanishing points in place, the later strips are devoid of any centre or point of focus. The waning of centre-points, the demeaning of the ideal in art and other ways to defy the conventions of visuality, marks an artist’s qualms with the normalized ways of understanding the spectacle.
Considering Aravindan’s later feats in filmdom, his fascination for and association with the camera must have informed his brush much in the course of drawing. Camera and its impact on the artistic frames had been pondered about much in the context of early 20th century visual theory. Ways of Seeing is a case in point. It informs the context of discussion, when John Berger associates the act of decentering (that Aravindan had employed) with the invention of camera (Berger, 18). Aravindan’s evolving style can be thus understood as a shift from the aesthetics of painting to that of cinema. In fact, the strip does mark an important stage in his development as a film maker, for with it he developed a visual narrative style that his films would be appreciated for.
Aravindan’s first film Uttarayanam was made in 1974, a year after he had stopped drawing the strip. In this acclaimed film, as in his strip, Aravindan reflected on the life of an unemployed youth in a society with eroding values. As if a logical progression of the comic strip he had left behind, Aravindan’s maiden directorial venture divulged the cartoonist in him, the streak particularly evident in the film’s portrayal of the then Keralite society (Vijayakrishnan, 150). Elements of caricature resurface in a later film Oridathu (1986). Here, he resorted to a lot of exaggeration and humor, especially with the characters and their dialects. In fact Oridathu, which is about the electrification of a village and the changes that it brings in the power relations of the society, is Aravindan’s most comic-strip like film. Here again, Aravindan is more preoccupied with societal changes and the need for some basic ethical premises, than with the merits or demerits of technology and mechanization. More than the individual characters, it is the society, the macrocosm that interests him.
It would therefore be grievously reductionistic to read the strip as a mere tragedy/black comedy of an individual’s life and times. To Aravindan, the individual’s ‘tragedy’ spanned the ‘tragedy’ of the society he lived in. Thus the strip is also about a society gravitating from Idealism to materialistic ‘pragmatism’ or to speak in political terms, from the vestiges of the Nehruvian socialism (of the early 60s) to Mrs. Gandhi’s manipulative power politics of the 70s. By1961, Nehruvian socialist model of nation building had demanded that some compromises be made with the high idealism of Mahatma Gandhi. Even though the country did move away from Mahatma, Nehru’s presence served as a reminder of those idealistic times. Right from the beginning of the strip, Ramu is aware of this shift in the value system of his society and even as he continues to turn down jobs and make other decisions on moral and ethical grounds, he retains in his mind, reservations about the veracity and ethic of such choices. But as the time takes pace, reflecting the real world, the characters of the strip exhibit a tendency to self-justify their actions and show a strange willingness to adjust to the social realities. In the end; very few remain as they were in the beginning.
Passing away of Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri in the mid 60’s mirrored the demise of the ideals and the times they represented, and paved way for the emergence of the ‘Syndicate’ (a collective of some powerful regional party bosses).The Syndicate wielded great power and was instrumental in Mrs. Gandhi’s rise to the post of Prime minister (Chandra et al. 220-21). The scheming ‘Syndicate’ took decisions, pulled the strings and manipulated the party, and oared the government to their advantage. The syndicate lost much of their power later and was replaced by Mrs. Gandhi’s coterie, headed by Sanjay Gandhi. Emergence of Ramu and his rich friends as manipulators and powerbrokers reflect this shift of democracy to oligarchy. These mad scrambles for power and its consolidation into a few would later culminate in the darkest phase of Indian democracy: the declaration of national emergency by Mrs. Gandhi, conferring upon herself the power to rule by decree, suspending elections and civil liberties.
The 60s and early 70s proved to be an invigorating time for literature in Malayalam with the emergence of a group of writers with strong modernist sensibilities. The group included O V Vijayan, M.Mukundan, Kakkanadan and Anand who were largely influenced by the writings and philosophies of the modernists and presented an aesthetic totally different from that of the earlier generation of social realists, humanists and romantics. Aravindan himself came from a group with modernist leanings and it is not just coincidental that Cheriya manushyarum, Valiya Lokavum imbibed this significant shift in the aesthetic sensibilities of the Malayali reader. Ramu and his mentor Guruji are seen discussing writers like Camus, Lorca, Sartre, Kafka, Durrell, Saul Bellow and Genet. The discussions also premise on the masters of world cinema who inspired the then nascent ‘New Cinema’ movement in Kerala. The strip on its own exhibited strong modernist influences with a plot that drifted from the societal to the individual, fragmented visuals and undercurrents of cynicism, alienation and existentialism. All this helped the Malayali reader to acquaint himself with the western Modernist movement without which the consolidation of the modernist literary and visual sensibilities in Malayalam might have been quite arduous.
This period also witnessed an intense self fashioning of the Malyali identity. Even though this process had commenced with the social renaissance decades ago, the Indian independence movement, integration with the Indian union, the formation of the state of Kerala, land reform acts of the first communist government, library movement, spreading of education and literacy, the Naxalite movement, proliferation of newspapers, magazines and the evolution of a Malayali Diaspora meant that the Malayali identity had undergone a significant transformation by the 60s and the70s.While they first had to reconcile with an Indian/national identity, there was also this urge and conscious effort amongst the educated to mould themselves into global citizens, informed of and actively participating in the issues of their age. This enables Aravindan to discuss events like Che’s murder in the forests of Bolivia; without having to worry about his reader’s awareness of such global affairs. In a manner that truly represents the nature of the Malayali identity of his times, Aravindan contrasts Che’s relinquishing of the post of a minister with the desperate endeavors of a local politician to be one, thereby casually connecting the global with the local.
For the major part of the strip, Ramu exhibits this insatiable urge to escape the encumbering surroundings of his society by drowning himself in the vast sea of humanity of the cities like Delhi, Calcutta and Bangalore. Without the prying eyes, probing questions and constrains of caste and class, the city emerges as an exhilarating and liberating space.
Thus, the strip not only opened up a ‘bigger’ world and its possibilities to the average Malayali, but also played a seminal part in describing to him/her how s/he perceived it. The contemporariness of the medium and the long run that it had in a mainstream magazine of fairly good circulation facilitated the strip to undertake such a project. The importance of Aravindan as a comic-strip artist rests in how he managed to conceptualize those issues which were deemed outside the scope of a so called ‘Low art’ medium and thereby obliterating the compartmentalization of high and low art. It sort of drove the point home that the art in itself could not be “high” or “low” by virtue of any specific medium. In his hands, we see the last page comic-strip space metamorphosing into an important site where the cultural, political and the social mingle, reflecting and in turn shaping, discourses of a phase in the history of a locality.
Aravindan, G. Cheriya Manushyarum, Valiya Lokavum. Thiruvananthapuram: Bees, 1978.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin, 1972.
Chandra, Bipin, Mridula Mukherjee, and Aditya Mukherjee. India after Independence, 1947- 2000.New Delhi: Penguin, 2000.
Hatfield, Charles. Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature. Oxford, MS: UP of Mississippi, 2005.
Vijayakrishnan. Malayala Cinemayude Kadha. Kozhikode: Mathrubhoomi, 2007.
Unny, E. P. E-mail to the author. 21 Sept. 2007.