His comic appeal keeps everyone from eight to 80 in splits even now. TOI flipped through the pages with Narayan Debnath, the creator of Bengal's original superhero, Bantul.
Back in 1957, I used to sit on the stairs of my ancestral home in Howrah, watching boys playing on the streets all afternoon. In those days, there were fewer cars, so kids were allowed to be out till sundown. I would sit for hours watching them play, tease each other, break into fights, play pranks on passers-by. Nijer monei hashtam oder kando dekhe. Handa-Bhonda was born out of these fragmented experiences."
It's a chilly winter evening. We're with Narayan Debnath, the father of the Bengali comic strip, at his Howrah home - the same one where he saw those kids playing and found inspiration for the iconic Handa-Bhonda strip. Much has changed since then: there are more cars, more people, more noise. But the space that Debnath's characters - Handa-Bhonda, Bantul The Great, Bahadur Beral, Nonte-Phonte - inhabit has got immortalized in time, in the 18 frames on the pages of Shuktara and in our chhotobela.
That's the key to the popularity of Debnath's characters. Hundreds of his books are selling at this year's book fair. Not far from his home, in a swanky Kolkata bookstore, kids are picking up Nonte-Phonte comics, translated into English. "Though the English comic strip and graphic novel, as genres, are becoming popular, no Bengali comic artist in recent times has generated the response that Narayan Debnath gets. His works are bestsellers, and in terms of sales we do very good business on his titles, around 30-45% of the category sales," says a spokesperson of Oxford Bookstores.
Debnath himself had no clue about Tintin or Asterix when he started Handa-Bhonda and Bantul The Great. Tintin in English first arrived on Indian shores only in the second half of the '60s and Debnath drew Handa-Bhonda in 1962 for Shuktara.
"I know about Asterix and Tintin but haven't seriously read any," he says, admitting that the first time he actually saw a Tintin comic up close was when someone gifted his granddaughter Shurjodeber Bondi, the Bengali translation of Prisoners of the Sun.
So how did it all start? "I was interested in drawing and illustrations from a very young age. I was in the Indian Art College when World War II was on. After five years, I started doing freelance illustrations for ad agencies and created movie slides and logos. In 1950, Dev Sahitya Kutir, the publishing house, got in touch with me. I spent about a decade illustrating children's comic books and creating covers for translations of Western novels. I started Handa-Bhonda in 1962 for Shuktara. How did I do them? Shotti ghotona gulo ke golper moto shajiye nitam. Once I ran out of ideas, I depended on my imagination."
From his imagination too sprang the original Bengali superhero, Bantul The Great. "Bantul was born a year after Handa-Bhonda. One day, I was returning from College Street when the idea of creating a larger-than-life character with a weird-shaped body - a massive torso, chicken legs and the head of a boy - struck me. I thought of the name Bantul first and then gave him physical attributes. The name was just as random as the physical appearance," admits Debnath.
Debnath attributed Bantul with an aura of invincibility during the Bangladesh War in 1971. The character was subsequently seen hurling tanks at adversaries, firing canon balls with his breath and displaying superpowers unseen during that era. "I was asked by my editor and publisher to turn Bantul into a superhero. I had no idea about Superman or Spiderman. The only foreign strip I had seen was Tarzan. It wasn't difficult to imagine Bantul as a superhero but I was worried that it might create legal issues as most of the subcontinent was at war at that time. Thankfully, the 'new' Bantul was liked by all and became very popular," he says.
Now, television channels have lapped up the idea of animation series based on Debnath's creations. Says Arijit Bhadra of the production house that created the animated Bantul, "Animation in Bengali is not possible without Bantul or Handa-Bhonda. Bantul has been on air for almost a year now and we've had tremendous response. When we approached Narayanbabu for permission to use his characters, he welcomed the idea."
Broadcasters couldn't agree more. "Narayan Debnath's comics - especially Bantul - cut across socioeconomic categories. Bantul is more popular than Chhota Bheem and other such programmes," says Taniya Chakrabarti, manager of programming of the channel that airs the Bantul series.
Debnath - he says he holds the copyright of all his cartoons - is more than ready to have his creations star in feature films a la Tintin. However, he feels that the talent pool in the city is not ready to match up to Hollywood standards. "A few years back, two gentlemen had come to me saying that they had created a 90-second 3D clip of Bantul. I thought they had done a good job. They were ready but couldn't find sponsors and producers," rues Debnath.
He also feels that comics had never enjoyed a high status in Bengal's intellectual hierarchy. Says Supratik Sen of Crossword bookstore, "Comics and animation never really took off bigtime in Bengal perhaps because comic strips were not regarded as 'writing' or an 'intellectual pursuit'. This is proven by the fact that in Bengali there is a huge amount of children's writing but nothing, apart from Abol Tabol and Narayan Debnath's creations, in comic form.
To keep up with the times, Debnath has even handed Bantul a mobile phone. "To make him more real in today's world, I have made Batul use a mobile phone. In that particular strip, Batul is warned by his locality boys about a bank robbery on his phone. Obviously, he intercepts the bad guys, thanks to the timely call," he said.
Debnath's comics are slowly finding space outside Dev Sahitya Kutir - the original publishers. Says Gautam Jatia of Starmark, "We are sending a compilation of Debnath's comics, published by Lal Mati publications, for printing. Narayanbabu is evergreen. The fact that the comics are now available in English and across all media platforms is helping them gain popularity." Debnath's Nonte-Phonte in English has also been published by Patra Bharati. "Nonte-Phonte in English is fast selling out especially now that the Book Fair is on. The buyers range from age 5 to 50," says Tridib Chatterjee, owner of Patra Bharati.
Debnath is aware that his characters - Handa-Bhonda, Bantul, Nonte-Phonte, Bahadur Beral, Potolchand The Magician, Danpite Khadu Ar Tar Chemical Dadu - will pass into oblivion once he is gone. Has he thought of training pupils so that his legacy can survive? "Comics are something one cannot teach or learn. It has to come from within. I've had young illustrators coming to me hoping to learn the art. But it's not just the drawings that matter. One has to know how to tell a story as well. Kintu ke ar korbe..." Debnath says quietly. It's getting dark outside and the shadows are lengthening.
Narayan Debnath apparently holds a world record for creating 1,500 comics, where the story, dialogues, the script as well as the illustrations are done single-handedly by him.
In 2012, Bantul will be 50 years old. Nonte-Phonte and Handa-Bhonda are in their late forties and early fifties.
Bantul has a pet dog called Bhedo and a pet ostrich called Utu. An interesting character that appears in the Bantul comics is Lambakarna, a boy with unusually long ears and special powers of hearing.
Debnath had thought of creating Bantul on a whim while returning from College Street after work. Initially, Handa-Bhonda was pencilled and inked by Debnath without colour frames. Later, it would be printed in grayscale.
Apart from Bantul, Handa-Bhonda and Nonte-Phonte, Debnath's other creations include Potolchand The Magician, Bahadur Beral, Danpite Khadu Ar Tar Chemical Dadu, Black Diamond Indrajit Roy, Petuk Master Batuklal and Shutki Ar Mutki.
"I have immense respect for Narayanbabu. He's the only cartoon artist from Bengal who has been commercially successful. In olden days comic artists were considered to be 'bina poishar artists'. Narayanbabu has changed that. That said, I believe, his strips have become a tad monotonous. I wish he'd come out of the Handa-Bhonda-Bantul The Great mould and create a different set of characters."
"When we were young, we used to keep Shuktara at home only to read Narayan Debnath's comics. I feel Narayanbabu hasn't received the due he deserves. Maybe it's because comic strips weren't and still aren't considered to be of high intellectual value. These days, we hear so much about the graphic novel. Trust me, I'm waiting for the day we'll have our first Bengali graphic novel." - Chandril
"Narayanbabu ekai eksho! The best bit is the fact that he has achieved commercial success, a little late in the day though. I haven't seen anyone else rise to his stature. There is definitely a lack in the talent pool when it comes to comic strips. One has to be successful on paper. Narayanbabu has achieved that in his lifetime. And he's still going strong. He's still drawing and his creations are still being published." - Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay
"Narayan Debnath is as popular in Bengal as Herge is in Belgium. I believe, since he's a Bengali, he couldn't achieve international acclaim. He is an artist of immense calibre. Not only does he draw, he thinks of the plot, writes the dialogue and builds up the story, all within a restricted space of two pages. My only grouse? If only he incorporated a little bit of adventure into the plots and went beyond the para setting." - Sanjib Chattopadhyay
"Narayanbabu started off with Shuktara. As the editor, I have had a long-standing association with him. It is really heartening to see that his comics are going beyond the realm of Dev Sahitya Kutir. He is a genius in this genre and it will be tough to match his standards. I'm just wondering who will take this legacy forward after he's gone." - Arun Majumdar