Sharad Sharma is introducing the use of comics across India as a low-cost medium through which unheard millions can raise their voices on serious issues of concern.
With World Comics India, the organization he started, Sharad has pioneered a cheap and easy medium for poor people to communicate meaningfully on issues that are neglected by the conventional media. While the urban elite dominates public media, the grinding day-to-day concerns of millions are rarely heard. Layers of discrimination and abuse heaped on huge numbers of people keep their problems out of sight and out of mind. Yet these are the people and problems of India.
Sharad offers a medium to convey challenges and hardships and propose solutions. “Our concern is with teaching the necessary skills for making comics, not with interfering in the content,” he stresses. While the direction that the comics take is left to the individual artists, the discipline required in learning and applying new skills to visualize social issues necessarily awakens original thought and inspires public debate.
A “soft” medium like comics makes possible talk on hard subjects—witch-hunting, alcoholism, ritual pollution. Well-portrayed issues catch the attention of passers-by, young and old, poor and rich, literate and illiterate. As Sharad and his colleagues are showing, this attention builds concern and action.
The global concentration of public media in the hands of a few is compounded in India by the deep fissures that run through its society. Poverty, widespread illiteracy, and regional and communal differences undermine the ability of people to express and work through their problems. The opinions of vast numbers are treated as irrelevant for reasons of tradition, caste, location, economics, or gender.
The newspapers, radio, and television in India are not accessible to—and generally not interested in—the country’s largely rural population. Outside the cities, televisions are few and far between, newspapers and radio also less frequent. Aside from some political news, mainstream media aims to entertain, with the latest chart-topper, a Bollywood actor, or cricket hero. To the extent that significant public concerns are heard and acknowledged, they are filtered through middle-class professionals, journalists, and staff, of citizen organizations. Direct communication is uncommon and often unwelcome, lest it cast doubt upon an expert opinion.
Communities not only lack the means to address their concerns to others; they lack the same among themselves. Local media are limited. Talk, often circumscribed for customary or pragmatic reasons, is the only way to register complaints, assess circumstances, and fight for a cause. Many of the most serious problems remain submerged, both among local people and in the wider society.
Sharad’s work starts from a position that deep social problems can be revealed only through the unmediated stories of the farmers and laborers, mothers and daughters, migrants and nomads who populate India, who are India. As stories emerge, they encourage more of the same, until numerous problems and their complexities come into the public eye. A path is uncovered along which to negotiate a way forward.
In 1997 Sharad, then a journalist, began work on cartoon wall posters. That year and the following he held his first programs in Rajasthan, and Jharkand (then part of Bihar), in areas mainly populated by tribal or low-caste groups, with little access to mainstream media: “The few newspapers that made their way into the region carried no local news. Television was still a distant dream,” a colleague recalls. But wall posters were already familiar, thanks to political parties and cinema houses. Working through local groups, the making of people’s wall posters began. The basic steps were to identify the issue; prepare a story and break it down into four parts; then visualize it. These are the building blocks of each of Sharad’s programs to this day.
A successful wall poster depends upon its local qualities, Sharad believes and teaches. In this it is important that the inchoate artists not be constrained in their vision. “We never ask people to select a specific issue for their comics. We just ask them to write a story that is close to their daily life,” Sharad says. Importantly, new artists are not taught style, only method. As a result, local concerns and flavors are fully captured. In Jharkand, for instance, posters focus on migration, tribal rights, witch-hunting, alcoholism, and corruption. In Madhya Pradesh, they relate to displacement, illiteracy, and debt caused by social rituals. In Mizoram, topics have included HIV/AIDS, shifting cultivation, and environmental damage; artists familiar with the forest environment have conceived detailed images of plant and animal life there. In Rajasthan, tribal communities have produced intricate comics that recall their rich material cultures.
Sharad shows that making and distributing wall posters is affordable and simple for anyone, anywhere. Where communities are without printing and copying facilities, or the money to pay for them, Sharad teaches manual screen-printing using low-grade butter paper. Production of most posters is fortnightly or monthly. In Jharkand, where the work was begun, a new edition appears at the office of a local human rights group every second Tuesday of the month. It is distributed to over a thousand surrounding villages. In Mizoram some 500 villages receive copies of the posters produced there, distributed via over a hundred local groups.
For Sharad, a guiding strategy has been to introduce the wall posters to places and people with the least access to conventional media. These are also usually where the most hidden and important stories are found. Sometimes they are geographically remote areas like Mizoram, in the northeast, which is troubled by unemployment and violence. Although Mizoram has a very high level of literacy compared to most parts of India, Sharad found that not one of its 14 newspapers was using comics as a means for communication. Working with the Mizoram Artists’ Society, he was struck by the unflagging energy brought to the making of wall posters from early morning until late at night. These are people who are desperate to be heard. In other cases, Sharad targets socially isolated groups, like low-caste or “untouchable” villagers in Tamil Nadu, with whom he has worked since 1998. A poster from there depicts two women carrying jugs, discussing how they have been refused access to water by a high-caste landlord. They take the matter to a local organization, and a rally is organized. Finally, the police buckle under pressure and arrest the offender.
The wall posters get plenty of responses. In some places, liquor barons, police, landlords, and local politicians have for the first time found themselves as the subjects of ridicule. Posters have been removed and ripped up at night. But such backlash has only fueled popular resolve. As people realize that the posters have an effect, they take steps to protect them. In other places, altogether different reactions have been seen. When the Mizoram group put their first poster onto the streets, the chosen comic was about damaged forests. Staff from the state forestry department saw it, and commissioned the group to continue producing work on environmental issues.
Sharad is now spreading and consolidating his work. He established World Comics India in 2002. Through it, he is now organizing three annual national events that bring together artists and comics from the 15 states where he has worked to date, to give acknowledgment, new skills and ideas, as well as the confidence to continue. These events are being organized in conjunction with World Comics Finland, which had been informally backing Sharad in his efforts since 1998. Sharad is now aiming to make World Comics India membership-based, give awards to talented artists, publish a low-cost journal, and establish a resource center in Delhi. Sharad is proud to say that he has made inroads into colleges of fine art and mass communication in places such as Kolkata, Delhi and Haryana, which up until recently had resisted cartooning as an “inferior” form of expression. In Goa a skills exchange has been established, whereby comic artists will teach fine art students how to work on meaningful social issues, and the students will reciprocate by helping the community artists refine their techniques.
A twelve-page bulletin, “Comics for All,” and a Website are among other recent initiatives. The broadsheet idea came from participants in Sharad’s programs. Like World Comics India itself, it aims at giving a sense of a growing nationwide movement, as well as imparting unique news and information on alternative and indigenous comics. It has a “Voices from the Field” page, where local artists’ work is to be regularly published. Similarly, the Website promotes the comics on-line, and sends them to an email list on special occasions, such as International Women’s Day. Sharad has also published an anthology of 130 comics from all over the country, which has been widely distributed.
Sharad is looking ambitiously towards new channels and further fields. For one, he is now approaching local and regional newspapers, with a view to syndicating artists’ cartoons in different languages, something not previously done for Indian comics. He is also initiating contact with possible partners in neighboring countries. Meanwhile, World Comics Finland has carried the wall poster technique to Africa, introducing it to similar groups in Tanzania and Mozambique, among other places.
From an early age, Sharad Sharma took an interest in depicting the diversity of Indian society. His father was a stationmaster who throughout the 1970s and 1980s was transferred from one part of Rajasthan to the next. Sharad used to see many different groups of people here and there. He would study their carts and clothes, sketch and paint their portraits. He exhibited his paintings in trains and other public places. However, he soon saw the limits of painting as a medium for popular communication, and besides, his family couldn’t afford the cost of materials. Then one day, while still in high school, he saw a group of nomads protesting in front of a local official’s house over the wanton destruction of their shelters. The official ran away, and Sharad made a poster depicting the incident. People found the illustration funny, but also grasped the issue: for the first time Sharad realized the power in cartooning.
From high school through college and as a journalist, Sharad became steadily more involved in socially concerned media. While still in school, Sharad convinced a local editor to take him under his wing, and in the evenings after class he would go to work in the newspaper’s office. He learned how to write better, and had articles and comics published. In college, Sharad entered national cartoon competitions and published in state papers. He took a job at one of these upon graduating in 1992, and wrote on many serious regional issues, including bonded and child labor, as well as problems faced by minority groups. He spent much of his time among the subjects of his writing, and was greatly enriched by the experience.
Despite a natural interest in cartooning, Sharad did not leap to the conclusion that it could effect meaningful social change: he arrived at that point only after years of experimenting. Around 1995, while working as a volunteer with a Delhi-based group, he began organizing programs on better writing and publishing. He and a colleague started to make and promote wall posters as a means to spread information quickly, easily, and cheaply. The first posters, however, were really one-page broadsheet newspapers—without frivolity—lots of text and hard reading. Sharad proposed including some pictures to fit with the stories and interests of the communities where the posters were being distributed. Their popularity soon increased. Before long, the content was evenly split between text and pictures. The participants in training programs appreciated the lessons on cartooning and illustration because they could learn practical and useable skills in a short time.
Through World Comics India, Sharad has realized a shift in the use of cartooning to enable people to be changemakers. He says proudly, “Locals there today come with suggestions on subject matter for forthcoming issues of the poster. And if they don’t receive their copies, they’ll send someone to find out why not, and get them.”