SARNATH BANERJEE at his residence in New Delhi, 2010. Photo by Hemant Sareen.

SARNATH BANERJEE, Telephone Sanitizer, 2008, ink and water color on paper. Courtesy the artist.

Wondrous Capers

Sarnath Banerjee


Sarnath Banerjee came to wide recognition in 2004 with the release in India and France of his first graphic novel, Corridor. This work was the product of a fellowship awarded by the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago to, as he put it then, “research the sexual landscape of contemporary Indian cities.” Though the book’s publishers celebrate Corridor as India’s first graphic novel, Banerjee willingly passes that accolade to compatriot Orijit Sen’s long out-of-print River of Stories (1994). Nevertheless, it was Corridor that introduced the Indian publishing industry to the graphic novel. A modest but growing list of Indian titles have since appeared, two of which were released by Phantomville, a publishing house specializing in graphic novels that Banerjee co-founded in 2002 with business partner Anindya Roy—an enterprise that won him the British Council’s Best Young Publisher Award in 2008. 

Corridor is the work of an ethnographer and a chronicler of urbanity. The slim book, with vignettes of varying length arranged in a nonlinear narrative, follows the existential quandaries and psychopathologies of some of the regulars at a secondhand bookshop, run by a dropout bibliophile, in the corridors of Connaught Place, New Delhi’s iconic but aging colonial-era shopping center. One long vignette, which features a rare use of color, shows the newly married book-hunter Shintu seeking to allay his sexual anxieties with a visit to one of the many quack sexologists plying their dubious trade in Delhi’s labyrinthine Old City.

In press interviews following the book’s release, Banerjee dismissed any hierarchy between the words and the visuals in his work. This section of Corridor illustrates the intuitive equilibrium of language and image Banerjee can achieve to communicate ideas and evoke characters and milieus. In this case, the quack’s archaic notions about sex and Shintu’s kitschy sexual fantasies are suggested in collages of images culled from film posters, film stills, advertising bills and the didactic “Ideal Boy” posters that dot the walls of schools across India bearing pious instruction on morality and personal hygiene for young men.

Similar vignettes on a variety of arcane subjects—duels in British Calcutta, the fusty world of Bengali babus (“bureaucrats”) or the decadent Bengali aristocracy—are crammed together and make Banerjee’s second and most recent graphic novel, The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers (2007), deliberately obscure. Though it is a more ambitious and certainly a heftier work than Corridor, The Barn Owl is still a novel about an individual’s quest. The work equates the myth of “The Wandering Jew”—a figure from medieval Christian folklore—with the Hindu concept of the transmigration of the soul. Its young Bengali protagonist, living in London, returns to modern Kolkata in search of a lost inheritance that includes the titular journal kept by a Sephardic Jewish merchant from Syria who documented scandals involving the British and Bengali elite in 19th-century Calcutta. The Barn Owl is simultaneously a postmodern jibe at history, cheekily offering a scurrilous account as a valuable record of the past, and an exploration of Banerjee’s city of birth, Calcutta, as a palimpsest of successive periods of decadence.

In 2007, wishing to venture outside of the book format, Banerjee began the “Harappa Files,” an ongoing umbrella project for many shorter, often autobiographical, graphic works. These were exhibited in 2007 at Budapest’s Karton Gallery and again in 2008 at Mumbai’s Project 88, which the following year brought them to London’s Frieze Art Fair. This series of pen-and-watercolor drawings and screen prints on paper contain vivid portraits and scenarios, part of what Banerjee has described as a “gigantic survey of the current ethnography and urban mythology of a country in the throes of great hormonal changes.” These “hormonal changes” are the increasingly capitalistic reordering of Indian society after the country’s formerly Soviet-inspired command economy began to liberalize in 1991. Plucked out of the dense narratives and visual effusion of his novels, Banerjee’s sharp studies of India’s subcultures are given room to breathe on their own sheets of paper.

One of the earliest works in the series, entitled Tito Years: Forensics of the Local (2008), deals with the victims of stasis. Its title refers to the years of extreme stagnation in the Indian state of West Bengal from 1977 to the mid-1990s under the Communist Party of India (Marxist); during this period, parents across the state zealously named their children after Josip Broz Tito (1892–1980), the authoritarian leader of former Yugoslavia. One set of panels shows a man standing beside a heap of black Bakelite telephones, wiping one with a yellow flannel cloth, resignation writ on his face. The text alongside gives the backstory of a chronically unemployed young man with a degree in commerce who has desperately taken up a job as a telephone sanitizer in Banerjee’s father’s office. The next panel shows text interspersed with three smaller images that zoom in on the man’s diet, toolkit and disappointments: a metal plate with a pyramid of rice topped with, as the text explains, “lentil soup” and “some potato curry”; a leather case with “Coleman’s beeswax, ether, eucalyptus oil, flannel wipes . . . etc”; and a “No Vacancy” sign. The panels exemplify what Banerjee describes as his aim to achieve “clarity without stereotyping or making things frothy.”

The vigorous, unrefined strokes of his signature style were inspired by the Bengali Kalighat style of popular painting, which evolved from depicting religious themes in the early 19th century to satirizing middle-class attempts at gentrification and westernization a few decades later. Though his style has become cleaner (partly to accommodate his growing use of color), his artistic intent of asserting his physical and spiritual rootedness in the urban Indian middle-class ethos—reflected in his choice of this plebeian aesthetic—remains intact. Banerjee admitted to ArtAsiaPacific that while his images are more polished and detailed now, their main function is to illustrate the text. Viewed within the aesthetics of the graphic novel, this primacy of writerly intent over the image suggests a disturbed word-image equilibrium, yet outside of this tradition, Banerjee’s work strikes a new balance for a new form.