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How a man who never went to school created (some of) India’s first comics

The extraordinary tale of Bujjai, aka Devulapalli Subbaraya Sastri

The Father of the Indian comic book may well be a soft-spoken, eighty-four-year old Telugu-speaking man currently living in a quiet suburb of Madras. I know a Bengali, or a hundred, will challenge my claim, and they may be right because they usually are, but my story is an interesting one, nonetheless. Because the man I speak of didn’t go to a school or college of any kind nor was he ever tutored by anyone. The man I speak of is the only son of Andhra Pradesh’s most loved modern poet. The man I speak of, besides fathering the comic book in India in the 1940s, fathered me as well.

1976

A small-made man who looks pretty big from where I’m sitting is hard at work at his easel. I’m seated on my mini moda, a permanent fixture in his studio. It is set to his left, so as not to hinder his drawing hand, in the narrow space between his easel and the comic-filled cupboard. I know from the hundreds of comics in it, with imprints like Dell, Gold Key, Sun and Comet, that putting one together is a team effort. The credits at the bottom of the first page will tell you there is a storywriter, a penciller, an inker, a colourist, a letterist and an editor. Sometimes, the comics carry little bios of them, too. They are all professionally trained folk who have gone to art school and got all kinds of degrees. My father does it all himself.

1947

The sixteen-year-old boy thinks he has reached critical mass. He has never been to school because his maverick father, the poet Devulapalli Krishna Sastri, believes just being with him and travelling to literary soirées is education enough. The boy has all the time in the world. He pores endlessly over Burne Hogarth’s intricate, three-dimensionally sculptural drawings of Tarzan, almost inhaling them, and fills so many pages with sketches, he wants to be him. He reads the text, too. Or rather, stares stoically, never giving up, at the speech and thought bubbles filled with meaningless symbols. Till they slowly, magically, turn into letters he can identify, which form words he can understand, which join up into sentences he can get his head around, and become stories – the kind he can tell himself.

He’s ready to draw and write comic books.

1976

Watching my father draw is like witnessing a daily magic show from the dress circle. It starts with a crisp, blank, machine-trimmed page 11” x 14”. Father divides it into three equal rectangles drawn one below the other, leaving margins all around and in between. Then he pencils into the boxes the text of the story that is floating about in his head. Oval bubbles with a pointed tail directed towards the speaker encompass speech, and cloud-shaped bubbles with steadily shrinking circles below them indicate thoughts. Even-toothed starbursts surround Indianized sound effects, Dham for “Crash” and Bhal for “Splash”.

1947

He’s done. The sixteen-year old who has never been to school has written and illustrated his very own, original Telugu comic book titled Banisa Pilla (Slave Girl). It is in no small way inspired by his other great passion (and English tutor), Hollywood. Salome Where She Danced, a 1945 film starring his first crush Yvonne De Carlo, in particular. The solemn boy goes to various newspaper offices with his maiden effort. There are no takers.

‘Do something with an Indian theme. This looks too foreign,’ say the editors.

A page from Banisa Pilla, 1948
A page from Banisa Pilla, 1948

1976

With dialogue and narration out of the way, the artist takes over. This is the part I like. Using a Venus HB pencil, Father conjures up people and places on the page in their rough form. Construction lines that won’t appear in the final drawing fix features in their proper place on faces, and limbs in their right proportion on the bodies. Instinctively, he alternates close-ups, mid-range and long shots to best convey the drama in the story.

The opening panel of a comic book is invariably a long shot. “How will the reader know where the story is taking place unless you establish the location and atmosphere right in the beginning?” he says.

People reacting in surprise or fear is almost always a close-up. “The reader needs to see the expression of the character.”

One close-up very rarely follows another. “Monotony! You’ve got to mix it up,” he says. “Change the angles.”

'Pata Bangala' (The Old Bungalow), 1958
'Pata Bangala' (The Old Bungalow), 1958

1948

Undaunted, the young artist decides on publishing his maiden effort himself. What about money? He’s too proud to ask his father. Light bulb! All he needs is a sponsor. But he doesn’t want money for free. He takes a leaf out of his overseas gurus’ books. He sells the back cover to a sympathetic businessman as advertising space. He prints a thousand copies under the imprint Bujjai-Ram Publications, combining his sponsor’s name with his. He sells his entire stock right off the presses. If not the first-ever Indian comic, the first-ever Telugu comic book is born.

Some book covers from the 1940s and 1950s
Some book covers from the 1940s and 1950s

1976

Then comes the inking of the picture. This is the time for hard decisions. A line once inked will remain there for eternity. Father detests using Poster White to opaque out errors. Using a variety of nibs and brushes dipped and re-dipped in Camel 99 Indelible Ink, he miraculously chooses the correct line from among the mess of pencil strokes and construction lines of the sketch. With every stroke, the wet ink from the nib catches the light and glitters for a magical fraction of a second before being sucked in by the thirsty paper. Shadow and highlight appear seamlessly as the drawing progresses.

With the inking done, and the page suitably dry, I am called in for a job that has never been credited on the pages of any comic book – the Eraser.

As my father has his mid-morning coffee, I carefully erase all the pencil lines and shake out the rubber crumbs while staring in wonder at the page. Magicians betray princes, horses come back riderless to castles, and beautiful, bustier-clad damsels weep, imprisoned in dungeons. The slim, lithe hero, with a scimitar hanging from his waistband, sports an impeccable hairstyle, like his Brilliantine-saturated counterparts from Father’s Hollywood.

In the last box of every page is my father’s groovy signature: Bujjai. Now, that was a name for a cartoonist.

From 'Rani Padmini', 1959
From 'Rani Padmini', 1959

1963

The artist has become a man. In more ways than one. He has published several award-winning children’s books. The number of people seeking his time rivals his father’s. Dumbu, his comic creation, an incorrigible boy (part-Dennis the Menace, part-Henry, part-William and wholly Indian), has wormed his way into a million Telugu hearts and magazines. Kids in Andhra are being named Bujjai and Dumbu. The strip-cartoonist is working on multiple projects. A daily political cartoon for Andhra Jyothi; random illustration assignments; and what is to become his best-known work, The Complete Panchatantra, for the Illustrated Weekly of India. It is the very first serial by an Indian artist in the Weekly, featuring anthropomorphic jackals, lions and crows, dressed in Indian attire, spouting five-thousand-year old wisdom in easy-to-understand form. Bujjai hasn’t forgotten the advice of an editor from two decades earlier: give us something Indian.

Pages from the Panchatantra, 1963-68
Pages from the Panchatantra, 1963-68

1976

The colouring style my father adopts for his comic strip is almost childlike, flat, even coats of prime colour filled in carefully so as not to breach their ink line boundaries. For this, he uses something called photo colours, originally created to colourise black-and-white publicity stills of films to make multicoloured posters. It seems there’s no keeping apart my father and films. He has figured out somehow that photo colours, with their vibrant, transparent nature, suit his comic book art.

Instead of the usual bottles or tubes, these colours come in books. These fascinating little things, roughly the size of a cheque book, contain sheets of metallic paper with names like Peacock Blue, Vermillion, Chrome Yellow and Leaf Green. When a small piece of the required shade is put on a plate and a few drops of water added, the colour oozes onto the ceramic mixing plate in dreamy tendrils. It is just about the neatest trick I’ve ever seen in my life.

1964

The artist gets a phone call. It’s a man named Mirchandani from India Book House.

“Could we meet,” he says. Bujjai goes to see him at their Hyderabad office.

“We have seen your comic in the Weekly and love it,” the businessman says. “We would like to buy it or hire you, your choice. We want to make comic books like yours for the Indian market.”

Bujjai thinks. He has finished just one chapter of the Panchatantra. He has four more to complete. He thinks the offer is premature. He politely declines.

A few years later, IBH launches Amar Chitra Katha.

1976

Sometimes, Father dabs the colours on an overlay sheet of tracing paper instead of applying them directly to the paper. It makes the Gateway sheet shrivel up like Granddad’s skin and the resultant blurred multicoloured quilt makes little sense to me.

One day, I ask him: “How’s anyone going to make out which colour goes where, Naanna?”

My father gives me a knock on the head, turns the paper around, and holds it up to the window. As light passes through the tightly stretched overlay sheet and the drawing, I can see the hero’s tunic in red, the foliage in green and all the colours exactly in their place – clear as a printed page!

I tell my father I want to be a children’s illustrator when I grow up. He tells me three things: that the key element in a children’s drawing is expression, that I should never hesitate while drawing a line even if it is going wrong and, most importantly, that he would kick me in the ass if I ever entertain the idea of becoming an artist.

Bujjai (Devulapalli Subbaraya Sastri) is a self-taught artist, illustrator, comic strip artist and writer, creator of over a hundred comics in genres ranging from folklore to crime, mythology to biography, fables to funnies, politics to social commentary, and everything in between, in English and several Indian languages, published in newspapers and magazines all across India for over six decades. Krishna Shastri Devulapalli is one of his less-known comic creations.

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