For 55 years, Narayan Debnath wrote and illustrated the serialised comic strip Handa Bhonda, which was started in 1962 for the monthly Bengali children’s magazine Shuktara. Handa and Bhonda are two young boys – the former thin and mischievous and trying to get his plump friend Bhonda in trouble, and always failing.
When he turned 92 in 2017, Debnath stopped work on Handa Bhonda, not making much of the fact that he probably holds the world record for creating the longest-running comic strip as a solo writer-artist. The magnitude of the 94-year-old Howrah resident’s achievement with Handa Bhonda is better understood when put in context: Two of the world’s most popular and longest comic strips written and drawn by a solo writer-artist are Johnny Hart’s BC (49 years; 1958-2007) and Hank Ketchum’s Dennis the Menace (43 years; 1951-1994).
But these continued to be produced by other artists after their original creators stopped work. However, Debnath’s work, like Herge’s with Tintin, has not been handed over to others to continue.
Is this record, however, recognised by any authoritative organisation? According to Santanu Ghosh, who claims the record exists, “Who will do it?” Ghosh, a Kolkata-based publisher, is the editor of five volumes of Debnath’s comics and illustration works spanning six decades. The first two volumes, published in 2011, won Debnath the Sahitya Akademi Award for Children’s Literature in 2013.
A series of national and state government awards followed soon after for the reclusive writer-illustrator who had been part of Bengali pop culture for so long that, Ghosh said, “His omnipresence was taken for granted by everyone, from readers to publishers.” When in the late 2000s, Ghosh, a comics fan and Debnath biographer, visited the prolific creator’s house and asked him if he remembered the original publication dates for his numerous comic strips, Debnath couldn’t recall or ended his replies with “Who cares?”
Ghosh said, “To Narayan babu, making comics was a nine-to-five job and he did not see it as a great achievement that needed to be documented or awarded. So he never went out of his way to seek recognition which came to him too late in life. Besides, if you ask someone in their late 80s for the date of something they did in their 20s, you can’t expect a clear answer.”
The length, breadth and depth of Debnath’s work is unfathomable. Handa Bhonda aside, Debnath created a bunch of other comic book strips that were serially published for over four to five decades.
There’s Batul the Great (created in 1965), a heroic muscleman with a 40-inch chest and stick-thin legs, dressed in a pink vest and black shorts. His superhuman strength often helps those in need but also creates comical situations like the one time he goes to a bank to withdraw cash, but when he blows over his signature on the cheque to dry the ink, all the notes in the bank fly out. The character’s origins are, interestingly, dipped in nationalism; during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965, Batul made his debut as an all-powerful Indian vanquishing cloak-and-dagger mercenaries from the enemy.
Debnath’s other popular characters include Nonte Fonte (created in 1969), a Handa Bhonda-like pair whose mischievous antics keep their hostel superintendent on his toes; Patalchand the Magician (created in 1969), a young neighbourhood magician whose powers solve local problems; Bahadur Beral (created in 1982), a wonder cat who is too smart for his own good; Danpite Khadu aar tar Chemical Dadu (created in 1983), a Rick and Morty-like pair of a young boy and his scientist grandfather whose weird inventions form the crux of the stories; and Petuk Master Batuklal (created in 1984), the last of Debnath’s serialised creations, who is a gluttonous schoolteacher devising ways to steal food but is always stopped in his tracks by the students.
Thanks to magazines with a loyal audience of children and teenagers, such as Shuktara or Kishore Bharati (which published Nonte Fonte and Patalchand the Magician), which continue to be published till date, Debnath’s comics have been a household item in Bengal for generations. “My grandmother read Handa Bhonda, my parents read Handa Bhonda, and then I did,” said 34-year-old comic book writer-illustrator Arka Paitandi. “When demonetisation happened, sales for Bengali comics and fiction books in street shops and railway station Wheeler stalls had stopped, but Narayan Debnath’s books still found steady buyers.” Unfortunately, Ghosh said, Debnath’s legacy has remained limited to that of a creator of children’s comics, thanks to the immense popularity of his aforementioned funnies.
Debnath, who started off as a calligrapher in the 1950s, moved to illustrating books before entering the world of comics in the 1960s. Aesthetically, his best work includes his sharp illustrations for Bengali genre fiction along with comics in the detective, adventure and horror genres, some of which he also wrote.
“Narayan Debnath has created, and this is a record within Bengali literature, the largest number of book covers,” Ghosh claimed. “His illustrations were unlike anything anyone else was making, and his influence can be seen on Bengali artists even today.”
Said comic book writer-illustrator Goutam Karmakar, “It was Narayan Debnath’s serious graphic novel and illustration work that inspired me to get into this field. Finding such fine and detailed drawings at a young age made me a fan for life.” Indeed, Debnath’s attention to human and animal anatomy in his book illustrations and lesser-known comics is a totally different beast compared to his work for the funny books.
Among Debnath’s genre comics, two notable ones are a 14-story series featuring the detective Koushik Roy, written by himself, and Indrajit Ray o Black Diamond (1970), a black-and-white film noir-inspired detective comic book, written by Dilip Chattopadhyay.
Making his debut in 1975 with the story Sorporajer Dwipe (In the Island of the Snake King), Koushik Roy was introduced as a secret agent working for the Indian intelligence service. Koushik’s right hand is made of steel, which helps shoot bullets, fire laser beams, and release sleeping gas. He is also adept at martial arts.
It was the super success of Debnath’s Batul the Great that ushered a culture of comics reading and appreciation in Bengal. Before this there were sporadic attempts to create original Bengali comics, but nothing captured the public’s imagination the way Debnath’s funnies did.
“Comics were not and still aren’t considered a serious literary endeavour in Bengal,” Paitandi said. “So the education in creating comics for me, my contemporaries, and others in Bengal, entirely came Narayan Debnath.”
Among the unique writing and speaking styles popularised by Debnath’s comics, as Ghosh noted, are insults or snide remarks featuring rhyming words, something which is extensively used across the board, most noticeably in Bengal’s political sloganeering. He also made funny alliterative names a trademark in his comics, which influenced later-day writers.
“These unique ways to play with words subliminally affected so many artists, and most definitely me,” Kolkata singer-songwriter and comics creator Anupam Roy said. “I don’t hang out with the kids of today, but my gut says, if they pick up a Narayan Debnath comic, they wouldn’t put it down.”