The winding journey of Indian comics has taken another leap towards respectability with Comixense, the brand-new quarterly magazine produced by Orjit Sen, Francesca Cotta and Aniruddha (Annie) Sen Gupta for the Ektara Trust. It has been decades since we have had any illustrated periodical of such calibre and ambition, ever since the demise of the pioneering Target, which introduced an entire generation of 1980s kids to quality graphic storytelling by showcasing terrific talent like Ajit Ninan, Manjula Padmanabhan and Atanu Roy.

The new magazine brims with similar verve, but with everything impressively upgraded by 21st-century information resources. Thus, each story in the physical edition – the inaugural issue has five – comes bookended with explanatory footnotes. The website follows up with links to much more thematic material.

At inception, there’s nothing quite like Comixense in the educational or literary firmament.

“This project is like a lifetime dream come true,” said the chief editor, Orijit Sen, who has literally seen it all in this cultural space. Back in 1994, his River of Stories was the very first modern graphic novel from India. (The story was based on the people’s movement opposing the giant Sardar Sarovar Dam project in Gujarat.) Later, in 2009, he co-founded The Pao Collective “to support comics as a medium and a culture”, which kickstarted numerous careers in the genre.

Now 58 and living in Goa, this comics lifer said that his latest project came about after he was contacted by Sanjiv Kumar, an educationist, businessman, philanthropist and the founder of Ektara Trust.

“Sanjiv approached me with his proposal to launch a comics magazine for high school children,” said Sen. “After a few brainstorming conversations, he articulated a broad vision statement. We agreed, among other things, that we needed to create a print magazine that would re-kindle the love for the printed page amongst a generation swiftly being sucked into screen-based reading habits – with attendant ills of destroying attention spans and habituating young people to ‘skimming through’ rather than engaging with deeper learning. Once the fundamental principles were in place, Sanjiv left everything to me.”

The readymade audience and inherently extensive reach that comes with Ektara Trust’s involvement is an essential advantage. “We are, for the first time, able to reach a large number of school children (5,000+) in addition to a general audience,” Sen said. “We are working to strike the right balance between education and entertainment without compromising either agenda, and also the right balance between what’s interesting across a wide age-range.”

Eventually, “I would like to see even full-grown adults reading and enjoying Comixense”, Sen said. “Our editorial strategy – of commissioning new and talented writers and artists from all over the country – also sets the quality bar quite high. Over time, we can potentially have a big impact on comics reading and comics making cultures in India. So, my hopes are high, and the possibilities are limitless. If the English edition is successful, we would like to take it into Hindi and other languages as well.”

Sanjiv Kumar said that the core focus of Ektara is children’s literature and art in India, particularly in Hindi: “It was conceived in 2017 with the tri-faceted objective of creating quality literature for children; acting as a vector for reaching out varied literary content to readers by generating a comprehensive understanding of what good children’s literature should entail; and working as a resource and facilitation centre to promote other likeminded organisations and initiatives.”

“The comics medium allows a uniquely creative alchemy of art and words, and is the best canvas to present ideas to reach young people,” Kumar said. “Unfortunately, we have no contemporary comics in India meeting this need. A comic magazine then makes the most sense to invest our time and mind for. Orijit Sen was a natural choice because his acute understanding of art parallels his sensitivity towards our social concerns. More importantly, we knew he would respect the intellect and empathy of our target readers, and create stories that compel young minds to broaden their understanding of the world they are growing up in.”

If the first issue of Comixense is indication, Sen’s team has already found winning formulae to achieve their aims. Their authors are an entertaining mix of neophytes and veterans, while the stories range from old-school to wildly futuristic. I loved the super-stylish Love for Dummies, written by Venita Coelho with art by Pia Alize Hazarika, and the spare, moody City of Astronomers, where the artist Rai illustrated a story by Mohammad Salman. Another clear winner is the densely atmospheric, pandemic-themed The Plague Doctor’s Apprentice written by Indrajit Hazra, with art by Mad Paule.

I have enjoyed Hazra’s fiction (he has written three excellent novels) as well as his journalism over many years. It turns out he’s been interested in comics for even longer. “In school in the ’80s, I would hear classmates talk about their parents being disapproving of comics but I never faced that problem,” he said. “In fact, quite the opposite, with pretty much everyone – my grandmother, mother and father – buying me enough comics to become an addict.”

Hazra said that he hasn’t deep-dived into the Indian comic scene extensively recently. “But Shibaji Bandopadhyay’s 2017 Vyasa: The Beginning is worth its weight in gold,” he said. “Have enjoyed the Shamik Dasgupta-written, Abhishek Singh-drawn Ramayan 3392 AD series very much. I’m waiting for the good comic book artists to get into something other than turbo-boosted mythology. Let’s see – if movies can now get into good horror, thrillers, supernatural, historical fiction, I don’t see why comics will be left behind.”

That’s an entirely valid assessment, but it’s also painfully evident the actual delivery of Indian comics has conspicuously lagged the genre’s heavily-touted potential. Initially, there was tremendous excitement after Sarnath Banerjee’s 2004 instant classic Corridor and Amruta Patil’s now-cult-object 2008 Kari. But telescope ahead to 2021 and those two pathfinders’ books still perch essentially solitary atop the notably meagre pile that has accumulated since they first showed the way.

“India’s comic books scene caters to a pretty niche audience, with a very small number of creators who are actually ‘native’ to the medium,” said Francesca Cotta, the associate editor and only full-time employee at Comixense. She knows there’s lots of room to develop, because “as a university student, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on non-fiction ‘graphic narratives’ as a form of ethnographic writing. That experience really opened my eyes to the incredible world of comics and its scope as a form of storytelling and art.”

Comixense team members Francesca Cotta, Aniruddha (Annie) Sen Gupta and Orjit Sen.

I asked Cotta – who is 25 – what it’s like working with fiftysomething colleagues who were immersed in the landscape of Indian comics from before she was born. “Firstly, the pleasure of working in a team where your strengths and weaknesses are gracefully counterbalanced by those of your co-editors,” she said. “Secondly, how important conversations are in midwifing a good idea into becoming a good story.”

Cotta added: “What I am also learning from the decades of combined experience they bring to the team is how to work in the best interest of the story at all times. The world my generation has come of age in is tremendously saturated with ‘content’, where optics are often prioritised over quality. Working with the Sen brothers challenges me to think more deeply about the why behind a story. We want Comixense to be a sanctuary for the imagination to wander freely. These safe spaces for dreams and dreamers are fast disappearing, but as long as they exist in small pockets anywhere, there is still hope.”

The remaining member of Comixense’s editorial team, Aniruddha Sen Gupta (he is Orijit Sen’s younger brother) said, “I believe (and hope) that what we are forging is unique in intent, form and content. During our initial conversations, we spoke of Mad magazine and the Classics Illustrated comics we read as youngsters. But none of these are in quite the same bracket – that of a comics magazine that approaches subjects with a progressive socio-political perspective, and addresses young and adult readers alike as well-informed and open-minded.”

Although he has himself written an early, highly unusual and outstanding graphic book, the 2010 Toxic World: A Guide to Hazardous Substances in our Everyday Lives (illustrated by Priya Kurian), Sen Gupta insisted that his involvement with comics was peripheral and incidental, “in the sense that there is a comics culture in India that I have never directly been a part of”.

He added: “My journey has largely been in the footsteps of my brother Orijit’s. When we were children, I used to try to emulate anything he did, and that has in some aspects irritatingly followed our respective trajectories into adulthood as well.”

Sen Gupta said that there are a large number of (mostly young) creators producing spectacular work that tends to appear as short pieces online, mainly because of lack of time and financial support but also perhaps, imagination.

“There is a huge pool of talent out there, but so far it’s only being dipped into with teaspoons,” Sen Gupta said. “What the creators need are channels that help them break out into longer works where they can showcase their talents, and explore subjects at greater length and with greater nuance. I understand the hesitancies of publishers, but someone needs to take the chances. Innovative measures might get the chrysalises out of their cocoons.”

The absence of well-conceived spaces to explore comics ideas is precisely why Comixense radiates so much potential, right out of the starting gate. Sen Gupta says we should expect his new publication to deliver, because “we have been climbing hills with steep learning curves with no scouts to throw us ropes or show us footholds, so we have stumbled a bit here and there. The writers who have put together the stories for the first issue have explored their subjects in great depth, and given us an ocean of new knowledge to deep-dive into [but] where we still need to hone things quite a bit in addressing the diversity of minds that make up our readership. I think you will find in Issue 2 stories that are more oriented to making that happen.”

Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.