Exploring Sarnath Banerjee’s take on life in India through his graphic art

Illustrative Chronicles: Sarnath Banerjee creates hand-sketched comical illustrations referencing the everyday life in India.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Sep 06, 2022

Sarnath Banerjee (born 1972) is an Indian graphic novelist, illustrator, filmmaker, comic artist and co-founder of the Phantomville, a comics publishing firm. Banerjee was born in Calcutta and currently resides and works in New Delhi, India. At Goldsmiths College, University of London, United Kingdom, he studied image and communication. Corridor (2004), his debut novel, was commissioned as part of a fellowship provided by the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago and advertised as India's first graphic novel. River of Stories, a graphic novel by Orijit Sen released in 1994, is the true winner of this award. The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers, his second novel, was released in 2007. The Indian artist has also done drawings for other writers' publications. Upamanyu Chatterjee's novel, Weight Loss, was designed by him.

Repair, illustration | Illustrative Chronicles | STIRworld
Repair, illustration Image: Courtesy of Sarnath Banerjee

1. Would you consider your work as ‘illustrations’ or ‘art’? Is there a difference according to you? 

I don’t really know the difference between art and illustration. Gatekeepers of conventional art find illustrations a bit too narrative for them to be transcendental. Some people have a narrow definition of abstraction. Often, they look at painted patterns and textures that can be hung on the wall and are compatible with the rest of the decor. Classically, illustrations were looked at as subordinate to text. However, illustrations have been very significant in the march of human progress. We know a lot about people, science, history, and religion through illuminated manuscripts. The various Codices, the Shahnameh, and the book of Kells have been exemplary in our understanding of civilisation. Illustrators have had a great pedigree - William Blake, Gustav Döre, Albrecht Dürer, Francis Goya, and Gaganendranath Tagore to name a few. Yet some people still think it is somewhat lowly. Probably because of poor art education and lack of exposure. It could also be because some illustrators have themselves accepted these conventional norms and find it tedious to defend themselves. I mostly draw and sometimes write. Currently, I am working on three so-called illustration projects. They are collaborations. The first one is with an economist in a lecture series, the other two are with historians on books. They write and I draw and occasionally add text. The drawings sometimes work as text. Sometimes they complement and other times they go against the narrative of my collaborators. This creates tension, which is good for the overall story. It’s a very different process when I write my own stories. I tell events using both words and images. I float them together and then try and make sense of them. In the beginning, both text and images are half cooked. It is in their getting together where much of the mystery and magic of comics happen. There are no final text or final drawings until the very end of the process. This way, I allow uncanny things to take place. Strange weather develops in the story. It gives the comics a third eye, a set of meanings that is beyond the creator's expectations. 

Dimentia, illustration| Illustrative Chronicles | STIRworld
Dimentia, illustration Image: Courtesy of Sarnath Banerjee

2. What is at the core of your expression? How do you aspire for your work to be experienced and interpreted?

The work begins in a liquid form. Fleeting experiences, poorly remembered memories and nostalgia of things that never happened. In the beginning, it is all very transient and intangible. The only thing that is concrete is perhaps the tone. But it is not easy to get there. The brain is constantly looking for solid ground. But if you orient your mind in the right way, have your instincts working for you, a comics get written almost by itself. This requires practice. 

The preparation takes time. One has to get into the right mind-space, and find the right mood. I try and do daily riyaaz. I have a lot of notebooks and ring files filled with conjectures and plans. Going for long walks through desolate landscapes is also good for working things out in my head. Not far from my house is an industrial area. I often go there late in the evenings.

highjump, illustration| Illustrative Chronicles | STIRworld
highjump, illustration Image: Courtesy of Sarnath Banerjee

3. Please tell us about your creative journey – how has your style evolved over the years? What/who are your biggest influences?

There is an abandoned airport in the middle of the city. In the past, I used to go there at dusk and biked very slowly, almost imperceptibly, under the huge darkening sky, while I gathered my thoughts. I called it Butoh Biking. I wanted to start the Butoh Biking Club. The person who takes the longest time to circumscribe the periphery of the airport is the winner. It would always be me because I was the only member of the club. This is a good way to look at my creative journey. I have come to realise that slowly one comes to find one’s pace.  It is a process of understanding myself through my graphic art. And this self-realisation cannot be rushed. 

Throughout the journey you stumble upon people, places, and objects, you get influenced by genres, modes, and moralities. You acquire gurus, discard them. You get seduced by styles and fashions. You outgrow them. Just one long slow journey. You document this journey and this becomes work.

Kanu Pickpocket, illustration| Illustrative Chronicles  | STIRworld
Kanu Pickpocket, illustration Image: Courtesy of Sarnath Banerjee

4. A body of work you created that you are particularly proud of? Please share details of how you conceived of it.

The unfinished work that I created while staying on an island in western Japan still haunts me. I think it was called Zen Tub, or A Still place in a moving world. The story takes place in a traditional bathhouse, where a few men sit meditatively in a common bath. There is a range of characters. A salaryman escaping the stress of Tokyo life, a retired actor, a producer of Ninjobon (melodramatic romantic films), and others. Among these people is also a man who actually is a dragon. Although their bodies are motionless their minds are full. I thought it was a great frame to look into the intrigues of Japanese society as well as set out on an internal journey.

Landscapes play an important role in work. Through the glass windows, one can see the distant forested mountains and the wide sea. Through the thoughts of the characters one can travel even further.  

Dom's Lodge, illustration| Illustrative Chronicles | STIRworld
Dom's Lodge, illustration Image: Courtesy of Sarnath Banerjee

5. Any upcoming project that excites you… or an unrealised project that is close to you.

For a long time, I have been wanting to create an advertising agency that resurrects lost celebrities, out-of-fashion social movements and out-of-circulation catchphrases. The celebrities that I want to make campaigns around are not dead but rather past their expiry dates. I feel they held the collective imagination of a society. This is not a nostalgia project but more about the history of how a society felt at a certain time. I do not have any problems with the march of the ‘new’, but aware of the fact the brutality with which we discard the audio cassette for the CD, the CD for the IPod and iPod for the smartphone. 

Sarnath Banerjee talks about his practice Video: Courtesy of Sujatro Ghosh
Artist Sarnath Banerjee | Illustrative Chronicles | STIRworld
Artist Sarnath Banerjee Image: Courtesy of Sarnath Banerjee

Click here to read more about Illustrative Chronicles, a collection of STIR articles that examine illustration as a discipline for narrating stories of the contemporary urban.

(Research Support by Vatsala Sethi, Asst. Editorial Coordinator (Arts))

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