Few comic writers/artists like Narayan Debnath can have the record of continuing their gigs single handedly for more than 60 years. Born and having lived all his life in Shibpur, a suburb in the city of Howrah, 9 km west of Kolkata, this wonder-artist’s characters Bantul the Great, Handa Bhonda, Nonte Fonte, Bahadur Beral, Detective Koushik Roy among others are an inseparable part of the lives of Bengali kids born prior the internet age. Narayan Debnath’s works were regularly published in Shuktara, a then prominent Bangla magazine from the house of Deb Sahitya Kutir Publishers. He is the only comic artist to have been honoured with a Doctorate in Literature, and has ruled the Bangla comics and illustrations scene from 1962 till date.

In spite of the reluctance of his father Hemchandra Debnath who was a goldsmith, Narayan Debnath, born in 1925, pursued his passion and started drawing from the age of 12-13. A student of Indian College of Arts and Draftsmanship, Kolkata, he was greatly influenced by then famous Bengali illustrator Pratulchandra Bandyopadhyay.

Like other budding artists in those days, Debnath made artwork for advertisements of cosmetics and titles cards for films earlier in his career. Later, after joining Dev Sahitya Kutir, he did innumerous book and magazine covers and illustrations for stories, novels, rhymes, poems, word puzzles, board games, etc, and of course, comics.

MAJOR COMICS

Bantul The Great:

‘Bantul The Great’ cover

Bantul is his most popular cult character and in his own words, “his favorite child.” Bantul comics have been appearing in two colors (pink and black) on the 2nd page of the summer edition of Shuktara since 1965. Here, Debnath was inspired by Superman and Desperate Dan and created this pink vest and tight shorts clad Bangla superhero who fights the evil, catches thieves and brings justice in his locality. Since Bantul was created in the scorching heat of Bengal summer, Debnath may have thought to dress him this way. But unlike western superheroes, Bantul is not a distant, out of reach character, but your next-door funny, muscled boy. His naughty goon nephews Bhawja and Gawja often accompany him. Debnath occasionally incorporated other characters here, like Lawmbokawrno, a boy with special hearing power, Bantul’s pet ostrich Uto, his pet dog Bhedo and his good old aunty.

A sample page

Bantul is his most popular cult character and in his own words, “his favorite child.” Bantul comics have been appearing in two colors (pink and black) on the 2nd page of the summer edition of Shuktara since 1965. Here, Debnath was inspired by Superman and Desperate Dan and created this pink vest and tight shorts clad Bangla superhero who fights the evil, catches thieves and brings justice in his locality. Since Bantul was created in the scorching heat of Bengal summer, Debnath may have thought to dress him this way. But unlike western superheroes, Bantul is not a distant, out of reach character, but your next-door funny, muscled boy. His naughty goon nephews Bhawja and Gawja often accompany him. Debnath occasionally incorporated other characters here, like Lawmbokawrno, a boy with special hearing power, Bantul’s pet ostrich Uto, his pet dog Bhedo and his good old aunty.

Handa Bhonda:

‘Handa Bhonda’ cover

Handa Bhonda is Debnath’s second most popular strip,  and was published first even before Bantul.  In this black and white series, he introduced two teenagers: Handaram Gargari, a little wicked child better known as Handa (in Bangla, means a fool) and Bhonda Pakrashi, a good Samaritan better known as Bhonda (in Bangla, means callous). Their uncle Becharam Bakshi accompanies them in most stories. This first appeared in 1962 in Shuktara, and were basically inspired by Debnath’s observation of kids around his home in Bengal’s suburbs. Though some critics saw inspirations of Laurel and Hardy here, Handa Bhonda is so Bengali at it’s soul that its Bangla readership reached two hundred thousand around 1982. This series was later adapted for television.

A sample page

In the 1950s, with Dev Sahitya Kutir’s head Khirodchandra Majumdar’s request, it was Pratulchandra Bandyopadhyay, not Debnath, who first made a 4-panel Handa Bhonda with an image-pseudonym of a hornet.

Nonte Fonte:

A sample page

Another one of Debnath’s favourites, which appeared in Kishore Bharati magazine in 1969. In this strip revolving around hostel life in Bangla suburbs, Nonte and Fonte, two clever chaps, fights the odd deeds of naughty Kelturam, better known as Keltuda (first appeared in 1973, inspired by a film) and generally at the end the latter is punished by Patiram Hati, the pot-bellied Hostel superintendent.

Goyenda Kaushik Roy:

Kaushik Roy comics on ‘Suktara’ cover

Bengali readers love detective thrillers, be it Feluda or Byomkesh Bakshi. Debnath too has a detective of his own. Unlike his other funny comics, this comic is rather serious, and so is the illustration style. First appearing in 1976 on the front cover of Shuktara, in a comics called Sarparajer Dwipey (in the island of the Snake-king), Kaushik Roy is a no-nonsense secret agent of the detective department of the Government of India. He is an expert in boxing and martial arts and his metallic right hand, which has an inbuilt transmitter, can spit bullets, laser ray and gases. He often uses his sharp metallic nail as a knife. A James Bond like character, 14 Detective Kaushik Roy comics is cinematic in each and every action-oriented and realistically illustrated panel of this strip.

In this context it can be mentioned that Debnath made illustrations for another similar comics series called Detective Indrajit Roy and Black Diamond written by Dilipkumar Chattopadhyay. Debnath made another similar detective graphic novel called Hirer Tayra (in the shadow of Sherlock Holmes) in 1965 in Navakallol magazine and Rahasyamay Abhiyatri (The Mysterious Expeditionary) in 1972. Debnath made some more serious adventure series with irregular characters. In this genre, his contemporary was another master of animal anatomy or that era, Mayukh Chowdhury.

Bahadur Beral:

A ‘Bahadur Beral’ comics page

Usually, magazine covers are filled with a summary of contents inside, but not in the case of Narayan Debnath. First appearing in 1983 on the entire front cover of Shuktara, Bahadur Beral (translated as the smart cat), a humanized cat, is a four colored comics strip by Debnath. This strip actually appeared as a replacement of Detective Kaushik Roy comics due to a labor strike in Kolkata and the magazine authority decided to print the issues from Delhi. In these simple funny comics, Bahadur gets into trouble and finds a way out at the end.

 

OTHER COMICS

Daanpitey Khandu aar taar Chemical Dadu:

Headpiece and a panel

 

 

 

 

 

Tales of naughty Khandu, a troublemaker kid, and his scientist grandpa who invents weird machines that ends up in funny situations. This strip first appeared in Chotoder Aasor magazine in 1983 and later in other Bangla magazines and as a book from Golden Comics. Though Debnath himself conceptualized it, his son Swapan Debnath drew the earlier strips.

Itihaase Doirath:

Logo and a panel

 

 

 

 

Translates – Duels in history. From 1974 to 1975 Debnath did a series of comics in Kishorebharati on barbaric duels based on true incidents in international locals. Apart from duel fights in European families, there are stories of fights in Mexico, battles of a lieutenant and pirates, fights among border securities and a grisly bear.

Shuntki Aar Mutki:

Headpiece

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 1964, just like Handa Bhonda, Debnath started a strip about two female friends, Shuntki and Mutki in Shuktara, though it was not continued for much longer than 2-3 years.

Pawtolchand, the Magician:

One of the many headpieces

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First appearing in 1969 in Kishorebharati magazine, this magician can do the unimaginable. Just like Mandrake, Pawrolchand can hypnotize you, turn an ordinary rag into a magic carpet and other strange things to solve problems. This strip again appeared in Pakkhiraj magazine in two colors in 1978, and Pawtolchand’s appearance changed a lot with time.

Petuk Master Botuklal:

A panel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This schoolteacher, Botuklal, is notorious for being a foodie. He often steals his students’ delicious tiffin, leading Botuklal into trouble which does not allow him to enjoy the food. This regular strip first appeared in Kishoremon magazine in 1984 but did not continue for long. The other regular characters in the strip are the gatekeeper of the boarding school (who is as much a food lover as Botuklal) and three students who win the food at the end in almost every strip. This is the last regular character Debnath created in his life.

Apart from these regular strips, Debnath created innumerous 4 pager one-shot strips and filler comics with new characters every time. They appeared in the early 60s in Pujavarshikis (the special edition Bangla magazines published during Durga pujas) of Dev Sahitya Kutir and later were published as a book in 1973. In 1994, he made comics out of the stories from Jataka in a serialized format.

In 1961, his first realistic and serious comics and first published book, Rabichhobi (a comics on Rabindranatha Tagore’s life), written by Bimal Ghosh, was published in Bangla and Hindi from Banaras. Next year, he did two more biography series – Rajar Raja and Swami Vivekananda and also Chitray Durgeshnandini (penned by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay).

He often did comics for brands too. While all his comics are in Bangla, he occasionally made short comics in English. Now, most strips of his major comics – Bantul The Great, Handa Bhonda and Nonte Fonte – are available in English.

Since there was no computer/software in those days and Debnath still does not use them, all the speech bubbles and letterings of his comics are hand drawn. In the dialogues of his characters, Debnath frequently has used rhythm.

In case of exclamatory words, Debnath Indianised the phrases that are often used in American and European comics, e.g.- Irk! Oofs! Oulk! Guulbb! Etc.

Just like funny names in Asterix comics, Debnath’s characters’ names often speak their nature, e.g.- Bitkelram, Dr. Bibhishan, Boxer Henpo Bakshi, Khune Khyanda etc. Like Captain Haddock, Debnath’s characters too have a vast collection of funny Bangla curses.  If the situation demanded it, Debnath often incorporated Hindi and accented Bangla dialogues for his characters. It is noteworthy that Debnath is a foodie and most of his funny, non-serious comics, from Bantul to Botuklal revolves around food and troubles with it. Delicious food is always like a character in all his funnies.

 

ILLUSTRATIONS

There was no Google in the 1950s. So Debnath was a regular to libraries and bookshops in College Street and Chowranghee in Kolkata for consulting anatomy and other references for story illustrations. American illustrators like Alex Raymond, John Prentice, and Milton Caniff influenced him. In Debnath’s Black Diamond comics series, though completely Indianised, we can see sparkles of Prentice. Debnath drew all these realistic comics in cinematic retro Hollywood style with great use of light and shadow. In his illustrations for adult fictions too, there are a great eye for detailing.

Debnath’s experiment with anatomy and light and shadow in an illustration

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 1972, Debnath gained immense popularity for his cover and illustrations for Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s books Bhoot Petni Raja Rani and Tuntunir Boi published by Nirmal Book Agency. He continued decorating this author’s other books, like Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (later filmed by the author’s grandson Satyajit Ray) and his son Sukumar Ray’s nonsense classic Abol Tabol. In these books from the Ray family, who themselves had a knack for illustrations, Debnath developed a brand new style of art distinct from the Rays.

Debnath worked intensely on ghost stories, but relatively less on mythological stories. He showed great expertise in realistic figures in his works in translated classics such as Frankenstein, Alice in the Wonderland, Ben Hur, Gulliver’s Travels, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published from Dev Sahitya Kutir in Bangla, dubbed as Onubaad Series.

Some of Debnath’s covers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

His genius found a new muse in Tarzan. This Edgar Rice Burroughs character was Debnath’s childhood hero whom he used to imitate. This fantasy helped him to draw faultless anatomy for Tarzan stories, published in Shuktara in 1951 and later as books, which continued for the next 42 years. Since 1965, Debnath started to make cover and illustrations for Swapankumar’s detective Deepak Chatterjee. With cinematic illustrations of European characters and bright colors, those charismatic covers and illustrations took this rather dull second-class thriller to another level and helped the sales.

Discussions on Debnath’s works need volume. Sadly, this immense talent of popular art succumbed to poverty later in his life. With the recent publication of a collection of his entire works as Narayan Debnath Comics Samagra in 5 volumes, his popularity has revived in Bengal and his genius has been reconsidered with awards and government aids. At 94, this living legend of Bangla comics is still drawing Bantul comics for Shuktara and other magazines.

 

 

 

By Charbak Dipta

Charbak Dipta is a Bengali illustrator, cartoonist and graphic storyteller.

 

 

 

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