The great defender – Leisure News


On November 28, Appupen put up an installment from his new comic book Rashtrayana II: Divide and Fool, which is being serialised on Brainded, the website and collective he co-founded five years ago. The chapter featured a graffiti artist spraying slogans against the series’ ostensible hero, the saffron cape-swirling sarkari strongman Rashtraman. As the artist tags a wall, an arm snakes into the frame and nabs him. It is the long arm of Lady Justis, one of Rashtraman’s various sidekicks (others include Propagandhi, Vigil Aunty, Bat-Manu and Win Diesel). The artist is forced to edit the Constitution of Rashtria as penance for criticising the government.

Just a few days later, on December 1, Attorney General K.K. Venugopal allowed contempt of court proceedings against Rachita Taneja, the artist behind ‘Sanitary Panels’, a web comic that tackles injustice and political corruption using stick figure characters. “We had this street artist getting screwed in Rashtrayana, and the next day it happened to Rachita,” says Appupen (artist George Mathen’s nom de plume) on the phone from Bengaluru. In response, Brainded started #SolidarityPanels on Instagram and solicited drawings. Cartoonists and readers sent in their own “stick men and women who have more spine than the supreme crybaby of India”, as one caption put it.

Unlike ‘Sanitary Panels’, which makes no bones about being politically confrontational, Appupen didn’t set out to make overtly anti-establishment comics. His earlier works, beginning with Moonward (2009), were deeply engaged with political issues but predominantly visually driven, oneiric and allegorical. “Moonward was basically a critique of the corporate view of the world,” says Appupen. His work in the advertising industry, was “hitting” him a lot, says Appupen, particularly after working on a project in the early 2000s about victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy. “State power was not as intimidating then,” he adds. “Slowly, along the way, corporate power grew, and its link with state power solidified. When both started coming together, it really threatened free thinking for artists. It’s what we were afraid of. And it is very nicely done. There’s an adversarial environment—everybody is sensitive about everything. You don’t know who you are going to offend with what you say.” The title Divide and Fool refers to “the voices of dissent divided between a hundred things right now,” he says. Appupen eventually branched out into more directly critical comics, beginning with his commentary column Dystopian Times, then the Rashtraman series and the first Rashtrayana book, Trouble in Paradesh (self-published in 2018).

Despite being stylistically completely different, both Appupen’s graphic novels and the Rashtrayana comics are set in the universe of Halahala, where “the Silent Green” tries to survive the destruction wrought by an industrialised civilisation. “I’m still just pulling the connections,” says Appupen. “I have started stories in different places in Halahala, building this world in different time zones, different dimensions,” he says. In the last few instalments of Divide and Fool, “the forest and the spirits” (for example, elephant-man Pachu, or Rhinosara) “are waking up to oppose the regime. And we start talking about the Silent Green over there,” he adds.

Unlike his serious, dark exploration of this universe in the earlier Halahala books, like in The Snake and the Lotus (2018), Divide and Fool employs the colours, styling, broken panels, and exaggerated muscles of superhero comics. “It’s an aesthetic you don’t really see in graphic novels,” says Appupen. Thick with visual and verbal puns, Rashtraman is an exuberant, unselfconscious bit of satire that pokes fun at power and harks back to the irreverent spoofing Appupen encountered in Malayali comics as a kid. “The mainstream is just pulverising everything,” he says. The idea behind Brainded was to grow a vibrant space for art and opinions.

Still, not even all of Brainded’s followers catch the satirical tone. Appupen recalled two instances of surprisingly viral posts. One was in Dystopian Times, a comic of a ‘robocop version’ of Modi threatening those who don’t stand up for the national anthem at gunpoint. “That got a lot of traction and I thought, finally! People are getting it,” says Appupen. But, as it turned out, the image was being shared by right-wing Facebook pages, “because that’s the image you have of your leader, he can just mow you down if you cross the line,” he says. Another time, a pro-UID handle tweeted one of his cartoons that said ‘UID or DIE’ to endorse its policies.

Appupen plans to complete his in-progress graphic novel at La Maison des Auteurs residency in France next year. “In it, I’m arguing that we’re losing our connection with our inner child,” he says. “We protect him with layers of armour, which makes him insensitive. But we need that sensitive side to accept change or think about things. As artists, that is what we appeal to, but the audience is constantly shielding themselves. By doing that, you’re taking a defensive stand against art too.”

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