boyhood comics by Gulammohammed Sheikh

Gulammohammed Sheikh, one of the giants of post-colonial Indian art, who has played an important role in shaping modern Indian art over many decades, shared with me some comics he had done as a 15 year old in 1952. I had no idea of these one page comics done as part of a handwritten Gujarati language magazine called Pragati (Progress). Gulam sent me these scans because I had reached out to him by sending him a copy of Vérité. I told him that I was in part inspired by the independent ‘little’ magazine that he and Bhupen Khakhar, the other great of modern Indian art, had started in the 1960s, called Vrishchik (Scorpian). Pragati was his early schoolboy attempt at a literary and cultural magazine. Made in the provincial town of Surendranagar, his childhood home in the Saurashtra region in Gujarat, the magazine was kept at a local public library called Birdwood. Initially a fortnightly, it became a weekly and continued for a year. I asked Gulam if he had been exposed to comics as a kid. He said, “I was familiar with illustrations of Chandra, Ravishankar Pandit etc. Some of them may have made picture stories but I have no recollection of these, but I saw their illustrations in newspapers and magazines. The genre of picture-stories was not unknown.” From the note that Gulam sent me about Pragati, I got to know that it was part of an initiative by Labhshankar Raval, Gulam’s teacher, Mahasukh Gandhi, who ran the Majdoor Kalyan Kendra (Workers Welfare Centre), a government organisation the focused on adult education, and Indubhai Joshi. All the artwork and the comics are by Gulam Sheikh. He even drew actual ads for local businesses that appeared in it. Gulam says that regular features included a cover page with a painting in a given format (horizontal) and a ‘thought’ of the week in a paragraph usually written by Labhshankar, followed by an opening page devoted to a short story mostly contributed by Labhshankar. The third and fourth (or sixth) pages had regular columns like ‘Praudhashiksha’ (‘Adult Education’, written by Mahasukh Gandhi), ‘Chheeplan’ (Miscellany), ‘Jaanvaajevun’ or even ‘the week that was’ covering latest news, including an occasional poem (from the editorial team or received from readers). It also had a column of readers’ letters received through a wooden box fixed on the library wall. The two comics shown here are Khandu and Mandu, and Bhoot na Bheru (Buddies of Ghosts). Surely this indie ‘zine’ experience and the one that followed it called Jhankaar, eventually led to Vrishchik. In post-colonial artistic and literary production, the importance of these independent ‘little’ magazines as they called it back then, cannot be underestimated. The 1960s and 70s was a period where a rare synergy between the visual arts and literature produced an indigenous modernism in India. However, it dissipated very quickly and by the mid 90s, was already a historical phenomenon as India embraced global capitalism. Such a coming together of literature and visual art (including cinema) has not been seen since. As editor and publisher of Vérité, it is this spirit that I hope to carry on in my generation and I see comics as a form uniquely suited to this.

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