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Sketching for social change

Nov 06, 2008

Pioneered in India by World Comics Finland, grassroots comics is fast emerging as an important tool for spreading messages on issues like family planning, alcoholism, migration and displacement. This visual storytelling by community activists with a local story, characters, language and idioms represents a genuine voice of the grassroots.

Comics have been an intricate part of childhood storytelling for many. For generations, characters like Tin Tin or Asterix or even the historical twist of the Amar Chitra Kathas have occupied popular imagination.

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The medium has also evoked graphic novels like Maus by Art Spiegelman who tells the stories of the holocaust or Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen series that depicts Japan in the aftermath of the atomic bomb.

Grassroots Comics is another variation of visual storytelling where the content is entirely local. It is usually made by community activists at the local level with a local story, characters, language and idioms.

Voice of the grassroots

Hence, this is the genuine voice of the grassroots. It dramatises issues that are pertinent to the community and brings it to the forefront of debate. This concept also emerged as a medium for many who have no access to media. Besides, it is not very expensive to use this method for it involves photocopying or low-tech printing.

The pioneer of this movement in India, Sharad Sharma along with Leif Packalen of World Comics Finland (WCF) has published a manual on social cartooning called Grassroots Comics: A Development Communication Tool.

The book is an interesting chronicle of the way cartooning has been used as a successful campaigning tool and a means of self-expression across India, Finland, Nepal, Africa and other regions. It also guides the reader on how to draw comics, make them into booklets or even wallpapers.

Sharma, a former journalist and founder of World Comics India (WCI) took on this venture in the mid-’90s. He says: “There are stories of people from the rural areas that need to be told are not covered by the mainstream media. In fact, the impact of a few lines or a sketch is amazing. You don’t even have to be literate to understand the message.”

Packalen who has been active in development cooperation since the ’70s says he found social cartooning as a way of communication in the late ’80s. He has lived and worked in Africa for a decade and runs comics workshops. He says the first time he encountered the medium was when it was used to popularise the knowledge of scientific animal husbandry in a way that would be beneficial to farmers.

Art of visual storytelling

“Slowly I came to understand that comics (visual storytelling) could be used for communication for almost any issue or point of view. A story is much more powerful than a poster or slogan since it gives an insight or a new thought,” he adds.

There are no real differences in the way comics are used across the world – Africa, India or Finland. Says Packalen: “The method of making these comics is the same in all continents. First the organisation or activists choose a theme or a message, then create stories with a specific target audience in mind, and finally turn these into comics.”

Trainers hold workshops and show the participants how to visualise a story sequence but usually don’t dictate on the content.

Take the case of Jharkhand where the wall poster comic was introduced by a local organisation BIRSA (Bindrai Institute for research Study & Action) based in West Singhbhum district in the mid ’90s.

Social campaigning

A wall poster comic Sain Maskal, which began in 1997, is still regularly published in the state. In fact, every second Tuesday of the month people from distant areas come to BIRSA’s office to collect wall posters for distribution in villages. Over the years, BIRSA has covered issues like witch-hunting, family planning, alcoholism, migration and displacement.

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Another notable success of Grassroots Comics has been the Girl Child Campaign in Rajasthan. WCI together with the NGO Dream on Wheels conducted its first workshop in Barmer in 2005.

In the six-day workshop, comics on discrimination against girls, eve teasing, female foeticide, widow marriage and other related issues were developed. These were put up at cross roads and other public places. When WCI returned to the region for a follow up workshop a few months later, there was immense interest and excitement.

Within a few months, over 300 wall posters were developed and a campaign Aapri Dikri Ro Hak was launched which took the posters to hundreds of villages. In 2006, a bigger campaign was organised, a motorcycle rally from Barmer to Jodhpur. Posters and comic books were distributed along the way. Six months after the rally, a  perceivable difference was evident in the enrolment of girls in schools.

The impact of Grassroots Comics has also spread to other regions. Goa has been a hot spot on the comic map.

In 2006, a campaign on paedophilia was launched by Metamorphosis and UNIFEM. As part of this, WCI was asked to conduct workshops in five colleges as a result of which 200 posters and 50 comics were developed.

Portraying lives

In Tamil Nadu, the Village Community Development Society (VCDS) that has been striving for the betterment of Dalits also used this technique.

In the late 1990s, VCDS began cartooning training in collaboration with the Finish Comics Society and WCF. The tsunami and its impact on children too have been portrayed through comics.

For instance, at a workshop for tsunami-affected children, a participant in her comic showed how she was hanging from a coconut tree for two hours and came down only when the waves subsided.

Another story describes how the children feared the sea and didn’t venture out to play till one day a doctor convinced them that there would not a tsunami for the next 60 years and only after this, they were able to overcome their fears.

Another story mentioned in the book is that of Laxman Negi of Uttaranchal. The 11-year-old had attended a comics workshop by Plan International. But Laxman was not sure how he would use this newly-acquired skill. Later, he heard a disturbing story of his friend whose alcoholic father had smashed a bottle on his head and the child had to get twelve stitches.

Laxman dramatised this episode into a four-panel comic and pasted it in the nearby area. This had a deep impact on his friend’s father. Publicly shamed, he gave up alcohol.

Gaining importance

In 2006, Laxman even participated in the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva. Now he teaches other children the art of drawing comics. The demand to train activists in the art of comics has increased. And WCI has organised several programmes for trainers.

The idea has also gained importance in Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan.

When people tell their own story, they can reach out to other groups in the society that have misconceptions or adverse opinions of them. They can be used by organisations working on political ethnic or communal issues. And hence the power of Grassroots Comics is unbeatable.

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