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Farmers growing mushrooms in Assam never thought that comics could be useful to them. But now they have their own comics notice board, where every Saturday new comics are posted covering a variety of issues, from farming to domestic violence. This is not the only case where comics are being used in an unconventional manner in India. Tawna, a man from the remote northeastern state Mizoram, made a series of comic posters to inform people about their electoral rights. While in Pakistan, schoolteachers use comics to simplify history lessons.
Many people involved in these projects had no previous experience in drawing comics and, by and large, they had never read any comics in their life. Now, however, comics have a different meaning to them. Comics aren’t just about superheroes or fairy tales, instead they can be about telling stories, which come directly from day-to-day life.
Welcome to the world of grassroots comics. Whether in Asia, Europe, Africa or Latin America, there are local stories everywhere. World Comics India is an organisation at the centre of the growing comics movement.
Paper, a pencil and something to say is all that is needed to draw a comic, says Sharad Sharma, a former political cartoonist and the man behind the World Comics movement. A grassroots comic is an inexpensive way to express an idea. It’s a medium made by socially active people, rather than by campaign designers and art professionals. Comics convey genuine voices that encourage local debate.
Grassroots comics are a medium that stand out distinctly from mainstream comics and the mainstream idea. They have given a new direction to the representation of silence, thereby creating a revolution in itself. Such comics are easy to make, reproduced using a photocopier and distributed in a limited area, which invites local debate among people from different socio-economic strata of society.
Recently a comics workshop was held in a women’s prison in Karachi, Pakistan. “We never thought that the prisoners would come up with such powerful and personal stories of their lives”, says Nida Shams, who started a local chapter of World Comics Network.
“The movement towards comic journalism is an attempt to find cost effective but powerful media. Media that discusses celebrities and politicians, but also listens to the silent majority. Media, which is entirely in the hands of the community,” says Sharma.
A campaign held recently in Bihar addressed the issue of children’s participation in the local governance. As a part of the campaign, 300 comics were made looking at various issues including water cleanliness, the state of the environment and the question of child marriage. The organisers reached out to the local leaders and asked them to address a range of public concerns. Remarkably, the campaign helped bring about the construction of roads, and brought in two new hand pumps in response to children’s concern about water scarcity. After one child’s comic about rubbish in her playground was sent to a ward member, the school premises were cleaned up the next day.
Another campaign against corporal punishment engaged over ten thousand people across several villages in eastern India. Children made over a thousand comics on the issue to raise awareness among parents and teachers. This inspired the Nepal network to initiate the similar campaign in the Kathmandu valley.
In 2011, World Comics initiated an online diploma course in Comics Journalism. Already thirteen students from India, Pakistan and Nepal have been enrolled with more queries from across the world.
The mainstream press can often neglect local issues. The goal of World Comics is to restore the voice of grassroots activists and local journalists hoping to communicate their ideas to a wider audience. Though western comics have acquired a broad audience, non-English voices have been lost. World Comics aim to redress this imbalance one story at a time.
Suriti Sachdeva is a writer and former student of Sharad Sharma, the Founder of World Comics Network