A conversation with Illustrator and Animator Susnata Paul

Graphicshelf got its opportunity to interact with Storyteller Susnata Paul, as a part of our ‘Conversations’ series. Susnata Paul is a passionate story teller graduated from National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. She worked as an Illustrator at ‘The Quint’ and produced a series of Graphic stories on chapters from ‘History of India’ for them. Graphicshelf got an opportunity to interact with her as a part of our ‘Conversations’ series. Glance through the stories and perspectives of this budding artist who is  experimenting on the pristine possibilities of illustration in digital dimension.

These are the highlights of the interview.

  1. What made you get into writing/drawing graphic novels?

It is extremely difficult for me to read books without pictures. The complementing visuals used to be my motivation to read. Anything with attractive visuals would take away all my attention vis-a-vis content with lot of text in it. I read very few comics or graphic novels while growing up (Amar Chitra Katha, Tin Tin). I think that helped me retain some sort of originality in my work.

It began one frustrating day at work with deadlines hanging over my head. I was handed over prose written by a Kashmiri journalist and was asked to make a cover illustration for the story. As I went through the write up, I could instantly visualize all that was spoken about. Editorial work comes with strict deadlines. With multiple images and ideas floating in my head, I couldn’t resist. I had to put it all down. An animation would’ve been ambitious for the given time, hence it had to be illustrations. To my surprise, I could visualize and execute a whole graphic novel treatment for the prose along with a cover image within the same time that was given to me to just illustrate a cover image. This was the first time that we attempted a graphic novel for a mobile phone.

Later, I was asked to work on more of these with an editor to cull out the first in the series – ‘Kashmir’s Accession to India’. Gradually, we started building up more on these, marking the dates when it happened in history. Since these were kept for publishing a day before it is supposed to mark its anniversary, there would be times when I received the script a couple of days before publishing, so the majority of them have been done in 2-3 days of time. Before I start, I do my bit of research on the topic by watching documentaries and reading online about it. I especially liked working on these graphic novels because I got to revisit the ‘boring history lessons’ in school that I did not pay attention to then. And since that gets associated with me getting to draw them, I thoroughly enjoyed it. They were not ‘boring’ anymore. Sometimes to my surprise, I would finish much before the deadline.

When working on similar themed stories (like a series), it could become monotonous after a while. I kept challenging myself with an idea of doing something different each time – could be style/treatment, color palette, emotional graph, dramatization of frames and compositions, playing with typography etc.

  1. What kind of graphic material do you read or follow?

I started reading graphic novels very recently. Joe Sacco has been my major influence apart from Guy Delisle and Marjane Satrapi. I also admire Christoph Niemann’s work, especially how he keeps on experimenting with different technologies like 360 degree illustrations (‘My trip to DMZ’). New Yorker’s augmented reality covers by Neimann experiment in marrying art with technology, which keeps inspiring me to exploit interactive ways of storytelling.

  1. What are your inspirations, who were there earliest influences.

In Primary School, I would be that girl in class who would be given the duty to decorate the display board and make the ‘Time Table wala chart’. To my memory, that timetable chart was the first hand-drawn typography I did. My father would help me with creating a 3-dimentional effect with the shading technique on the texts. Holiday homework would be a good deal of spending time with my parents as they both are very creative. A set of color sketch pens and crayons would be all that I need for long train journeys in summer from Delhi to Kolkata to visit my grandparents.

Throughout school, I took part in numerous painting, poster making, drawing competitions and received a lot of accolades. I was granted the CCRT Scholarship operating under Govt. Of India for formal guidance in this field in 2004 till I was 22. In 2009, I received the prestigious ‘National Bal Shree Honor’ for creative art. And then a new journey began in NID (National Institute of Design), where I went for my graduation in Animation and Film Design. This is where, with all the pre-requisites, I had to go through a lot of unlearning and learning. It was then that I was introduced to a whole new world of film, literature and graphic novels.

Storytelling through films always intrigued me. Though again, I hardly saw any films while growing up. I started binge-watching movies in college and just could not stop. It became more like a habit to watch something before I go to sleep. Charlie Chaplin inspired me, how he could narrate the story of one’s hardships through comedy. The simplicity yet effectiveness in filmography of Satyajit Ray also left a major impact on me.

  1. What do you think of the current prevalent graphic novel and comic culture in India. Is it stagnating or growing?

With social media, a lot of artists and storytellers have found a medium to publish their work and voices like never before. Artists and illustrators are exploiting different kinds of content across varied genres to tell stories. I worked in digital media, and the thing that makes digital media different from broadcasting and publishing is the instant feedback and reaction from the audience/readers. We received a lot of responses appreciating the way we told history by breaking down information and facts with dialogues and dramatization. This clearly shows the growing audience for the consumption of such content.

  1. Does the current narrative prevalent in the graphic novel and comic world reflect our political and social situations?

With the digital space expanding, various web-based comics have sprung up that use cartoons to make a larger politically or socially conscious point. The euphemism of this medium makes it suitable for making political and social commentary. Most of my work derived from political and social situations like – Would Mahatma Gandhi say ‘Hey Bhagwaan in the Age of Note Ban?’. It is a satirical piece on the effect of Demonetisation on the public.

  1. As an artistic medium can we use this form to raise questions about our society and changing times?

Humor has long been used as a weapon of human intelligence against oppression and inequality. Even as the foundations of free expression are shaky in India today, the nature of graphic novels is such that it makes difficult stories and ideas easily approachable. Going further, these not only put the facts together, but also act as a voice against injustice and questions the daily functioning of the government. In recent times I have noticed comics, graphic novels, web comics that work towards spreading information on lesser known topics like identifying abuse, sex education, mental illnesses, menstruation and more.

Browse her works on Behance and Facebook. Also check out her following Graphic Novels

The Bloody History of Bhindranwale and Op Bluestar

1975 Emergency

A Stomach Ache Led to a Turbulent Accession of Jammu & Kashmir

Would Mahatma Gandhi Say ‘Hey Bhagwaan’ in the Age of Note Ban?

What Led Rohith Vemula to Take his Own Life?

Operation Polo That “Liberated” Hyderabad

Aurangzeb, the Big Bad Mughal Badshah With Serious Daddy Issues

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