Until roughly three years ago, Indian painting found a place on the Internet mainly in forums that would discuss this art form, and it was still largely an academic pursuit limited to textbooks or the subject of interest of art connoisseurs. In the recent past, this notion has changed, with the rising popularity of Facebook pages that use Indian paintings satirically or frivolously as the backdrops for their memes and comics. One might jump to conclude that this practice takes away from the value of the art, but it can also be argued that these platforms are exposing more people to Indian paintings and making them aware of it. The creators of Inedible India, a web-comic series, and Mad Mughal Memes, a meme page, make strong arguments about why the latter is true. In this conversation, they also speak about their creative processes, as well as the tone and humour they employ.
Rajesh Rajamani never thought that he could create comics, because he believes he does not have the talent to draw. It was only last year when he came across web-comics like Royal Exitentials and Wondermark that he considered the idea. He was excited to see that comics could be created using paintings, and decided that his series would satirise the Indian public, our eccentricities and double standards and how we deal with various social inequalities, rather than targetting just politicians, which he finds true of most socio-political satire in India. Thus was born Inedible India.
He decided to use Indian paintings in his comics because he wanted them to be light and satirical, and thought that the juxtaposition of vintage paintings and contemporary social issues would achieve this effect. "I often use Raja Ravi Varma's paintings. They are mostly based on Indian mythological characters and stories. They are beautiful, popular and I believed that the readers would easily identify with them," he says, adding that making these mythological characters converse about issues in the comics accentuates the satire.
The admins of the page Mad Mughal Memes are fittingly named after the emperors and other significant personalities from this dynasty. Currently, there are seven admins — Babur, Akbar, Begum Ruqaiya, Noor Jehan, Aurangzeb, Dara Shikoh and Birbal. The page was created by Akbar. "I was bored and hungry and there was a sudden surge of historical alliteration memes popping up over Facebook. Most of them we're rather tongue-in-cheek and less serious. I jumped on the bandwagon and got a friend over — he and a few others have given the page the flavor it now has," he explains.
When it comes to combining paintings and text, the process is largely random or based on a certain piece of news or a seasonal celebration for the creators of Mad Mughal Memes. "Sometimes I think of a caption and find the image that goes along with it. Other times, I see an image and think of a funny caption to go with it," says Babur, acknowledging that the other admins may have a different creative process.
The process Rajamani follows for Inedible India is more structured. Once he finalises the argument he will be making in a comic strip, he thinks of the characters who should be participating in the conversation. The factors he considers are the kind of characters, their genders, the number of characters and whether they should be from privileged or marginalised backgrounds. Then he picks a painting by Raja Ravi Varma or a Kalighat painting that fits his requirements.
Inedible India's comic strips frequently center on subjects such as caste, patriarchy and politics. Rajamani says it was impossible to not talk about these subjects considering that he intended to direct the satire on the society itself. "Irrespective of what we believe or claim about ourselves, we are a deeply casteist and patriarchal society. And we often try our best to not talk about these issues. Also, most satire in our country originates from privileged sections and is directed at marginal and vulnerable sections like cab drivers, domestic helps, security guards and others. I thought it would be interesting to subvert this and poke fun at the privileged sections," he explains.
Mad Mughal Memes, on the other hand, does not really delve into current affairs. They tend to joke about topics that people are discussing in that moment. "We are a historical page and we try to be as loyal to the particular period as possible. Current politics do influence us, but we always try to bring it back to its historical context... and if we can't do that, biryani will save the day," jokes Akbar.
The paintings in these memes and comics are sombre and largely without emotion, whereas the text written on them is sarcastic. Rajamani thinks it is this mismatch in tone that effectively brings forth the satire and maintains an emotive balance between the visuals and text. "The subversion of the original meaning in the painting helps in evoking a certain humour among the readers. Had the characters in the painting and the text both been hyper-emotive, it might have been over the top and repetitive," he says.
The creators of Mad Mughal Memes believe that there is humour inherent in the way we perceive these paintings, especially as kids. "It's quite funny, actually. I hate the idea that good historical art can only be appreciated by highbrow connoisseurs; I'm sure many of us have memories of visiting museums or browsing history books as kids and snickering at the way some figures were depicted, or making hugely inappropriate jokes. The text just helps put these jokes into the picture," Admin Babur explains.
Combining humour with art which has heritage value attached to it can land one in a spot. When asked if Mad Mughal Memes has ever come under fire for using Indian paintings, Babur replies by saying that they have, but it is usually because of the joke. "The art itself is usually inoffensive, except for those that contain nudity," he explains. However, he does believe that a line should be drawn and generally avoids using artwork which features religious figures. Akbar adds that they don't really pay attention to the complaints of "plebs". Inedible India's comics, too, receive hate messages for the arguments made in them rather than the art. Once, Rajamani did get a lot of criticism for using a painting of Dattatreya (a Hindu deity) made by Raja Ravi Verma.
Rajamani asserts that he thinks web-comics have helped make Indian paintings more popular. He says that even though people are aware of these paintings, they don't usually actively explore them. Apart from the social commentary, he feels that the comics have made the paintings more accessible. A lot of the readers have asked him where they can find Raja Ravi Varma's paintings, while some shared details about the painter and his influences and have had discussions about art with him.
Babur hopes that the memes on his Facebook page will help people appreciate historical art better and make the art more appealing. "Maybe they'll see them in a museum some day, and think, 'I saw this in a meme once!' It makes the connection all the more real," he explains.
Updated Date: Apr 29, 2017 15:00 PM