Narayan Debnath at work in
his studio. Picture by Bishwarup Dutta;
creations: (from top) Handa-Bhonda, Bantul the Great and
an illustration for a story
Handa-Bhonda, Bantul the Great or
Nonte Phonte — which Bengali does not know them? These
redoubtable comic-strip characters have been popular among
readers for half a century. They appeared in the pages of
Shuktara and other Bengali magazines — now they have got a lease
of life as stand-alone comic books.
The man behind all of them,
Narayan Debnath, is now well into his eighties. But the
unassuming man keeps himself active in the small studio on the
first floor of his ancestral home in Shibpur, Howrah. Age might
have slowed him down, but he still draws four comic strips.
His working table is nondescript
—- just a board, a few brushes, a bottle of black ink and a few
other drawing material. In his customary lungi and kurta,
Narayanbabu, a typical Bengali bhadralok, exudes an unusually
boyish charm, devoid of the slightest vanity or malice.
He never went out to work and
remained a freelancer as an illustrator for the better part of
his life. He spends most of the time working in his studio while
his three grandchildren keep buzzing about.
Debnath was born in a family of
goldsmiths in 1927. He drew from a very early age. It was
noticed by his father who decided to send him to art college
instead of pushing him into the family business.
He got a job as an illustrator in
the late 1940s for Deb Sahitya Kutir, the leading publishing
house of Calcutta till the 1960s. “It was thrilling to work with
all the great illustrators of those days, Pratul Banerjee,
Shailo Chakraborty and Balai Bandhu Roy,” he recalls. He was
quite happy with both his work and the payment — Rs 3 for a
black-and-white picture — in his early days. But there was much
more in store.
During the early 1950s, a request
came from the children’s magazine Shuktara, a Deb Sahitya Kutir
publication, to start a regular comic strip for its readers.
Debnath was baffled. “I was hardly exposed to the world of
cartoons and comics, except maybe Tarzan,” he says.
“As a child I used to sit in front
of my house in a busy locality and watch people, fooling around.
I could get my comic strip from them, I thought,” says Debnath.
Thus were born two of the most famous perennial Bengali youths,
Handa and Bhonda. “I drew them in the Laurel and Hardy mode, the
fat one named Bhonda, was cool and cautious, while his
counterpart was Handa, a bit too smart and pompous, who was
always getting into trouble.” Handa-Bhonda was launched as a
two-page comic strip in Shuktara in the early 1950s.
Its huge success inspired Debnath
to start a series with two young girls, called Shutki-Mutki
(skinny and fatty). But alas! Two naughty girls didn’t appeal to
the Bengali reader — maybe he wanted them just pretty!
Shuktara had now realised
the potential of Debnath’s funny characters. He was once again
asked to create a new strip with a difference. The editor wanted
this to be printed in colour. This was how Bantul the Great, the
greatest Bengali comic character, was born. He is a hulk of man,
with a bulging chest and muscular arms that makes him look
invincible, but disproportionately narrow in his legs and with
the face of a boy. He is a hero. There are many attempts to
humiliate him — but he always survives with his dignity intact.
“Bantul was first published around
1965, immediately after which India went to war with Pakistan.
The editor of Shuktara wanted Bantul to go and fight the
enemies,” says Debnath. So Bantul was shown lifting a tank,
circling it above his head and throwing it back to the enemies
or changing the direction of a cannon shell by simply blowing
through his mouth.
Bantul clicked even from the
initial stage mainly due to this war series, insists Debnath.
The success brought him offers from another children’s magazine,
Kishore Bharati, for which he created Patalchand the Magician,
which did not enjoy the popularity of Handa Bhonda or Bantul.
“In 1969, I started Nonte-Phonte,” says Debnath. That strip
became very successful.
The popularity of his comic
strips, however, eclipsed the illustrator in him. In the 1970s,
he was so occupied with the strips that he hardly had any time
for illustration. Deb Sahitya Kutir’s was also on the decline.
His illustrations show his ability to create strong and
imaginative visuals with an eye on meticulous detailing. Some of
his most memorable works were for adventure books like Bane
Jangale and Bagh Bhalukker Deshe or the Tarzan series in
And there is also a long list of
cartoon strips that didn’t take off — like Shutki-Mutki, Bahadur
Beral or Danpite Khadu O Tar Chemical Dadu, but Narayanbabu
doesn’t mind anything. He just loves drawing. He doesn’t even
mind the artists who copy him blatantly.
No — but there is something that
he minds. The animated series of Nonte- Phonte on television.