Friday, March 30, 2012

Review: The Obliterary Journal

The Obliterary Journal Volume 1
Blaft Publications Pvt Ltd and Tranquebar Press
© Blaft Publications 2012
ISBN 978-93-81626-44-3
Rs 695
Pages 269

I've never had to work out algebraic equations in order to review a book - but Somdutt Sarkar's explorations of the twelfth century mathematician Bhaskaracharya's text "Lilavati" in The Obliterary Journal presents math problems that offer infinite imaginative possibilities – for example, the number of pearls that fall off a necklace as a couple makes love.

It's this spirit of imagination and experimentation that this anthology revels in. The Obliterary Journal is a compilation of miscellaneous visual material in a number of varying styles and forms - graphic short stories, collections of street art, and hand painted type. A one page visual piece, Farooq's "A Squid Vixen" - portrays a figure illustrated in the style of Amar Chitra Katha comics, with the head of a squid and an apsara-like body. "Squid Vixen" seems to suggest that stories are not necessarily full-fledged narratives, but are, for the compilers of this anthology, primarily ideas that present manifold imaginative possibilities. Another key concept - the conflict between visual and text is introduced in the form of a graphic short story in the foreword where pictograms and the written word face-off, with pictograms asserting the premise of this book; 'obliteracy' - to obliterate textual literature. 

Yet, in the pages that follow, the written word and the visual aren't always at odds. "The Nayagarh Incident" is worthy of special mention; a sci-fi tale featuring Transformer-like alien robots, and illustrated in the style of Patachitra scrolls (palm-leaf engravings from Orissa). Surprisingly, the odd combination isn't jarring. Similarly, Roney Devassia marries content with style in “Karuna Bhavanam,” a creative non-fiction piece based on interviews. Devassia's washed-out, grey-toned panels that blend into each other – is the perfect way to explore the fading, blurred memories of a group of elderly men living in an old-age home in Kozhikode. The excerpt from “The Hyderabad Graphic Novel”, by writer-artist duo Harsho Mohan Chattoraj and Jai Undurti is spectacular - not just because of Chattoraj's stunning, detailed black-and-white art, but also for Undurti's impressively researched, imaginative tale that ranges far across time, space and myth – featuring the mythic city of Aryan Vaejo, Egyptian Catacombs, Stonehenge, the Ice-Ages and Bal Gangadhar Tilak.

Not all the pieces in The Obliterary Journal work - "Nowhere to Run", an excerpt from Subrata Gangopadhyay's graphic novel in Bengali, centers on Janardhan, an anti-hero with superhuman strength, but offers a confusing narrative that contains too many characters and sub-plots. The textured, nebulous artwork of Amitabh Kumar's piece (which lacks a textual title, the title is visual - an airplane enclosed in a heart) is exquisite but the concept is too abstract to grasp – the piece begins with a goat claiming that “Airports make him nervous” and ends with the image of a smiley face drawn on a toilet. The collections of visual art from the streets "Autoraj" and "Street Art from Suriname" could benefit from more context. But these shortcomings don't detract from/mar the charm of this anthology - more than anything else, The Obliterary Journal, by subverting and breaking with narrative conventions, challenges the way we think of stories, and uses the full capacity of the visual medium to blur the lines between (among other things) math and literature, the real and the imagined, fiction and non-fiction.

A slightly different version of this review was published in Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 14, 07 April 2012.