Author Ikroop Sandhu explores Bhagat Singh in new light

By Indira Laisram
Ikroop Sandhu // Pic supplied

Inquilab Zindabad is Ikroop Sandhu’s first graphic novel, a biography on the Punjabi revolutionary Bhagat Singh. For Sandhu, whose primary mediums are drawing and animation and having already been published in three graphic narrative anthologies, the story of Bhagat Singh was not quite a book aspiration. But when a publisher friend asked her if she was interested in a graphic novel on the great revolutionary, it got Sandhu thinking. And from the vantage of 2019 with attacks on minorities, farmers clash with the government, etc., changing the political narrative of India, Sandhu felt Bhagat Singh’s story needed to be retold as “there was so much to learn from”.

As Sandhu strove for a graphic recreation of the extraordinary life of Bhagat Singh, the uncanny connect—belonging to the same region of Punjab and sharing the same surname—enthused her work even more. “So, while I continued to be impressed by Bhagat Singh’s extraordinary life as I read about, I was also assimilating the information as images, my mind providing me with images and colours and shades. I hope that I have been successful in depicting this life as bravely and truly as it was lived.”

At the same time, she realised not many women write about martyrs and while she realised she was embarking on new territory, Sandhu felt she could tell a story which can have a different perspective from all the other stories which have been told about Bhagat Singh. “So, it felt like the right thing to do. It clicked,” she reflects.

In an email interview with The Indian Sun, Dharamshala-based Sandhu, who graduated in Philosophy from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi, followed by a diploma in Visual studies from Vancouver Film School, shares the difficulties as also the joys and encouragement that greet a graphic novel project when it aspires to strike a chord with contemporary national lexicon.

In conversation with Ikroop Sandhu, author of new book Inquilab Zindabad.

Why was it important for you to tell the story of Bhagat Singh now? Or was it a project that was there and whose completion coincided with the frenetic tumble of events we saw (farmers’ protests etc.)?

Arpita Das who runs Yoda Press, had been thinking about publishing a graphic novel on Bhagat Singh. She got in touch with me in March 2019 to ask if I was interested. I think we were both on the same page regarding the relevance of Bhagat Singh. The warped nationalism being projected by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was reaching a crescendo. Minorities were being made aware of their status, and Arpita picked up on this tension and felt it was time to present Bhagat Singh in a new format.

After that while I began my research and we were ironing out the details of the contract, many incidents of political violence occurred—from lynching to police beating up students in the Jamia library to Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) goons trashing Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and splitting open heads of students. That year was violent and disturbing. It was clearly a design to destabilise and create polarisation, typical political tactics of an underachieving government. However, for the first time in years there was hope of an organised retaliation which we saw in Shaheen Bagh. During this time, I was researching Bhagat Singh and it was alarming to me how relevant his concerns were. So, I would say it was an intuitive understanding which Arpita and I came to, considering the deterioration of the political climate.

‘Inquilab Zindabad’ book cover // Pic supplied
What is your understanding of the life and times of Bhagat Singh? One review says, “this graphic biography has the advantage of providing the lay reader with a quick introduction to the work and thought of this phenomenal anti-colonialist”. I assume it is a chronicle of a great man, so what virtues of Bhagat Singh did you explore?

As you know, India is no stranger to divisions based on religion and caste. We have history of people and races being persecuted based on religion and ideology which dates back thousands of years, pretty much like any other part of the world. It is remarkable to me that Bhagat was able to shake off this ancestral burden and declare himself an atheist at 19-20 years of age. Indian political figures until then had typically been upper-caste, older, more seasoned social reformists and even the radicals among them remained bound to their religious identities.

Bhagat, on the other hand, was young, not an upper-caste, an atheist and an anarchist who felt reforms were not enough and that a sea-change was needed if we truly wanted to be independent. Other than that, his writings present an intellectual rigour far beyond his years. He was a voracious reader who was able to turn his ideas into action. This is something we all could learn from, especially students. He has left us a blueprint of how to organise young people. He was able to create an alternative movement to the Mahatma’s and win over public opinion, despite government propaganda against them. They were labelled terrorists, godless men and Russian agents—very similar to the current government propaganda of labelling the farmers “Khalistanis”.

How long did you take to research and come up with the book?

I would say it took me two years through the roller-coaster of the pandemic to finish the book. I began researching in mid-2019 and by early 2020 I had a rough storyboard and a timeline of what I felt were the important events. After that, I wrote and drew simultaneously. Through 2020 the work was sporadic, there was tremendous anxiety which isn’t helpful for creative work. So, instead I focused on research. And, of course, I went down plenty of rabbit holes during this time. I can say that I have ideas for the next few books thanks to the meandering nature of my study in 2020. By 2021, I had zeroed in on a visual language and the style of narration. After that it was about putting pen to paper. The edits began in November 2021 and we had the book done by January 2022.

Pic supplied
What was the most interesting and challenging aspects about doing this graphic novel?

This is my first graphic novel. I have written and drawn short stories before but to work on a historical biography was pretty challenging. For one, I had to fact check all the details. Secondly, I had to constantly check myself from waxing lyrical or being didactic. I wanted to present his life through an overview of his times and circumstances and it was important to me that the reader learn about him through his writings rather than my descriptions. It was a challenge to balance the academic pragmatism and human sentimentality in the storytelling. I think he was both romantic and pragmatic.

Did you have an upper limit on the number of drawings?

There was no upper limit on the number of drawings. They are of different sizes throughout the book. At times as traditional strip with dialogue between characters, other times as portraits or small vignettes of scenes and sometimes as full-page illustrations.

On the use of language to compliment the drawings, how hard or easy was it? What came first—the image or the text?

It sort of happened simultaneously. There was a constant narration running along while deciding on the storyboard. Both image and text went through many iterations to reach where they did. I would say that everything was in flux until the last day.

Pic supplied
What kind of works influenced this project?

It is likely that every single comic, graphic novel and illustrated story I’ve read till date influenced this work. The mind builds a library of sorts and pulls out references when trying to solve a visual puzzle. I feel this happens at a subconscious level and it is only after the work is done that one can study influences and find similarities to other work.

What’s the difference between comics and graphic novels?

I would define a comic as a traditional strip format where the story, the action and the dialogue is running consistently. In graphic novels, there can be breaks and inconsistencies of text versus image. I think it is a fine line which is blurring with every new comic or graphic novel.

How has the reception to the book been since its launch few weeks ago?

The book has been received well. It is hard for me to be objective and so it helps when strangers have good things to say. One thing which has been repeated by many is that they wanted more. That this book has whet their appetite and they are looking forward to a more in-depth reading of that time. That is encouraging and I hope to start work on another book soon.

Link to the book: Inquilab Zindabad: A Graphic Biography of Bhagat Singh

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