In circulation for more than 60 years, legendary artist-illustrator Narayan Debnath's comic strips have acquired a cult status among children of the Bengali households, especially those in West Bengal. ‘Bantul the Great’, ‘Nonte Fonte’, ‘Handa Bhonda,’ are characters that have permeated down generations and have remained a favourite among children years later. This week, Debnath was conferred with the Padma Shri. And one can only say it was a long time coming.
Handa Bhonda has been in circulation since 1962 for the monthly Bengali children’s magazine Shuktara. Debnath himself is the only comics-artist in India to have a D.Litt degree.
Debnath's win of the Padma Shri also roused up nostalgia on social media.
As a Bengali I'm extremely happy that Narayan Debnath has got Padmashree. His cartoon characters Handa Bhoda, Bantul, Nonte Ponte were like Tintin to Bengalis. #PadmaAwards #NarayanDebnath pic.twitter.com/EpYUIH3JSZ — SAYAN KUNDU (WRITER) (@KunduWriter) January 27, 2021
Narayan Debnath just won a Padma Shri at 96! The comic artist's work added great colour and dry humour to the lives of Bengali kids. Batul, Handa Bhonda, Nonte Fonte and Keltu da must be having a party. So happy to hear the news!! — anakin your business (@nayanika_m) January 27, 2021
One can hardly find a Bengali who haven't grew up with Bantul the great, Handa- Bhonda and Nonte-Fonte, asking with enormous number of grphics as part of story by other authors. Feeling proud for Shri Narayan Debnath for being nominated as Padma award. #PadmaAwards pic.twitter.com/N9ZQO7MEkY — Debayan Gupta (@zico_baba) January 25, 2021
At 96, the nonagenarian has been the flagbearer of Bengali pop culture for more than five decades and despite his works mainly aimed at the children, there has often been a note of social and nationalistic idealism behind these memorable characters. Batul the great is a character with immense power and he came into existence during the 1965 India Pakistan war, while Nonte Phonte and Handa Bhonda came to capture the essence of simple lives shown through such titular yet regular characters of cartoon.
Born in West Bengal's Howrah, Debnath spent most of his formative and later life there. He became very interested in forms of visual art and started studying at the Indian Art College but didn't finish his degree.
Debnath worked as a freelancer after that with advertising agencies for movie slides and logos for a few years when he was introduced to a large publishing house called the Deb Sahitya Kutir in 1950. For 11 years till 1961, Debnath illustrated Western children's books and comics and also translated them for locals. But his most acclaimed work started off in 1962 with the iconic duo of 'Handa-Bhonda' in Shuktara. The comic strips were initially drawn by pencil and inked when they had no colour frames. Later on, publishers used grey-scale.
Even though Debnath's comic artwork has overwhelming anything else among his works, some of his best work has also been under the detective, adventure and horror genres in Bengali literature. His creation on Rabi Chobi was also published to mark the birth day of poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore in 1961, in a May issue of the Anandamela magazine.
In bringing forth the characters that need a reintroduction to a new generation, film producers have relied on animation work of Debnath's stories. His go-ahead for stories of 'Batul The Great', 'Handa Bhonda' and 'Nonte Phonte' brought the characters a new enthusiasm and has certainly not disappointed.
In an interview to Scroll, Santanu Ghosh, a Kolkata-based publisher who is also the editor of five volumes of Debnath’s comics and illustration works spanning six decades, said “Narayan Debnath has created, and this is a record within Bengali literature, the largest number of book covers. His illustrations were unlike anything anyone else was making, and his influence can be seen on Bengali artists even today.”
As children growing up, having our fair share of Enid Blyton, Harry Potter, Agatha Christies have modelled a decent enough literary understanding but it is safe to say the existence of Debnath's comic works have brought about a seriousness to the business of comic literature and educated the present-day creators and illustrators to carry on Debnath's legacy in its true forms or as inspirations.