When one thinks of Bengali comic strips, Bantul, Handa-Bhonda and Nonte-Phonte are the first characters that come to mind. Most children in Bengal have invariably met these comic-book characters sometime in their lives. However, the name Narayan Debnath would not ring a bell in too many minds.
Well, he is the person who created these hilarious characters. And for his immense ‘comic’-al contribution to Bengali literature, he has been given the Bal Sahitya Puraskar for 2013 by the Sahitya Akademi. The book for which he is getting the award is Comics Samagra, which is a collection of all his published and unpublished comics spanning over fifty years. In terms of popularity, his comic strips are the Bengali equivalent of Superman, Batman and Spiderman.
An illustrious career
Narayan Debnath comes from a family of gold ornament retailers, and probably because designing ornaments was part of the job, the artistic streak ran in Debnath from his childhood. He joined Indian Art College, but discontinued his studies there and started freelancing.
He got his break as an illustrator when he joined the renowned publishing house, Deb Sahitya Kutir in 1950. After more than a decade there illustrating children’s books, including translations of several Western children’s classics, he branched out on his own with Handa-Bhonda in 1962.
The hilarious tales of the brothers, Handa the mischievous slimmer one, and Bhonda, the fat one who is always at the receiving end of Handa’s mischiefs, became an instant hit. It is published in Shuktara magazine. The black and white strips are now published in colour.
Describing the inspiration behind the creation of Handa and Bhonda, Debnath, in an interview to The Telegraph, said: “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. 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.”
His next hit creation and his first creation in colour began life in 1965 – Bantul the Great. This hugely muscular do-gooder was inspired by Debnath’s friend, the former Mr Universe, Manohar Aich. He has Superman-like strength which he uses to help people. His friends are the two mischievous young boys, Bacchu and Bicchu, who he often has to control. With his rippling muscles he naturally has to have a huge appetite, sometimes which he satisfies by consuming a whale for breakfast. It is also published in Shuktara.
When the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965 flared up, he was asked by the editors and publishers to add an aura of invincibility. Although reluctant at first because he was worried about legal implications, on assurance he made Bantul take on tanks, airplanes, and missiles. Bullets began to bounce off him as in the case of Superman.
Perhaps his third most popular creations were the characters, Nonte-Phonte. They were created for children’s magazine, Kishore Bharati, when its editor, Dinesh Chandra Chatterjee requested him to develop a comic strip with a set of naughty young characters on the lines of Handa and Bhonda. Like the earlier ones, Nonte-Phonte has also proved to be immensely popular.
His comic books featuring Handa-Bhonda, Bantul the Great and Nonte-Phonte have been published since the early 80s. From 2003 onwards, the earlier comics have been re-inked and published in full-colour format.
Besides these, Narayan Debnath has also created a gamut of popular comic strips like Black Diamond Indrajit Ray (which he had started writing as a thriller story for Kishore Bharati), Potolchand the Magician, detective Koushik Ray, Bahadur Beral (‘brave cat’), Petuk Master Batuklal (‘greedy Batuklal’), and Daanpite Khandu Ar Tar Chemical Dadu (‘naughty Khandu and his scientist grandfather’).
Attesting his overwhelming popularity of Narayan Debnath and his creations is the fact that the famous strips Bantul the Great, Handa-Bhonda and Nonte-Phonte are still enjoying an interrupted run, and still drawn by him. Though a bit late in life, after spending more than fifty years creating his comic strips, the prestigious Bal Sahitya Puraskar, which is the children’s equivalent of the Sahitya Akademi Award, has nonetheless brought a sense of closure to the ultimate superhero of original Bengali comics. The award is in the form of a casket containing an engraved copper plaque, a shawl and a cheque for Rs 50,000.
Written by Anushtup Haldar for Team M3.tv