This is the 50th year that Batul the Great is being published. It was in the Jaishtha 1372 edition (May 1965) of the monthly magazine, Shuktara, that the superhero began his journey. And what a journey it has been! Batul the Great continues to bring joy to millions of kids, as well as grown-ups who enjoyed his comics as kids. The acts of the powerful, muscular and jolly do-gooder continue to have a massive fan following among Bengalis.
Batul the Great (also spelled as ‘Bantul’, considering the Bengali spelling has the nasal character, ‘chandrabindoo’) was Narayan Debnath’s first creation in colour. According to the author himself, it was the name which came to him first. He then added the physical characteristics of a puffed chest, muscular arms, and the disproportionately thinner hips and legs. Batul still remains 19 years old, and that for 50 years, and hopefully for decades to come!
Batul the Great was the first comics in Shuktara to appear in colour, specifically, in different shades of red and black. Despite the presence of well-known illustrators like Pratul Chandra Bandyopadhyay, Balaibandhu Ray, Shaila Chakraborty et al on the pages of Shuktara, the then editor of the magazine, Kshirode Chandra Majumdar chose a younger and then less known Narayan Debnath for his brainchild of introducing a comic-strip in colour in the very popular children’s magazine. He got his idea from seeing the coloured comic-strips in popular western children’s magazines.
The first strip begins with Batul smelling a bunch of tuberoses. While doing so, a few of the small flowers get into his nose. In trying to extricate them, he gives a ‘super-power’ sneeze – and that is how we are introduced to his famous powers. Gradually the comics were populated with other characters. The last scene of the first strip introduces Pishima, the old, lean widow with a lashing tongue with whom Batul stays. The third strip introduced Potla, the seventh, Lyangbot Lombokatno, a goat with amazing power of hearing; other characters in the stories include two nameless younger kids who are always on the lookout to trouble Batul, Bhaja-Gaja, the young toughs who try to create mischief away from Batul’s eyes but get caught anyway, Uto the pet ostrich, Bhedo the pet dog, and sundry other characters, many of whom often appear one-off.
The opening scenes of the first comic strip - smelling the tuberoses and giving the 'super-power' sneeze
It must be mentioned that in the West, creating comics is usually a joint effort between one or many illustrators and story-writers. But Narayan Debnath does the entire comic strips himself. This goes for all his comics. According to the author in an interview, even at this age (he is 89 years old), he regularly single-handedly creates and hands over to his publishers, every month, four strips of each series, including Batul the Great. And adds earnestly, “I hope to carry on as long as I live.”
The beginnings of popularity
The first few comics were not too popular. The Indo-Pak War of 1965 provided a brainwave to the editor, Kshirode Chandra Majumdar. He suggested to Narayan to make Batul a full-scale superhero, defeating Pakistani troops through this superhero acts. The author had a few initials misgivings regarding the legal implications of such stories and illustrations, as war meant there were certain restrictions on what citizens could and couldn’t do. But the editor cleared all his doubts and gave him free reins to let his imagination soar. Narayan Debnath’s imagination soared, and so did the comics’ popularity in Shuktara. Thus the Kartik 1372 edition (in October 1965) had Batul blowing away cannonballs, seizing the Patton tanks of the Pakistani army and giving them the chase. Then, he is shown tying up Pakistani soldiers and gifting them to the Indian army. The depiction of such heroic incidents, whipping up patriotic fervour, continued for a few consecutive issues of the comic strip, and these sealed the popularity of Batul the Great. The Bengali audience at last had a real home-grown superhero, albeit one whose stories have a humorous vein running through, tickling the humour- and wit-loving Bengali. A superhero who feels the blow from a hammer on his head like the falling of a drop of water, and who, when hit on his head with a heavy green coconut (dab in Bengali), the coconut simply bounces off!
Batul the Great is a superhero no doubt, but unlike the Western superheroes like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man et al, Batul has a simple dress. A pink vest paired with a pair of black shorts is all he wears. Of course, the vest helps to show off his bulging muscles. He is even shorn of shoes: according to the character, whenever he has tried to walk with shoes on, they have become torn and so he prefers to go around barefoot.
Batul is also a contemporary superhero, in the sense that he has been seen to be involved in current events, often to help the country. As already mentioned, he had helped India win the Indo-Pak War of 1965. Then he has been depicted winning medals for India in Olympics. There are other stories also of him getting involved in contemporary events.
Covers of editions of collected stories of Batul the Great
Highest accolades for Narayan Debnath
For his wonderful and ever-popular creations as collected in the book Comics-Samagra (‘Comics Collection’), Narayan Debnath was awarded the Bal Sahitya Puraskar by Sahitya Akademi last year. The state of West Bengal also awarded its highest award, Banga Bibhushan to the 89-year-old genius in 2013.
Narayan Debnath receiving Banga Bibhushan from Governor Narayanan, with Mamata Banerjee beside him
Translations and adaptations
Besides being published in Shuktara, of late, Deb Sahitya Kutir has been regularly bringing out collections of Batul the Great stories, and they are very popular
Some of the Batul comics have already been translated into English. In April 2012, the first English translation of the Batul the Great series was published by Lalmati. More needs to be done. Also, the comics need to be translated into other languages. The Batul comics can be enjoyed by children everywhere in India. Even some separate language versions can also be created if needed. The ones to emulate in this aspect are the Amar Chitra Katha series of comics which are available in 20 Indian languages, and the monthly magazine of comics, Tinkle, which is also published in multiple languages. Like the characters in those comics, the fat, chubby, extremely likeable boy-hero Batul the Great also has the power to enthral children all over India.
Of course, Batul the Great is also an animated television series today, along with Debnath’s another famous creation, the pair of naughty boys, Nonte and Phonte. Batul has also come into the world of smartphones: those with Android phones can download the app, ‘Batul The Great – Bengali’ to enjoy any time and revisit their childhood days.
The creator and the created
Written by Anushtup Haldar for Team M3.tv