Sharad Sharma’s Interview by Team India
“If you are creating something, if you have something to say, say it loud and clear.” – Sharad Sharma.
On a warm winter weekend, we discovered how storytelling can bring about social change by tapping into ‘Comics Power!’ with Mr. Sharad Sharma, founder of World Comics Network. Mr. Sharma is a cartoonist based in New Delhi, India, who has worked in both print and electronic media for over 25 years. In doing so, he made sure that the voice of the common man reached the mainstream press, and finally the policymakers, through the medium of comics. In the early Nineties he conceptualised the idea of Grassroots Comics and took the art of cartooning to the rural hinterland of India and other parts of the globe. He provided this alternative mode of communication to amplify the voices of the silent majority, by giving them a pencil, paper and hope to sketch-in the change. Mr. Sharma believes “ABCD stands for: anybody can draw!”.
We spoke to him about his experience with comics, his views on the pandemic, his dreams for this storytelling revolution and everything in between!
Q. Out of all the mediums of communication, why the love for comics?
- Love for comics because that’s the only medium I know and am comfortable with. As for me, I can’t be an artist and just create things for self-pleasure and hang it for display in my drawing room, just for myself, for the rest of my life. I think medium is not really important here. Medium is just a means and it’s important to understand what you do with the medium. That really makes all the difference.
Q. How has the experience been with the pandemic so far? Do you have any key learnings that you’d like to share with us today?
- Through grassroots comics, we help people tell their stories, document the stories in their own way, and also reproduce them by simply photocopying them black and white. My job for the last 20-odd years has been to travel across the length and breadth of this country and also across the globe to reach out to people whose voices are probably not getting documented such as homeless people, people living in conflict zones, people living with disability, nomads and so on. We all know what happened due to the pandemic: the whole world halted. We have been doing some work on an online platform, but unfortunately we can’t get the same kind of attention and interaction we used to face-to-face and most of my audience is not available on these platforms. The voices of the communities are not being heard because we have a huge digital divide in this country. So it is a great setback for the grassroots comics movement.
Q. How powerful and engaging do you think the tool of storytelling is in giving a voice to the voiceless?
- Everybody is a good storyteller in this country when you provide them an opportunity. What is really lacking is the medium. So, if there is a medium, they will document the story in a way that they can get the attention of the larger community and hence seek for the solution collectively. In the case of comics, they just have to sit and draw the story, photocopy it and distribute it everywhere. The Grassroots Comics movement encourages participation of the community as these stories are created by local people in local languages on local problems and solutions, featuring local look-alike characters and familiar ambience and the artist is known to them too; he may be living next door! As there is no other mechanism to get the stories of the silent majority of this country, grassroots comics can be the alternative mode of communication or the ‘Community Media’.
Q. The urban population mostly knows comics as a medium of entertainment rather than a medium of social change. So, how has the perception and attitude towards comics changed in India, especially with respect to grassroots comics?
- 90% of my audience have never ever seen mainstream comics in their lives, so for them comics is a four-panel comic poster that they have created, self-published and distributed by themselves. There is still a notion among the urban educated population in India that comics are for children or for the purpose of entertainment, like superhero stories. But comics can also be used as a powerful communication tool. Comics medium came from the West but in a very different shape, size, and format and what we did with comics is to completely revolutionize that idea!
Q. Social issues are known to be very complex, so are these four panels that you’re talking about in a grassroots comic sufficient to convey the whole story?
- During workshops, we suggest participants pick one specific theme or one specific storyline from their life and we tell them “this is going to be your first comic, but not the last one”, as they are new creators and may struggle with the theme, or with the process of drawing their story. Also, when you have just a four-panel story, the reading order is simple left to right, top to bottom, there is no confusion. So, it is important from the reader’s, as well as the creator’s, point of view to be very specific about picking the storyline.
Q. Do you think grassroots comics are both a medium to create dialogue among people as well as a way to deal with trauma through art therapy?
- Comics are a very non-threatening medium as you just need a paper, pencil, and something to say. There is no kind of pressure, be it from the storytelling perspective or the distribution perspective. Because of this reason, it works very well in conflict regions and around issues surrounding mental health, trauma, and disability as well. For example, just after the 2006 Tsunami, we did a workshop next to the sea with children in Naga Putnam, and this medium brought in lots of stories about the tsunami and how their lives were affected when their village was swept away and so on. It is a beautiful medium that allows you to address very complicated issues.
Q. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the plight of different sections of the society. So, do you think now more than ever we should start telling stories to bring about change? If yes, where do you think we should start?
- Schools are closed and the media has only been focusing on the number of Covid cases and the vaccine stories while the common people are struggling to survive. Unfortunately, there are issues that are not getting the due attention. I think mass communication should actually be a medium where the masses are involved or where the issues of the masses are getting some sort of representation. It is also really important for active citizens to document these stories on local issues and that’s where citizen journalism comes in. In my opinion, each and every active citizen is an activist. We need to come out of our cocoons, interact with people and talk about issues they face, because unless we do that, we won’t realise how privileged we are.
Q. We know you’ve been a journalist and a communicator as well. How do you think we can improve public communication of science and health in India?
- I think we are struggling with both misinformation and too much information. Most of the time, we don’t have the right kind of information. Also, with respect to science communication, I think people mostly find the sciences very boring, until and unless it is really connected to them. In such a case, we can use comics to communicate messages around health and science. I believe that when somebody is just at the receiving end, they won’t be interested. What you have to do is engage them and make them part of the communication and let them also tell the stories from their own perspective. In this way, you can help them fact-check while teaching them ‘how to tone it down’ or ‘how to simplify it for the layman’, which are also important in science communication.
Q. Grassroots Comics have been giving voice to the marginalized and the previously voiceless for many years now. What potential do you see in this comic movement to scale up in the current as well as the post-Covid world?
- The Grassroots Comics is not just a medium for self-pleasure, it is a medium for the masses, for the community. It is there to make the development discourses more vibrant and strong, engage the silent majority and bring their point of view on the table. For this to happen, they should also be telling their individual stories. So, I make sure that I’m engaging people and encouraging them to tell as many stories as possible. The future of the comics is going to be ‘Comics Journalism’, where the comics will become a part of the grassroots-level field reporting. People will tell and document their stories. You name an issue, there should be a pre-existing comic on it. You name a geographical location or language, you should be able to find comic stories in that specific language or dialect. Lack of a medium does not mean that people don’t have anything to share, they have lots of different points of views. Unfortunately, these are not being documented or not reaching out to the larger printed form. I can see the future of comics as being more democratic.
The Grassroots Comics movement has introduced comics to the masses as a medium of expression, which lets people decide what issues really matter to them on an individual level. This movement has generated thousands of powerful stories on health, livelihood, education, infrastructure, unemployment, mental health, abuse, domestic violence, trafficking, water crisis, and other such issues—all sketched, published and distributed by the people, for the people. These grassroots stories have managed to initiate dialogue and spark debates on a number of levels. We believe this is a revolution that has the potential to change the world, one story at a time. After all, that’s what we call ‘Comics Power’!