We talk to cartoonist Arghya Manna about how he draws the history of Indian science, in comics. Listen to the episode here. GV: Hi there! Welcome to Chatroom 18, your bonus episode on Scrolls & Leaves. MRA: And just a quick programming note – this is the last in our series of Chatrooms, thanks so much for listening. Do stay tuned for season 1 – coming up soon. GV: These are our immersive sound episodes. Join us on the silk route and on ocean voyages across the Indian Ocean World. GV: But getting back to our bonus episode today — we’ll talk to an Indian cartoonist, who’s one of the only artists to draw the history of Indian science.
Arghya Manna: My name is Argha mana, it’s the pronunciation is Arghya. So there is a Y in my name, but during secondary examination, the government lost the Y, so I didn’t go to the court and didn’t correct it so that’s, that’s why it’s Argha, but it’s actually Arghya. Okay, so that’s my name and I’m a cartoonist
MRA: Arghya used to be a scientist researching cancer, but he now lives in Howrah, West Bengal, working as a journalist. But his real passion is after hours … drawing comics. GV: Arghya runs a blog called Drawing the History of Science, and he’s artistically collaborated with the University of Oslo, the Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies, the University of Exeter … and his comic on the transmission of Covid19 was chosen as one of the best of 2020 by the Journal of the American Medical Association, a renowned medical journal. And amazingly, he’s self-taught. GV: We chatted last month — while we were all indoors like cloistered monks, hiding out from Covid. Our chat has been edited and condensed. MRA: You’ll hear about famine in colonial Bengal, and Arghya’s approach to depicting it in comics…
Arghya: British systematically actually destroyed the peasant society, and then the artisans… one by one, East India Company destroyed every social layer, every economic layer. So, then in 1767 or 68 there was a scarcity of rain, famine happened.
MRA: India’s indigenous graphic novelists – called pata-chitrakars, who first draw their art, and then sing it MRA: Arghya’s artistic process…
Arghya: Whatever is the day, it’s bad or good. I have any commission work or not. I have a routine to sit on my desk.
MRA: And how Indian artisans contributed to Western science
Arghya: the indigenous knowledge actually was the shoulder the modern science is standing
MRA: This is Chatroom 18 – Drawing the History of Indian Science. I’m Mary-Rose Abraham. GV: And I’m Gayathri Vaidyanathan. GV: We have a small request — we’re an independently funded podcast, so if you like what you’re hearing, why not consider donating? Details on our website, scrollsandleaves.com ** GV: OK, let’s start at the height of action — in 1767, on the banks of the Hooghly River, at Palashi. Near Calcutta. The British East India Company defeats the Indian Nawab and takes over Bengal. It’s a defining moment — after this, the entire subcontinent – that’s modern-day Myanmar, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan – will fall to the British. MRA: 2 years after the war, in 1769 — the Great Bengal Famine begins. One of many to come…the history of colonial India is scattered with famine and mass casualties. 10 million people died in this one. There’s a project at the University of Exeter, in the UK, called “Famine Tales”, which explores the cultural history of famine in India and Britain. The scholars have assembled an archive on famine accessible to everyone online. And last year, the team invited Arghya and five other artists to pick material from the archive and interpret it visually.
Arghya: when you go to the internet and search for visuals about famine India. You will see pictures by Sunil Janah, during the partition, or the artwork by Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, Porsche, or the artwork by Somnath Hore or Zainul Abedin. They are the prolific artists to document famine during partitions and Second World War. And this all of these artworks were about human suffering, dead bodies on the road. F from the very beginning, I was very certain that I will not repeat that.
Okay, so I wanted to create something new, but I was at the time really very confused.
GV: So, Arghya and his collaborator, Debkumar Mitra of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, turned to a book called the Annals of Rural Bengal, written by William Hunter in 1868 — a century after the Great Bengal Famine.
Arghya: Hunter was a East India Company officials, a civil servant in Bengal posted in Birbhum district in Suri, and he was from his heart was a historian, not a government employee. So he wanted to document History of Bengal village through the lens of famine, because when he visited India another famine was happening in Odisha –in 1867 or 70s at that time, Odisha, Bihar and Madras famine happened in late 19th century. So, there are several famines in the latter half of the 19th century. So, what Hunter did, he experienced that famine as a first person and he actually wrote a history of a famine, 100 years before.
GV: Arghya and Debkumar studied the text for 9 months, but were still confused…
Arghya: what we should draw? what would be our central attraction in our story?
GV: And at that point, Arghya turned to a more contemporary expert on famine. Amartya Sen, an economist at Harvard University.
Arghya (41:05): So I was really moved by the book written by Professor Amartya Sen. In 1981. It was poverty and famine, it was a classic and later, he got Nobel Prize in Economic science. So in this book, Professor Sen challenged is the concept of a index called FAD, food availability decline. Before him, every famine historian or famine researcher or economist used to use that index to define a famine — the food availability decline, But Sen challenged that concept, he actually brought various layers, like the political turmoils, the role of the government, and, and many other things like how the peasant society was working, how the artisanal society was working at the time, and the economic pyramid in the society, there are many layers.
How a famine could happen, it is not just not scarcity of rain and famine happen,So availability of food is also dependent on the transport of food, like some section of people are siphoning food or foodgrain from the greater section of society, then famine could happen also.So this different multi-layer concept, Professor Sen brought in his book.
Then I thought, Okay, so let’s follow his trail, because he’s the most trusted guy defining famine in world. So, let’s redefine that Bengal famine through Professor Sen’s lens. So, we studied how at the time the economic pyramid was, the transaction between peasants and the Zamindars, and other sections of the societies like nawabs in Delhi. So, I created a map how the economic transition happens– Then I thought if you block the transport of food from one area to another area, so one area can fall into famine conditions. So, I studied the transport system like boats… there was many rivers and water bodies in Bengal. So, boat system was the main transport system. So, I studied that.
MRA: And before the Great Bengal Famine, the British had increased taxation of peasants drastically, and pushed them to grow cash crops such as indigo or poppy to be exported for the opium trade. Peasants were deep in debt. Then I thought okay, so, how the peasant society was behaving. And British systematically actually destroyed the peasant society, their their integrity, they destroyed it. So, and the artisans… one by one, actually East India Company destroyed every social layer, every economic layer..So, then whenlate 1767 when there was a scarcity of rain, famine happened. MRA: And the graphic novel that Arghya’s made is quite a unique treatment of all this. It’ll be released by the University of Exeter next month — we’ll update you on our Instagram when it’s out. GV: Arghya says that indigenous artists from Bengal, from a village called Naya, were also part of the Famine Tales project. They are called pata-chitrakars and they are the indigenous graphic novelists of India. Arghya: it’s the kind of amalgamation of illustration and the performing art. So they first illustrate the story on a silk or a piece of cloth, it’s a huge artwork, n eight feet, 10 feet or 12 feet or more than, that piece of cloth. The pata-chitrakars will show you the drawings, in parallel they’ll sing. it’s fascinating experience. GV: Here’s a clip of five artists performing the Krishna Lila – a story of love between Radha and Krishna. The artists are Manimala Chitrakar, Rani Chitrakar, Prabir Citrakar, Malek Chitrakar, Baharjan Chitrakar https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jzl-VueUAUg&t=84s – 30-45 sec> ** MRA: So, before drawing, Arghya puts in months of research. And the final magic happens at Arghya’s desk… we wanted to know about him, where he draws, how he’s coping with COVID…
Argya: I have a working desk, here in my apartment. So, it’s kind of messy is messy, isn’t it? lots of collections of pens, inks, pencils here. I just love drawing on paper. But before starting that, I think for hours or sitting quietly on my desk. I’m an old style guy. So So I draw on paper, mostly on my desk, and I scan it, I colour them using Photoshop, or the hand drawn colour, like watercolor, acrylic, and pastels.
Whatever is the day, it’s bad or good. I have any commission work or not. I have a routine to sit on my desk. It’s kind of a routine night. Every day I sit in the chair in front of my desk and I think then I start drawing or sometimes I watch some videos from masters I love, their interviews, to season myself before I start drawing.
MRA: That’s a great practice. So who are the masters who inspire you?
Argya: since I’m a cartoonist, my favourite cartoonist is Joe Sacco. Joe Sacco is a comics journalist, actually he single handedly created this field — comics journalism, is famous author of Palestine,he loves to work in conflict zone, very different from my work, And since I love history,
So I there are two artists — one is a Chinese artist, contemporary artist — Sun Xun I really love his drawing. He actually love to depict the Cultural Revolution from China and what is happening in China. I think HE is the one of the best artists who actually can portray history through his art.
His work is very true, very honest. I really want to work, want to follow his trail, but still am searching outside and experimenting? How can I bring his style and style or the philosophy or the model drawn in drawing science or science history.
And my all time favourite artist is William Kentridge from South Africa. his famous work is related to Einstein’s theory of time, I also love is drawing from apartheid in South Africa, They are my biggest inspirations.
GV: Has COVID affected your work? How are you coping?
Arghya: as an artist, I want to be more expressive. I in the last in the last year, we saw disastrous scenario about migrant worker, I really wanted to do something big, or something, something more expressive on that piece, but I couldn’t do that.
Like, at that time, I just really didn’t have any resources. I was locked down in my room. I was running out of my art material.
I would say the COVID situation, the tension I have. I have a kid in my home. So I’m also tensed. So the the what kind of drawing a drawing I want to produce, the artwork I want to produce, I cannot do that.
** MRA: Arghya’s been looking more and more into the contributions of Indian knowledge to scientific thought. His city, after all, was at the center of colonial science in India –
Arghya: So in colonial India, the Calcutta was the center so that’s I am also very much interested, it’is my city also just three miles away from my home.
I want to dig out science in the colonial Calcutta, in my city. So there are many unknown figures, their histories are buried in the archives of Asiatic Society and other local archives. So now I’m more confident about my experiment drawing history and science. So now I think I can portray less lesser known figures.
The layer I’m most interested is the role of the artisan in developing science, that by indigenous knowledge practice, even in the Europe, the artisans actually were the early scientists,
there is a book I read, called the Body of the Artisans, as it was written by Pamela Smith, And the concept was, the concept is that in the early modern Europe, the blacksmiths, the goldsmiths, the metal workers, or the painters, the color makers, pigment makers, they actually knew they knew the science and the alchemists okay. So, they were the artisans who are the makers in society, the philosophers– the elite people– they got their recipes and converted that recipes into modern science, but actually it was started from that recipes, the local knowledge.
So in Calcutta It was also true. Okay, there are early printmakers and the metal workers in Bengal,a diverse culture of the artisanal practice who deals with the stones, how to make things from stones. The various metals, the weavers, they knew the science behind how to produce silk. So in this way, the indigenous knowledge was the actually shoulder the modern science is standing.
So I’m still researching on that and due to COVID…to report this kind of story and document this kind of story You need to travel right. But now travel is banned. So I am just sitting in waiting and reading materials from archives and planning. So I hope in the near future, I can finish this project.
*** GV: Finally, there’s something I’ve been curious about. There just aren’t that many illustrations in ancient Indian science. Take Ayurveda, for example… the earliest known is the Ayurvedic Man, an illustration from the 17th century.. If you think that’s rather recent for ayurveda, a science that’s 1000s of years old, you’d be right. So, I asked Arghya why scientific illustrations are such a new thing …
Arghya: I have …two theories in my mind., one theory is dominated by what European historians said already even in Europe, in the beginning, art was not very much used in conveying science or documented science, one historian actually blamed Pliny. Okay, the great Roman historian and the scholar.
Because at the time, art was very ephemeral thing, At that time, the colour people used was from the natural resources like flowers, the grasses, the paint from the flowers and the pigments from the chemicals, the yellow pigments from the urine, also, so the drawing was not permanent. scholars told that since the art is an ephemeral thing, it is not necessary or adequate to convey science. So it’s has to be written in words.
later, when the printing technology was developed. Okay, so art became permanent. So there is a beautiful term used by Bruno Latur, the famous history of French historian, it’s “immutable mobile.” So when the printing technology came, the words, and the drawing became immutable, and it became mobile. So through printed books, in the early modern period, the science with illustrations actually traveled all around the world, okay. Then it become permanent, because people knew that Okay, now, it’s not ephemeral. Now it’s going to stay. Then again, in Italian Renaissance, some artwork created by Leonardo and then the northern renaissance in Germany, Albercht Durer, they created some beautiful stuff and it’s influenced the later generation a lot. So, then art, art became an important part of conveying science. So, it was the story of Europe.
GV: And what about India?
Arghya: Now in India, in India in the early period, In India or the Asia was through the oral knowledge…in Mahabharata and Ramayana also it was not written for the many years.
just like that, there are many versions – other medical, old medical text and the other scientific texts also …because it was not written, it was not printed, of course, so they really didn’t use drawings.
Later when they started document, Pliny’s philosophy was also there,
MRA: Just interjecting to remind you that Pliny’s position was that art is too ephemeral to be used for documentation purposes…
Arghya: through the Silk Route, the philosophers of Greece, Asia Minor and India they’re all connected. And it’s my theory …that it’s not written, there is no hard evidence, they actually practised similar kind of philosophies like — drawing is like you are observing nature in front of your eyes, which is not everything, because in our Upanishad, also, it’s the world is one. everything is philosophical, which we can see in front of our eyes is not real.
So this kind of philosophical concepts was practised in the Asia and the Greece and the Rome, the Europe also through the Silk Route. So they really didn’t document it it on paper, what they see, they actually tried to understand it, they try to write about it in poems, not in prose, even.
Like our old texts are in original poems, the sloks. So that’s why in the ancient period, there is no document documentation of scientific illustrations.
But I think that story, this picture is not complete, because again, what we think about scientific illustrations, is through the lens of the Western science. okay, like illustrating a scientific piece, juxtaposed to the text in a book, printed from ordinary hand drawn manuscripts. But perhaps, at the time, in many cultures, they convey scientific thoughts through tapestry, or something written on a wall, or in temples. Like in Angkor Wat, or in Asia, there are many temples that there are pictures of trees, and the herbs are inscribed on the wall.
Also I saw, on internet, the Bayeux tapestry in France, that this is a century old tapestry from the Middle Ages, people really documented solar system and other stars, movement of stars and comets actually,
at that time, the tapestry and picture in the temples, charts, and other other places, as the sculpture — we need to look into that why people really created that.
So these are also scientific illustration or scientific art, these are the different mode, I think we haven’t understand understood it completely. And we are just focusing on the picture drawn on the paper just like we modern people are doing. But at that time there, the artistic practice to convey science was more diverse, and we are yet to understand it.
MRA: You were listening to Arghya Manna on Chatroom 18 on Scrolls & Leaves. For more information and other episodes, visit scrollsandleaves.com, or follow us on Twitter at scrollsleaves, or on Instagram at scrolls and leaves, or like us on Facebook. Do stay tuned for fresh episodes coming up in season 1. See you then!