At a time when the “onslaught” of Tom and Jerry, Mickey Mouse, Lee Falk’s Phantom and Flash Gordon comic strips was heavily felt and were an integral part of newspapers, especially in the ’60s, Narayan Debnath, who passed away earlier this week at the ripe age of 97, was a rare combo of longevity and genius. He not only managed to capture the attention of Bengalis with his desi version of heroes, but also stood tall in the world of comics with Handa Bhoda, which appeared for straight 55 years from 1962. Bantul (or Batul) the Great, which made its first appearance in 1965, went on to entertain generations for 52 years. Nonte Phonte, another popular comic by Debnath which came out in 1969 is still relevant in the era of internet.
Folklore has it that Bantul was inspired by Debnath’s friend and noted bodybuilder and the second Indian to win a Mr Universe title, Manohar Aich. Also, many feel that Bantul had a resemblance to Desperate Dan, a popular British comic series called The Dandy.
Nationalism and Debnath
Initially, when Bantul emerged, he was devoid of superpowers, which later became a hallmark of his character. But soon he became our desi ‘Hercules’ with his trademark pink vest and black shorts. Debnath was also capable of infusing innocence into his superhero Bantul who struck the right chord with his ageing relatives and neighbours in distress and appeared to be the guy next door, someone you could depend on.
However, a close look at the metamorphosis of Bantul’s growth as the “invincible protagonist” will reveal that it all began with the Indo-Pak war of 1965 and continued through the Bangladesh War of Liberation in 1971.
While flipping through Bantul comic strips you may often find him single-handedly stopping tanks and diffusing off bombs. His armour-like body was enough to act as a shield and bullets would bounce off his chest. He was also sought by army generals who needed his help.
Bantul, it seemed, literally got involved in the war. He reflected the sentiments of the times and that was when the character excelled. Debnath, many say, perhaps had used his nationalistic instincts to portray Bantul when the country was at war.
However, despite all these heroics, Debnath’s mastery to showcase Bantul as a simple guy and Bantul’s enormous appetite (another USP) or maybe his childish and fun-loving approach to tackle problems with his two famous sidekicks, who were excellent pranksters, amplified the character’s popularity. Along with such traits and several anecdotes, Bantul’s readership soared to unlimited heights and was equally loved by the young and old.
Debnath cannot be gauged without the mention of Handa Bhonda. The characters appeared even before Bantul the Great. In a black and white series, he introduced two teens — Handaram Gorgori, a wicked child (Handa in Bengali means a fool) and Bhondaram Pakrashi (Bhonda in Bengali means being callous).
The other common character in the series was their uncle Becharam Bakshi. The duo was the outcome of Debnath’s keen observation of Bengali middle-class families and their ways. However, even as some critics perceive the same as a version cover of Laurel and Hardy, the essence of Handa-Bhonda’s soul collectively is deeply rooted in Bengali culture and tradition. Again, the simplicity of his characters is something that resonated with the masses. In 1982, the readership figures crossed 2,00,000! Later, the series was adapted for television.
In 2017, when he turned 92, Debnath stopped work on Handa Bhonda. Sadly, even the local media did not make a mention of the fact that Debnath held the world record for creating the longest-running comic strip as a solo writer-artist.
The greatness of Debnath’s achievement with Handa Bhonda can be gauged when compared with two of the world’s most popular and longest comic strips created (written and drawn) by a solo writer-artist are Johnny Hart’s BC (49 years; 1958-2007) and Hank Ketchum’s Dennis the Menace (43 years; 1951-1994).
Among Debnath’s other masterpieces were Nonte-Phonte in a boarding school of a semi-rural town in Bengal. The authority figure in this series was a superintendent of the hostel, who, like Handa Bhonda’s uncle, often bore the brunt of Nonte and Phonte’s countless pranks.
Debnath’s illustrations were striking because of his meticulous detailing. His works were well-researched coupled with authenticated illustrations, which was quite an achievement then, especially without the internet!
Narayan Debnath will remain in the minds of Bengalis as a stalwart in the realms of Bengali literature. His popularity is so immense that even today in any Bengali household if you browse through the bookcase, you are 100 per cent bound to hit upon at least one battered copy of a Narayan Debnath comic!
He will, forever, be known as the Granddad of Bengali literature who gave Bengalis their superheroes.