January 19, 1966, was the day the country elected its very first and only female Prime Minister to date, the late Smt. Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi. Fifty-two years hence, a little girl named Indira Thapa is on a quest to uncover her namesake’s story, and find answers to the eternal and plaguing question in Indian politics, but more importantly, for her immediate school assignment – What’s in a name? Author Devapriya Roy and Illustrator Priya Kuriyan enlighten readers on this very question through their Graphic Biography Indira which recounts the life of Indira Gandhi in a time which can only be described as the most formative decades of Indian politics. SheThePeople.TV converses with the Context authors about their book.

Image Credit: Context, Amazon.in

 It all started with Karthika V.K., the Publisher at Context. Karthika had wanted to publish a graphic biography of Indira Gandhi – in honour of the past Prime Minister’s birth centenary – and it was she who thought that Devapriya Roy and Priya Kuriyan would work well together. Roy’s generation had a headlines-only approach to the late Prime Minister’s life – Nehru’s daughter; Bangladesh; Emergency; Bluestar – and Priya knew Indira Gandhi mostly through textbooks. On further reading, they found Mrs Gandhi to be a really complex human being – the layers and shades being more appealing than the headlines. Both Priya and Devapriya connected to Indira Gandhi. “She had gumption. That really spoke to us,” they say.

Both Priya and Devapriya connected to Indira Gandhi. “She had gumption. That really spoke to us,” they say.

 Many books brought alive that time for them – autobiographies of people who worked with Indira Gandhi or were in the opposition, but also a few works of fiction, whose setting or cast of characters recreated those years and mirrored the ways of speaking, time-specific cultural references, and so on. They have added a brief bibliography but that is only about a third of the books they used over the research period. Among the recent biographies of Mrs Gandhi, Jairam Ramesh’s was an important one because it shone a light on a hitherto little-known aspect of Mrs Gandhi’s contribution to India: conservation. The libraries at Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust and Teen Murti are treasure troves where Devapriya Roy spent hours, poring over now-out-of-print books and magazines.

Priya has recreated details from Indira Gandhi’s various homes in the text: the wooden pelmets and the crazy china-studded verandah from Swaraj Bhawan, Mrs Gandhi’s study in 1 Safdarjung Road and the Central Hall of the Parliament House.

 On the visual front, Priya Kuriyan’s pictorial research was far-ranging too. She observed hundreds of images of Indira Gandhi over the years, and newspaper and magazine art of the time, to get various visual details right. Roy and Kuriyan watched many interviews of Mrs Gandhi – to study her expressions – and spent several days wandering about Allahabad and Delhi, transported to her times. Priya has recreated details from Indira Gandhi’s various homes in the text: the wooden pelmets and the crazy china-studded verandah from Swaraj Bhawan, Mrs Gandhi’s study in 1 Safdarjung Road and the Central Hall of the Parliament House. Key details of the originals are present in the art. Kuriyan took hundreds of photographs in their research trips. According to Priya, visual research is extremely important. When visual references aren’t available, one has to imagine what would be ‘in character’ of the book and then draw it without it looking incongruous.

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra very generously shared stories about her grandmother that have never appeared anywhere else

 And, finally, adding an invaluable edge to Devapriya Roy and Priya Kuriyan’s research, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra very generously shared stories about her grandmother that have never appeared anywhere else, shining a luminous light into Indira Gandhi – the person.

 Indira is, at heart, a serious biography. Devapriya and Priya tell the story of Indira Gandhi’s life in 160 pages and also provide a frame of reference for younger generations to understand it. All the panels in the book depict the biography while the prose chapters interleaving the graphic chapters are fictional and depict how the graphic chapters came into being.  

First, Devapriya would write a chapter from the biography part in prose – with all the references, the dates and the details spelled out. Priya would then convert that chapter into a visual narrative. She would add relevant bits of the prose chapter as text and Devapriya would write the final text to the images afterwards. Both would have inputs for the text and images.

Priya’s process of creating a graphic novel is explained through Priyadarshini the artist while some of the darker elements of her psyche are transposed from Devapriya’s tendencies.

Indira Thapa isn’t the only new character we meet in this graphic biography. Ms Reema Das – Indira Thapa’s teacher in is a sort of tribute to youngsters who take time off to teach and learn. The character is loosely based on a very young friend of Priya’s, Shreemayee Das. We also meet Priyadarshini – the Graphic Designer. Priya’s process of creating a graphic novel is explained through Priyadarshini the artist while some of the darker elements of her psyche are transposed from Devapriya’s tendencies.

 Devapriya and Priya learned great lessons in patience and staying the course while working on Indira. Their advice to authors and illustrators working on daunting projects such as Indira is, “Image by image, sentence by sentence, it will get done. But whatever time you estimated, try doubling that!”

Stories about women who manage to get a hold on so much power are rare and few, and hence it’s important for future generations of women to see that it is indeed possible to achieve that kind of power.

Priya Kuriyan thinks that stories about women who manage to get a hold on so much power are rare and few, and hence it’s important for future generations of women to see that it is indeed possible to achieve that kind of power, and that it is possible for women too to be consumed by it and make mistakes like anyone else. She thinks it’s important to always look back and seek a complete picture of past leaders – be it their flaws or what is truly inspirational about them.

Through Indira, Devapriya Roy and Priya Kuriyan wish for people to understand the sense of resilience in India and the sense of hope. Part of going with a graphic biography was to create something through which people could actually experience Indira Gandhi’s life vividly and to feel as though they were living through it themselves. And most importantly, to know the woman behind the name.

Indira, by Devapriya Roy (Author) and Priya Kuriyan (Illustrator), has been published by Context. It is priced at Rs.374 and is available online and in bookstores.

Also Read: Indira Gandhi Was Unhappy Most Of Her Life: Sagarika Ghose

Feature Picture Credit: The Hindu
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