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April 05, 2019

Two Instagram Artists On Making A Meaningful Impact Through Their Art

Text by Tina Dastur

Lines, scribbles and lots of humour are the tools of trade that fuel the creations of Sailesh Gopalan of Brown Paperbag Comics and Harshveer Jain of Storyseller Comics.

A Bag Full Of Fun
Even as a child, Sailesh Gopalan, the founder of the Instagram strip Brown Paperbag Comics, loved reading comics, watching animated shows and replicating the characters on paper. Outlining where his interest in doodling stemmed from, the 22-year-old says, “My parents tell me I’ve been drawing since I was a toddler. They’ve still kept some of my early drawings, so I’ll take their word for it. I grew up reading Indian comic books like Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha and international ones like Tintin, Asterix and Archie Comics, among others. My interests kept evolving, and so did my artistic style. I had a long phase of referencing anime and manga characters as well, from shows like Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z. I later got into comic strips like Calvin and Hobbes and Pearls Before Swine, both of which helped me shape my aesthetic and comedic style.”

On the choice of the name for his handle, he states, “Do you remember those old cartoons where characters would put a brown paper bag on their heads to hide their faces out of utter embarrassment? That was the idea I started out with, but ‘brown’ also resonated with the colour associated with us Indians. Most importantly, though, the name just had a nice ring to it, so I went ahead with it.”

Swipe through any of Brown Paperbag’s strips, and what will instantly strike you more than the quintessentially Indian characters are the extremely relevant themes, which spotlight the many eccentricities of Indian families as well as the hypocrisies and idiosyncrasies of our society, but all in a light-hearted manner. For Bengaluru-based Sailesh, choosing to highlight these issues was a deliberate option. Most of the comic strips he’d seen in newspapers and on social media were all too political, and the Srishti Institute of Design graduate wanted to look at something altogether different. Evidently, his reasoning paid off, and Brown Paperbag Comics currently has a staggering following of 2,41,000 people.

Sailesh’s creative process is pretty straightforward. He underlines, “It starts with a topic, which I convert into a working narrative in my mind. I then try to represent it in a series of panels. Once I’ve got clarity on the idea, I start by making a rough sketch, which I generally end up editing a lot to make the narrative more cohesive. The entire process takes roughly two to three hours, depending on the amount of detail I put in. I’ve always enjoyed the liberty that comes with running a webcomic instead of a published one because I get to decide when I want to post an update,” he states.

The content and characters of Brown Paperbag Comics are easy to relate to. But it is its “neat, simple and expressive aesthetic”, as Sailesh puts it, “coupled with an absence of detail and paired with selective emphasis” that make for a good visual story. And neither can one discount Sailesh’s wry but witty captions that accompany each strip. In fact, he now has readers telling him they look forward to his captions more than his comics, which, he laughs, “is obviously a well-intentioned compliment, but also a little hurtful!”

Sailesh, who is currently crushing on Shen Comix and Mr. Lovenstein, believes that a good comic strip is defined entirely by its content — “Some comics work best without well-defined characters and some rely on established characters. Some tell a million stories with nothing but stick figures while others portray heart-warming events without a single dialogue. It’s all about finding the right mix.”

Sailesh, more than simply putting out amusing content, also uses his page as a platform to reach out to those suffering from mental health issues. Some time ago, he uploaded a series of Instagram stories urging people with mental health problems to reach out to him. Admitting that it could take him a while to respond, he mentions that he definitely makes it a point to reply to everyone who got in touch. He emphasises, “The realisation that I could make use of the platform that I’ve built to reach out to people in need, to the best of my abilities, convinced me to do what I can at this point in my life. It’s not much, but I’m glad I’ve been of some use to some of the lovely people who have helped me reach where I am today.”

Getting Sticky
As a schoolkid, I vividly remember spending time in class idly scribbling on the last page of my notebooks. Over time, these sketches progressed from Noughts and Crosses and Hangman games to more sophisticated caricatures. Comic strip artist Harshveer Jain’s passion for doodling was sparked in a similar manner. “Attribute it to my lack of interest in classrooms, where, instead of taking notes, I’d be drawing stuff. The pen kept moving, but in the place of words, there were doodles,” explains the 26-year-old.

In July last year, Harshveer decided to start creating these little strips in a more focused manner, and thus, the Instagram handle Storyseller Comics was born. Shedding light on the inspiration behind the rather self-explanatory name, he says, “I like telling stories. I have always been writing, whether it’s poetry or articles. The page is about stories in any and every form.”

If you scroll through Storyseller’s Instagram page, what will strike you almost immediately are the quirky stick figures — and the occasional ‘doggo’ — against pastel, uncluttered backgrounds. When asked about his almost minimalist aesthetic, Harshveer outlines, “I am not that great when it comes to drawing. Even the stick figures take a toll on me! On a serious note though, I like stick figures because they allow me to highlight one key aspect of the character while keeping everything else minimal.” When you view a strip as a whole, you quickly understand why he has dispensed with extravagantly-designed characters — his message is strong, and delivered simply.

Even though Storyseller Comics is only under a year old, Harshveer has successfully managed to tackle an assortment of topics that range from love and relationships to ‘adulting’ and just casual humour. Expanding on why he works with these themes, the doodler states, “There are stories everywhere. So, I try to look for them in my life and the lives of the people around me. It’s this alternate universe that runs in my head while living my regular life that excites me.”

And one can’t discount the effort that goes into creating his series, especially considering Harshveer works a full-time job at Mumbai-based digital magazine, Qrius (formerly The Indian Economist) as chief growth officer. He quips, “Short answer, I WhatsApp ideas to myself and creative expression usually happens late at night when sleep is eluding me. I normally make some coffee and start sketching. I started out with one comic strip a week, but of late, I’ve been trying to do three to four.” He elaborates, “The long answer to how I create the strips is that it is a four-step process. Hunting is the first: this part starts with a feeling of panic and anxiety about life. I can hardly sleep unless I have ‘created’ something during the day. My brain refuses to shut down. There’s this hunger. That’s when I start hunting for ideas from amongst my experiences. Preparation comes next: once I latch on to something, I start testing different scripts, punch lines and characters to represent the idea. When I make myself laugh, I know I have the recipe. Cooking follows suit: this is the tough part. I am to graphic art what Maggi is to French cuisine. I know what I want to say, I know how I want to say it, but having to draw it out kills me. I still manage to scrape through, though. As long as the art is presentable, I am happy. And finally, there’s the garnishing: I know I can write well. So, every time I finish a strip, I spend some time thinking of around four lines of poetry to go with it. That’s when I feel like the work is ready to be posted.”

Harshveer’s personal favourite comic strip pages include xkcd comics (an Instagram account filled with stick figures that are even more stripped-down versions of his) because “both the ideas and content are hauntingly beautiful” and Zen Pencils, whose artwork he jokes “are worth sticking on national monuments”. This makes me wonder — what makes up a good comic strip? The artist reveals, “Theoretically, it depends on the audience. I have come across beautifully illustrated stuff with absolutely no substance and amazing storylines with absolutely no aesthetic sensibility whatsoever. But, both types are adding to people’s lives. That’s art, so I can’t really comment on which style is better.”

I ask Harshveer what his plans for the strip are for the foreseeable future. “Making some money would be cool. Right now, other parts of life are funding this. That said, I want to make the doodling aspect of my life somewhat self-sufficient, so there is no guilt involved if I spend more than a few hours a day creating my comics. In the longer run, if I could, I’d want to be known as a storyteller through books, poems and comics…. And I think this page is a great starting point for that dream,” he discloses. As much as he enjoys creating these comic strips, Harshveer clarifies that he does not look at it as a job: “If this were a job, it would kill me. There is immense introspection involved. It’s tough. But since I do it sporadically, for an hour or two every other day, I enjoy it: the introspection, revisiting my own thoughts and, of course, the appreciation. I am a sucker for appreciation, so each like on a post is like a little happiness boost.”

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