A Short History of Khasi Comic Books

Joshua Rynjah on the world of Khasi Comic books

It is very hard to actually begin to categorize and study Khasi Comics. It is an even harder task to actually find the copies of these comics. However, if you are fortunate and lucky enough to find such comics, you become a privileged witness and an amazed observer to the history of the comic book in Meghalaya; specifically the Khasi Comics. In Meghalaya, the comic book art form is very young; starting approximately around the 1980s and from that period until the present date, very few works have emerged.

An excerpt from the illustrated book ‘U Ringo”
An excerpt from the illustrated book ‘U Ringo”

Comic Book artists from that era, i.e., the 1980s include Bah M.K.D Sohtun, Bah W.R.Dkhar, Bah Michael Lyngdoh, Bah Wengsingh Roy Dkhar and many more. Bah S. Koressterwell Majaw emerged as one of the most prolific comic book writer of that period having written for more than 10 Khasi Comics and Shillong Seven Huts Publication as one of the popular publishing houses dealing with Khasi Comics. The relationship between writer and artist is a very important one in comic, graphic or illustrated work and the diversity of Khasi Comic Books can be seen in these collaborations. One of the first Khasi Comics that I came across, I would rather call it an illustration was the book, ‘U Ringo’, written by Bah S. Koressterwell Majaw and illustrated by Bah M.K.D Sohtun. The story follows the growing bond between an abandoned dog and a young boy; their friendship and sacrifices they make for each other.

A popular format in the Khasi comics, which emerged during this era, is the Commando Comics format, i.e. the distinctive 7 × 5½ inch page with each page divided horizontally into two panels. The Commando Comics were black and white with only the cover in colour. All of the Khasi Comics were hand drawn and in black and white and most of them follow the 7 × 5½ inch page format with two panels in each page. Realist art and story was an important factor in the Khasi Comics of the time and that is relevant even to this day. It can be assumed that the realist art of the Commando Comics influenced the writers and artists of the time.

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An excerpt from a Commando Comics with the 7 × 5½ inch page with two panels per page
An excerpt from the comic book ‘U Kiang Nangbah’ by MKD Sohtun in the 7 × 5½ inch page format with two panels per page
An excerpt from the comic book ‘U Kiang Nangbah’ by MKD Sohtun in the 7 × 5½ inch page format with two panels per page
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Excerpts from ‘Ka Saia Nongum’

Khasi Comics from this era were based on historical characters, folktales and myths and fictional characters. Works include U Kiang Nangbah by M.K.D. Sohtun, U Tirot Sing by S. Koressterwell Majaw, Ka Jingkieng Ksiar by S. Koressterwell Majaw with art by Michael Lyngdoh, Ka Saia Nongum by S. Koressterwell Majaw, U Khain bad ka Ngen by B.C. Jyrwa with art by Bah Wengsingh Roy Dkhar, Ki Diengpynkiang Ka Jingieit by S.Koresterwell Majaw with art by Michael Lyngdoh, Ka Shatsngi by Kitbor W. Nongrum with art by R.M. Mukhim and many others.jingkieng-siar-2-470x628

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‘Ka Jingkieng Ksiar’ by S.K. Majaw with art by Michael Lyngdoh

The comic book Ka Shatsngi by Kitbor W. Nongrum with art by R. M. Mukhim (2008) breaks away from the traditional 7 × 5½ inch page format usually used in previous Khasi comic books. It is uses a 3 x 7.5 inch page with each page being further subdivided into 3.5 x 3.5 inches thus allowing for more panels within a single page (some pages carry six panels!). The comic book Ka Shatsngi by Kitbor W. Nongrum is also unique in that it is adapted from a movie Ka Shatsngi directed by the writer himself. This is a very new and unique development because it harmonizes the fixed imagery of art/ comic book with the moving images of film.2

It is rumoured that the Khasi movie Manik Raitong was actually based on the Khasi Comic book Manik Raitong adapted from the Khasi folktale by S. Koresterwell Majaw. It would be interesting to compare the two. However, I have yet to come across the book.u-khain-470x414

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‘U Khain bad Ka Ngen’ by B.C. Jyrwa with art by Bah sensing Roy Dkhar

Over the years many other works have emerged which have taken Khasi Comic Books and illustrations into a new direction. “U Sier Lapalang”, a Khasi folktale retold by Kynpham Sing Nongynrih with art by Maya Ramasay and published Katha, was brought out in 2011. Kynpham Sing Nongynrih’s adaptation of the Khasi folktale “The Legend of U Thlen” was also turned into a graphic story that was published in ‘The Obliterary Journal’ Vol 2 in 2014.  “The Legend of U Sier Lapalang”, another adaptation the Khasi folktale by Joshua Rynjah and Alienleaf Studio was brought out in 2014 and is available on Google Play.

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‘The Legend of U Sier Lapalang’ by Joshua Rynjah and Alienleaf Studio

Social Media has also provided a platform for Khasi writers and artists alike and one example is that of the popular Facebook page “U Mawsawa” by Treibor Mawlong that features his art, illustrations and graphic narratives. Treibor Mawlong‘s graphic narratives reflect on the tradition and culture of the Khasi community and also on the conflict between modernity and tradition in the Khasi society; the impact that ‘development’, ‘urbanisation’ has on the Khasi community. Some of his prominent works include ‘Hungry in Mawphlang’ ‘U Nongdie Dur/The Image Seller – A graphic essay’ published on RAIOT. Treibor Mawlong also works with wood cuts; this, I feel, will have a very important impact on art, comics and illustrations in the Khasi community as it removes the written word and the story is told only through images. (Woodcuts are the predecessors of the modern day comic/graphic novel)

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‘U Nongdie Dur/ The Image Seller – A graphic essay’ by Treibor Mawlong

Another presence on Facebook is the page managed by ‘Mangkara Comics’ (https://www.facebook.com/mangkaracomics/) an upcoming comic book publishing house based in Shillong. It features illustrations both as form of social commentary and humour.

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‘Mangkara Comics’ illustration on role of women in Khasi Society.

However it must be mentioned that cartoons, sketches and illustrations which commented on social and political issues in the country, the state and among the Khasi community had emerged a long time back in the Khasi vernacular media and the most prominent of these is the section “U Thylliej Khlem Shyieng” in the Khasi newspaper “Rupang” established in 1988. It may be noted that the cartoons in “U Thylliej Khlem Shyieng” first emerged as hand drawn caricatures which accentuated the prominent features of the characters drawn in the cartoons. This was unique because around the same time the hand drawn comics were producing more realistic characters and settings. However, in the current editions of Rupang there is a shift to a more digital presentation of the characters and the characters have become more generic.

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A cartoon from ‘U Thylliej Khlem Shyien’ in ‘Rupang’ (30.09.2016)

In terms of children’s illustration, new works have emerged and one of the most prominent is the “The Race of the Rivers” adapted by Esther Syiem with art by Benedict Hynniewta; the book is also available in khasi. This beautifully done work adopts the entire book size as a single panel and as such, the picture flows (like a river) from one page to another; the pages cannot be read or appreciated independently.

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Excerpt from the “Race of the Rivers”

While so much art has emerged over the years, from graphic novels to sketches and cartoons, on cannot disregard the role played by illustrators in the emergence of popular art among the writers and artists both of Khasi books and books in English in the state. Illustrations as seen in the children’s story ‘U Ringo’ served to support the text; bringing to light the events and important characters in the story. Other prominent writers used illustrations to enlighten and educate, as is the case with the book ‘Ka Khih Ka Kamai’ of Bah S. Koresterwell Majaw with illustrations by Michael Lyngdoh. The simple illustrations highlight various aspects of the life of the Khasis.kam-ri-jingri

Donbok T. Laloo, a very important writer and researcher, also used illustrations in some of his books. While his approach was to record and document various cultural and traditional elements in the various villages and communities of the Khasis yet the presentation of the illustrations changed his writings from documentation to one of life and vitality. One interesting illustration is the cover illustration of his book ‘U Pantah’ that draws in the reader and makes the reader curious to know more. This illustration combined with another illustration of the various weapons used by the villagers adds to the interesting elements in the book. (Only the illustrator’s signature is seen in the illustrations and I assume he did the artwork himself)

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Excerpt from ‘Kynjoh Shaphrang, Bynta II’, art by W. Paswett

Many illustrations have been brought out through government publications in the field of adult education, primary education, agriculture, soil and water conservation and on issues of public health. Works include those done by Bah W. Paswet, CIEFL, for the Literacy Society, East Khasi Hills District as part of it adult education programme. In the present time, books for lower primary and upper primary carry many illustrations done by local artists.

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Excerpts from ‘Ka Jingkoit Jingkhiah’ by S.Q. Sumer with art by MS

One prominent work, done as part of the government initiative in social awareness and public health, is ‘Ka Jingkoit Jingkhiah’ by S.Q. Sumer with the illustrations signed by MS (I assume that MS is MKD Sohtun) . In terms of art and illustrations, it moves away from the usual ‘illustration supporting the text’ format. In this work, the text supports the illustration, i.e., without the illustration, the text would make no sense while in most cases even if the illustration is absent the text still has its meaning independent of the art.

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At present, there are many illustrators for the varied works that are produced by religious denominations, government departments, non-governmental organizations, individual publications as well as publications by prominent publishing houses. Note worthy illustrators include MKD Sohtun, Treibor Mawlong, Benjy Syiem, Grover Megam, Casper Syiem’s illustrations in Kong Cassandra’s Syiemlieh’s ‘Ki Phawar Ka Jingim Vol 1’, Benedict Hynniewta’s numerous illustrations and many more. Careen Joplin Langstieh’s illustration of the translation of  Soso Tham’s poem ‘The Golden Duitara’ (translated by Madeline Tham) is a artistic representation of the main theme of some of Soso Tham’s works. The beauty of the art is such that they can be appreciated both as illustrations and as works of fine art.

Illustrations by Careen J Langstieh from the book ‘The Golden Duitara’
Illustrations by Careen J Langstieh from the book ‘The Golden Duitara’

Each work that I have mentioned deserves its own critical appreciation and analysis; one can go in dept to each work’s paneling, script, artwork, style, content, story line and so on. However, it is not possible to do that in a single article. I hope that this article will provide a general over view of art, comics, graphic novels and illustration in the state. There are many other works of art, comics and illustrations that I have yet to come across and I hope that you the reader will feel free to share some of the art work and illustrations which have not been mentioned in this article. Some of them are so rare and unique that they are, to me, masterpieces that have to be preserved for the future generation. We are privileged to be witnesses to these every changing art forms and as we have seen with the emergence of animation; U Syiem (based on the life of U Tirot Sing Syiem) by Cosmic Cluster and ‘NUD – The Mithun Slayer’ by Damanbha Lyngdoh and freelance animator, Benjamin Syiem, there are still newer forms of art making their way into the imagination of the Khasi readers and viewers.

This article first appeared in the website of Mangkara Comics

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Joshua Rynjah Written by:

Joshua Rynjah is an Assistant Professor in the department of English, St. Mary's College Shillong. He is also a writer and an avid art lover.

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