How a 35-page letter turned into a graphic novel told in Madhubani

It is a few weeks after the Hindi children’s magazine Chakmak published the final episode of ‘Biksu’, an illustrated story about a young boy who comes of age at a boarding school in Jharkhand. The story’s illustrator and creator, Rajkumari, has just received an important call from her publisher’s office in Bhopal. On the line, a little girl’s voice pipes up, asking: “When will Biksu come back?”

The girl has been pestering her father all day about Biksu. She wants to know what happens next. Similar responses pour in from across the Hindi-speaking belt for Rajkumari and Chakmak. Teachers call, thanking the two for creating an accessible story for students. Adivasi children declare they relate to Biksu very much. Everyone wants to know what happens next. That’s when Rajkumari knows she has created something special.

Biksu, the new graphic novel published by Ektara, is the artistic culmination of all the 22 episodes written by Rajkumari and Varun Grover for Chakmak. It takes us through the growing-up years of Vikas Kumar Vidyarthi, affectionately called Biksu, at a residential school run by Jesuit priests. The reader accompanies Biksu as he grows from a deeply homesick little boy to a teenager about to find his place in the world. Along the way, we are introduced to a host of interesting characters: Biksu’s friend Nag, the bumbling Gudmudiya Sir, and a deeply empathetic priest named Father Johannes. It captures the innocence of childhood in its myriad forms. Every aspect is memorably depicted, from attempts to find bathing water during a scorching summer to the awe at being gifted a football.

How a 35-page letter turned into a graphic novel told in Madhubani

The genesis of the book lies in a 35-page letter that the adult Biksu wrote to one of his sisters. It was such a powerful outflow of emotion and narrative that it gained legendary status in his family. His first cousin, the book’s creator Rajkumari, remembers reading it in a daze. She handed the letter to her husband, the Bollywood scriptwriter Grover, and he too read it one go. That’s when they decided to convert Biksu’s evocation of his childhood days into something more tangible.

A love story

Somewhere along the line, as she crafted the tale, it also became Rajkumari’s tale — a product designer who trained at NIFT, Hyderabad, and her explorations as an artist. Rajkumari turned to Madhubani, an art form she had long been drawn to, as the medium for Biksu’s story. After graduation, Rajkumari had turned to folk art to express herself. By her own admission, she found the lack of control in canvas painting ‘terrifying’. Some of the earliest works she produced in Madhubani were, therefore, scenes sketched from famous Bollywood movies. “It’s not like I am an artist who decided to make a book,” she says. “I was a designer who fell in love with a letter and with an art form, and I wanted to communicate something very deeply, so I explored that.”

According to Rajkumari, folk art is abstract in that it is neither about ‘imagination nor reality’. A bird in a Madhubani painting is neither real nor fictional. There is no logic behind its shape or colour. It is derived from feeling. Rajkumari remembers being astonished by a Gond painting depicting three lions. “It was so colourful and gol (round)!” she exclaims, completely at odds with the image of the lion. When she began telling Biksu’s story through Madhubani, she realised that the simplicity of the form perfectly matched the tale’s idyllic purity. Still, to arrive at this, she had to undergo a rapid unlearning. “You have to leave behind your normal perceptions about art,” she says.

A page from ‘Biksu’.

A page from ‘Biksu’.
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Language seemed to pose a conundrum. The graphic novel is written entirely in Chota Nagpuri, a dialect of Hindi spoken in parts of Jharkhand. It was the language Biksu spoke at home. Rajkumari was worried it might not be acceptable for publication, given the demand for ‘shuddh Hindi’ (pure Hindi). However: “If I wrote in standard Hindi, Biksu would disappear. He never spoke like that,” she says. Luckily, a children’s magazine allowed more liberty than, say, a Hindi textbook. But neither Rajkumari nor Grover spoke the dialect; they had to rely on Biksu’s brother, Vivek Kumar Vidyarthi, for vocabulary. But by the last episode, Rajkumari could write Chota Nagpuri as if it were her own tongue.

Perhaps it is fitting that Biksu ends with the very first paragraph of her cousin’s letter. Where he describes the first time he learned the Hindi alphabet.

The author is an independent writer based in Mumbai


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