We need heroes in real life and superheroes in our imaginations. What better to make them one! Most of revere Mr. Universe Manohar Aich and love Batul The Great. What we do not know Batul was born out of the personality of the great body builder himself.
From Manohar ‘Hercules’ Aich to Batul the Great
From Tintin, Nick Fury to Iron Man – many of our beloved comic book characters and superheroes are based or created out of real life characters. Usually the persona of the real life character lays the seed of a similar being that can do much more in the world of storytelling. That is how it all starts.
The start was almost the same for Batul The Great. His creator, the comic strip artist Narayan Debnath had been working in Deb Sahitya Kuthir, the premium book and magazine publisher in Kolkata. He had pursued fine arts at the Indian Art College and at the age of 25, he was he creating comic and illustrations based on stories and translations for the well known children’s magazine Shuktara.
Mostly Debnath had been working on illustrations and ad agencies. At one time, he regularly created ‘slides’ that were used for advertising in cinema halls. He would create advertisement visuals, logos and labels for various products. He had worked for some time as a freelancer. Later he accepted the opportunity to work for a reputed firm like Deb Sahitya Kuthir and get a chance to interact with stalwarts like Pratul Chandra Banerjee, Balai Bandhu Roy and Shailo Chakraborty – the talented illustrators of that time.
In 1962, he got the chance to create his own comic strip Handa Bhonda, on the adventures of two restless boys. It was received well by the readers as they enjoyed the antics of the boys reminding them much about the next door kids.
Nevertheless making comic characters was not at all easy. He had absolutely no training for making cartoons in Art College. While comics look easy and fun, the most difficult part is to make the characters look the same consistently from every angle. He had gained some experience working at Shuktara. However his family profession was that of goldsmiths. He had the sense of aesthetics and art of finesse in his blood. Previously he had illustrated the Bengali version of Helen of Troy and many more classics. But without any learning, it was serious challenge for the artist to create his own story and character. To dedicate his attention and practice to comic making only, Narayan Debnath had to give up his other illustration jobs.
Three years down the line, Narayan Debnath was returning home to Shibpur in Howrah. He had boarded a tram from College Street. As the tram meandered in its own pace, the artist mused over his day. In 1965, India was still a young country and only few Indians made headlines that were international feats. However Manohar Aich was a master of his own and wherever he went, whatever he did, he made his country proud. Instead of being only 4’11’ he had won the Mr. Universe title, the most coveted show for bodybuilders at that time. He was referred around the world as the Pocket Hercules and his strong muscular body inspired lakhs of bodybuilders as well as common people. Narayan Debnath was thinking of this amazing person who was also his friend, when the idea struck him. Why not create a character based on the celebrity?
Batul The Great – Bengali’s local superhero
Bantul or Batul The Great was based on an international star but his origins were very humble. He is very strong and powerfully built but he is your boy next door. A typical Bengali, he relishes fish and sweets. Debnath added delicate humour. Batul is shown to devour a full whale for lunch, showing both his simpleton nature yet his specialty. He is a hero who is helping people and saving lives. He puts his strength to good use. He beats up bank dacoits and the criminals are afraid of him.
Initially Batul was kept for ‘human’. There used to be more characteristics of a super fit guy than any extraordinary powers. His body did not bounce off bullets. These ‘superpowers’ came later and there is a history to it.
In 1971, tensions grew between India and Pakistan. In an effort to help Bangladesh and support the Bangladesh War of Liberation, the war started. As the newspapers ran full of the news of revolution and support of Bangladeshi martyrs, the editors requested Narayan Debnath to mould Batul so that he sounds unbeatable. The artist was confused, he was asked to draw inspiration from Western superheroes to create Eastern motivation. Topping that he worried about copyright issues. After much thought, he borrowed Superman’s bullet-bouncing powers for Batul. He formulated some more extraordinary powers in Batul in the course of time, which promoted him from hero to a superhero.
Narayan Debnath gave Batul superhuman powers but also kept a fine line of amusement. Like bodybuilders Batul is extremely well built and has a great amount of food. so much so that he can have a full whale for food and break any wall!
Perhaps what sets Batul The Great apart from other heroes is his simplicity and a commoner look. He wears a simple vest and shorts and run around barefoot like most young boys would do the then. He is strong but innocent. He faces practical problems due to his extreme strength.
Machines break down easily in his brawny hands making him feel helpless making it difficult to finish his task. He is a very warm hearted person ready to believe and help anyone. His language is colloquial yet extremely enjoyable.
Narayan Debnath’s creations
Narayan Debnath is the father of Batul The Great, Nonte Phonte and Handa Bhonda. What binds them together is his ground-to-earth approach. All these characters look like any other boy you would see in the ‘paras’ of Bengal. Mischievous, curious and adventurous they are always up to something. In their exploits, most of the time they end up as troublemakers. Even in humour, Narayan Debnath subtle signals his readers that good always wins over evil. Through his boys Nonte Phonte and Handa Bhonda he indicates that being evil does not pay off.
Narayan Debnath was a pioneer. While it is very easy to copy others work, true artists like him create their own masterpiece. In his effort to give life to his imagination, he dedicated his full attention to his work. He was not thinking about payoffs against investment. He loved what he did. Fully.
It is the result of his dream and his belief in his dream that we have Batul the Great forever etched in our memory. Even as we grow up, we still love Handa Bhonda.
The truth is, deep inside us we are all Batuls and Handa Bhondas.
Here is a rare documentary on the much-loved artist Narayan Debnath.
Credits: parabaas.com/PB22/LEKHA22/bNarayan22.html, Wikipedia