Comics and development? What's the link, you might just as well ask. But a small band of campaigners and cartoonists are making a connection between these two seemingly disparate fields.

Delhi-based cartoonist Sharad Sharma sees strong possibilities. Inspired by the example of countries like Finland, Sharma is now going ahead to tell stories in bold brush strokes. He explains how the Finnish cartoonist Leif Packalen passed on the idea to them in 1998. Since then, his network called World Comics India held workshops in the remote areas of tribal Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Tamilnadu, and the North East. Charkha, which has been providing training to rural journalists since 1994, started using cartoons and comic strips in development communication in 1997. The Bangalore-based Communication for Development and Learning recently came out with a slim book titled 'Devtoons: Cartoons for Development'.

Problems in communicating a message in an effective way have caused immense frustration to development workers. How can people be taught new skills at a low cost? What would be a good way to deal with sensitive topics such as health issues? How can complicated new research, like that in agriculture for example, be simplified so that ordinary people can benefit? "One option is the use of comics. Obviously, in order to achieve the desired results, these comics should be created locally. Comics involve visual story-telling, which must follow local perceptions and visual culture in order to be understood correctly. Engaging local activists and artists to create these comics therefore makes sense, in getting across information to grown-up readers," explains Sharma.

Sharma started his career in painting. But he found this "quite expensive for a middle-class family" and joined a local newspaper during his first year in college. He started both cartooning and reporting, then moved to Jaipur, where he worked with state-level newspapers as a political cartoonist. In 1995, he moved to New Delhi, visited many north-eastern states, and did "lots of stories and cartoons". Since 1999, he has been with Zee News as a cartoonist/animator, produced political animation for their channel, and also contributed political cartoons for their website.

"Comics involve visual storytelling, which must follow local perceptions and visual culture in order to be understood correctly. Engaging local activists and artists to create the comics therefore makes sense, in getting across information to grown-up readers." -- Sharad Sharma
Since then, he explains, he and like-minded persons have "conducted a series of workshops with different organisations. During this period, we felt the need for one organisation dedicated for visual communications especially for comics. This is how World Comics India was formed." World Comics India (WCI), a registered non-profit, was formed in June 2002 by a group of artists, media persons and social activists, who wanted to promote the use of comics as a medium in social change.

What kinds of issues are comics best suited for? Sharma explained in a recent interview: "In our workshops we never ask participants to select any specific issue for their comics. We just ask them to write a story which is close to their day to day life; all stories cover all such developmental issues. In Jharkhand, stories coming up mostly touch migration, displacement, tribal rights, 'witch' hunting, alcoholism and corruption. In Mizoram, it's HIV/AIDS, jhum (shifting) cultivation, and the environment that often figure. Even sensitive issues like sex education and insurgency can be told through the medium of comics."

The response, says he, was intense. He believes that the success of wallposter comics in Jharkhand and in Mizoram shows "the path for future". Now they are concentrating more on A-4 size comics and wall posters as both the formats are "cost-effective".

Comics make sense in a cultural context like India's. Explains Sharma: "People are focused on issues in India. Also we have a rich story telling culture, which is a plus point for the comics. But in the comics field, the Finns are much ahead. You will find lots of comics' artists there; it even forms part of the college curriculum. Comics artists get fellowships from the government. Political cartooning isn't dominant, unlike in India."

But whether it's in Nordic part of the planet, or in tropical South Asia, Sharma sees comics and cartoons as having "lots of scope". He says, "The problem here is that we are again sticking to the stereotype image of realistic drawing and square panel format. In Europe artists have done a lot of experiments in comics-making styles. People here usually say that there is no scope for such formats in India, but without testing those formats we can't jump to this conclusion."

So far, this group has made a few strips out of their comics. When these were reproduced in a "newspaper-friendly" format, they were very well received. India's mainstream English-language newspapers currently tend to import syndicated material from the West, particularly the USA. "But think about the regional press. They don't have access to getting anything like that," says Sharma. Hence, World Comics India has been working on a service for regional press. "The important thing for these comic strips is that they are made by the people on their own issues in their own language. So, readers find them closer to their day-to-day lives. This is lacking in syndicated strips."

WCI would like to publish a journal that would feature the works of local artists from across India. Maybe containing news on the international "comics movement" and also including a serialised form of their workshop module and other technical tips. From India, World Comics dreams of expanding its activities to other South Asian, as well as South East Asian countries.

World Comics India is just one initiative; there are others too. Bangalore-based CDL recently noted how workshops and other initiatives have led to the formation of a 'movement' of sorts across India. One retired manager of Bhilai Steel Plant launched an Amateur Cartoonists Association. The Karnataka Cartoonist Association is over 25 years old. Young cartoonists have an association called Cartoonists Unanimous. Hyderabad has its Political Cartoonist Association. Bangalore has another network called the Indian Institute of Cartoonists. Noted South Indian newspaper cartoonist Ponnappa has been the coordinator of the April 2002 'Bangalore Wall' attempt at making cartoons on a large wall space.