Narayan Debnath, legendary Bengali scriptwriter and illustrator and creator of iconic comics, has died aged 96
Narayan Debnath, the great cartoonist, illustrator and author, who created the iconic Bengali cartoon characters ‘Bantul the Great’, ‘Handa Bhonda’ and ‘Nonte Phonte’, died on January 18 after suffering from a long illness. He was 96 years old. Debnath’s death marks the end of an era in the cultural history of Bengal.
Debnath was a pioneer in the field of comics in Bengal and his creations have been an integral part of Bengali childhood for 60 years, from when the adorable duo of Handa and Bhonda appeared in the children’s magazine shuktar in 1962. The stories of the mischievous, thin Handa constantly shooting a fast at the fat, slow Bhonda were an instant hit with children. In fact, “Handa Bhonda” has the distinction of being the oldest comic in Bengal over 50 years behind.
In 1965, another immortal character from Debnath burst onto the pages of shuktar – “Bantul the Great”. The powerfully built and indestructible Bantul, who was apparently inspired by another Bengali icon, bodybuilder Manohar Aich, was Bengal’s first superhero, whose powers could not be compared to none other than Superman. But unlike the Superman comics, “Bantul the Great” was funny; and despite his great physical powers, the character was clumsy, not at all adept at using technology, and often found himself in a tight spot due to underestimating his own great strength. In fact, Bantul was first described as an incredibly strong boy. It was during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 that Debnath bestowed superhuman powers on Bantul at the insistence of the magazine’s editors.
Debnath’s third major creation, “Nonte Phonte” first appeared in Kishore Bharati magazine in 1969. While the slapstick humor of “Handa Bhonda” and the superhuman feats of “Bantul the Great” were a huge hit with children, “Nonte Phonte” appealed to slightly older children. The stories’ setting was a boarding school, and the protagonists Nonte and Phonte themselves were in their mid-teens. The series also had two other unforgettable characters – the big compulsive liar Keltu da, who was a few years older than Nonte and Phonte; and boarding school director Hatiram Pati.
For generations of children, these characters created by Debnath have been a constant source of joy and discussion. Even though advancements in technology have changed the world everywhere, the world inside Debnath comics has remained the same and never lost its charm or popularity. The creators of the popular socio-political online comic strip Crocodile in Water, Tiger on Land (CWTL), which successfully aired from 2010 to 2018, believe that Debnath’s works were not just an inseparable part of the Bengali childhood, but also portrayed a slice of Bengali life. and society in a light-hearted way.
“Debnath’s artwork was something very unique to Kolkata and Bengal – these comics were an integral part of growing up in Bengal. The artwork wasn’t really detailed, but it captured the essence of Bengali life in the city and the suburbs. It was very entertaining, and watching them now makes us nostalgic for a more innocent time. The language was amusing and there was a delicious pleasure in seeing innocent slang words receive printed legitimacy,” one of CWTL’s creators, who chose to remain anonymous, said First line.
Renowned novelist and scholar Saikat Majumdar said, “Narayan Debnath’s works were our introduction to the world of comics in a very indigenous way. Even those Bengali children who grow up outside Bengal, like my children, read” Bantul le Grand” and “Handa Bhonda” in English. What I particularly liked was the evocation of hostel life in “Nonte Phonte”, because having grown up in a boarding school, I know this very well life. There were these incredible descriptions of food – and I know from personal experience, how hungry boys in the hostel can get good food. I also see in his works a continuation of a somewhat oldest in comic literature like Teni da by Narayan Gangopadhyay and Ghana da by Premendra Mitra. Keltu da in “Nonte Phonte” has many similarities with Teni da.”
Born in Shibpur, Howrah on November 25, 1925, Debnath was interested in the visual arts from an early age. After completing his education, he enrolled to study fine art at the Indian Art College, but did not complete the five-year course. He worked as a freelance cartoonist and illustrator of comics and from 1950 he illustrated extensively children’s books, classics and adventure stories. In 1962, when he came up with the idea for “Handa Bhonda”, the comic genre was largely unexplored in popular Bengali literature. Before the creation of Debnath’s “Handa Bhonda”, Pratul Chandra Lahiri’s comic “Sheyal Pandit” which appeared in the Bengali newspaper Jugantar was the only Bengali comic known to the public. Debnath was a prolific writer and illustrator and worked and created until the end of his life. Some of his other creations include “Potolchand the Magician”, “Bahadur Beral”, “Danpite Khadu ar tar Chemical Dadu”, “Petuk Master Batuklal”, and “Shutki-Mutki”.
Although his designs were hugely popular, Debnath himself was a shy and reclusive person, choosing to stay out of the public eye. In 2013, he received the Banga Bibhushan Award from the Government of West Bengal and in the same year the Sahitya Akademi Award. In 2021, he was awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India.
In his message of condolence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted on social media: “Shri Narayan Debnath Ji has lit up many lives through his works, cartoons and illustrations. His works reflect his intellectual prowess. The characters he created will remain forever popular. Saddened by his passing. Condolences to his family and fans…”
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee tweeted: “Extremely sad that the famous literary man, illustrator, cartoonist and creator of immortal characters for children’s world, Narayan Debnath is no more. He had created Bantul the Great, Handa – Bhonda, Nonte-Fonte, numbers engraved in our hearts for decades.”
Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar said Debnath’s death was “a huge loss to the world of literary creativity and comics”.