July Issue 2010

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 14 years ago

Satirising political and social issues via cartoons and caricatures may not remain the exclusive domain of the media for long. Bolti Lakeerain (Talking Lines), published in 2010, is the first of its kind by the Pakistani branch of the World Comics Network (WCN). The WCN is a registered NGO that aims to highlight social and political issues through comics. The book is a collection of these comics, created by students, activists and members of communities from impoverished areas that took five years to put together.

The Pakistan branch of the WCN came about in 2006 when Indian cartoonist Sharad Sharma introduced Grassroots Comics in Lahore during a workshop. The leadership of this venture was taken over by head trainer Nida Shams, who conducted workshops in Sindh, the Punjab and other regions of the country. According to Shams, “Mainstream press mostly focuses on political stories and there is not enough coverage of the common man’s concerns and stories. All over South Asia, a big chunk of the population is suffering due to conflict and the worst thing is that their voices remain unheard.”

An affiliate of the WCN, Grassroots Comics is an outreach programme that trains groups in impoverished areas to communicate their problems via comics. The WCN website calls this medium “a low-tech tool for activists.” All that is needed is paper, drawing materials and a fresh idea for a story. This minimal requirement of resources allows activists to reach remote areas and have the communities express themselves.

The book is divided into sections covering education, terrorism, load-shedding and laws that affect the common man. In the latter category, a funny story entitled “Jammed for Life” by Sidra Rizvi tells the tale of a groom who is arrested on his wedding day because he couldn’t get to the venue before midnight due to a traffic jam. Several of the comics have been sketched by women from areas like Bagh and Azad Kashmir, where they cannot read or write. Many stories are youth-oriented, focusing on education for girls, sexual harassment and negligent healthcare.

The drawings are simple and filled with pathos. “Who’s Offence?” raises the issue of karo-kari. A boy named Ahmed kills his sister for giving directions to a stranger. The last panel shows a man with an axe about to strike his sister who pleads her innocence.

“As it has just been printed, it is being distributed on a limited scale,” says Shams, who compiled the collection with Sharma. “With the response we are getting, more copies will probably be printed.”

The workshops have generated positive feedback. “We successfully conducted several workshops and events in Pakistan without any funds and spread this tool to more people. We have also acquired new trainers and now they are conducting workshops in their field areas,” says Shams. A syndicated strip story service is being launched where WCN will give these comic strips for publication in newspapers and magazines.

A vast global movement, Grassroots Comics has also managed to have an impact in this part of the world. Changes in girls’ education in Rajasthan, India, have occurred. “Six months after the Girl Child campaign, many families started sending girls to school, stopped child marriages and early pregnancies,” says Shams. In Pakistan, a major change has been noticed in public-sector schools in which teachers started those workshops for “raising awareness and self expression.”

So far, Grassroots Comics has made an impact in the most inaccessible area: the rural sphere. The fact that few resources are needed makes this medium of expression easy, quick and doable. Supporters of the movement say that urban centres now need to be included so that this medium of raising awareness can be brought to the forefront. It is in the urban areas where, through better means of communication, socially conscious individuals can be mobilised. But so far, only one workshop has been conducted at Karachi University. It is still early though, with time the WCN might be able to conduct workshops in more universities and tap into urban youth who would easily adapt to this mode of expression.