I was at invigilation duty, and if any of you find it hard to imagine what that’s like, imagine a cold hard screwdriver, named monotony, digging deep into your skull with an excruciatingly slow pace. A few months ago from this lovely day, I had walked into People Tree (the Connaught Place branch), as I often do, and chanced upon a collection of graphic narratives, curiously titled as mixtape. Over the next day, I read and re-read this work, loving the care with which it had been put together, the paper quality itself reminded me of what I may have pictured graphic novels to be, that I had only heard of, from relatives who would constantly brag about a new book they picked up in New York, somewhere. Sigh. Unfortunately, I never saw this so called golden-age, and didn’t encounter many of the works they would refer to, till much later in life. One needs a regular income, I suppose. Soon after having read the first volume of mixtape, I went back to People Tree, and picked up the follow up volume mixtape #2, and it is with them in tow that I sat in that rather dull classroom, hoping for a brief moment of reprieve, where I would be able to read them again. During invigilation duties, generally, there are teachers from other departments, people who you would ordinarily not encounter on a regular work day, the department one would work in keeping one busy enough to not want to venture out. Thinking nothing of the effect the mixtapes (as it were) might have, I gently lay them down on the desk, where they were, a moment later, snatched up by a colleague I had never met before from the Commerce department (I teach in the English Department). Over the next half-hour to 40 minutes, I carefully noted the intensity with which she would turn each page, gasping for air at times when the visual/words on the page would submerge her in its depths. She finished reading both volumes in one sitting. This is the entry point into the kind of work that comes out of a three person team in Ernakulam: Studio Kokaachi, the name referring to the creature in the stories in Malayalam they must have grown up listening to.
“We aim to tell stories that stay long after the details fade out... and we’re constantly exploring various media to bring out these stories - comics, picture books, matchbox stories, animation, movies...” from the About Studio Kokaachi section on their website. The experimentation is fairly visible, primarily due to a very simple reason: the people who are collaborating in order to put the work into the consumer market, are doing it with an immense sense of joy for what they have created. The matchbox box stories which, needless to say, are in what appear to be real matchboxes, do not appear gimmicky in the slightest. Instead each bend, or fold, each illustration along the edges of the matchbox, are aesthetically replicating the matchboxes one is used to (Ship, Cake, Dulhan, Kisan and so on). Where usually the name of the matchbox predicates, and becomes the obvious visual iconography of what it refers to – there is a picture of a ship on the matchboxes called Ship, and so on – while the content of the matchbox remains the same, here it is the contents that one has no way of knowing before sliding the cardboard away from the sleeve. Instead of generic matches, one finds a neatly folder, glossy, comic. It may seem quirky, because it is, but quite like Dayanita Singh with her Sent A Letter To a Friend series of photographs, where the prints could be propped up as a mobile exhibition anywhere, this too seeks to transform ready held notions of what a form of expression (in this case, a comic book) may appear to be, while at the same time, changing our perception of everyday objects’ (in this case, a matchbox’s) potential to become art. It is the artwork in mixtape that called out to me at first, and the form in which the various visual narratives have been pulled together. It reminded of hip-hop cassette tapes that I would purchase from my local audio guy, and would sit for hours with, taking songs from everywhere, and making stories, sometimes thematically, sometimes based on the interrelatedness of rhythms, anything but the obvious genre straight jacketing that became so common in the ‘90s. All the stories in the two volumes, ranging from small pieces based on the idea of longing, or loneliness, to long crime, or science, fictional scenarios, or even satire, are put together in the way that one can tell that this moment is something new, what they have managed to accomplish is something radical, and that the comic/graphic scene in India is now becoming a creature unto itself, as it should. My invigilation finally ends, I go to my favourite coffee place to start working on this review, and as soon as I take out the two volumes, placing them gently on the table in front of me, yet again, the person next to me snatches them up, and all I can think of now, as I’m writing these words down, while the stranger next to me peruses through volume #2, is: thank god, these are available online.