Indian comic artist, writer and illustrator Narayan Debnath was possibly not known internationally, but he is hailed as the father of Bengali-language comics. His popular comics such as Handa Bhonda (1962), Bantul the Great (1965) and Nonte Phonte (1969) popularized Bengali comics and entertained Bengali children and teenagers in India and Bangladesh for generations. On January 18, 2022, Debnath died at the age of 96. in a hospital in Kolkata after a long illness. His fans on social media mourn this void in the world of Bengali comics.
Reporter Monideepa Banerjie from Kolkata thanked him:
Narayan Debnath, legendary Bengali comics creator for children, dies in Kolkata. He was 97 years old. Thank you, Narayan Babu, for Nonte Phonte, Handa Bhonda, Batul the Great and much more. And to keep the child in all of us alive. #TEAR pic.twitter.com/kaDLbcS5HK
— Monideepa Banerjie (@Monideepa62) January 18, 2022
Entrepreneur Boria Majumdar recalls the impact of Debnath’s cartoon characters on his childhood:
Anyone who grew up in the 70s or 80s in Kolkata lived on Narayan Debnath. His characters are in each of us. With him, each of us lost a part of our childhood. pic.twitter.com/iExeO2zG4g
—Boria Majumdar (@BoriaMajumdar) January 18, 2022
Researcher Swati Moitra also agrees:
Before I even knew how to read, I held Nonte Phonte comics upside down and read aloud everything I remembered, with sound effects like “haha”, “hihi”, “khya khya” . Our neighborhood hulo is called Keltuda.
Thank you for everything. #NarayanDebnath
— Swati Moitra (@swatiatrest) January 18, 2022
Hulo = cat
Debnath was born in 1925 in Shibpur, Howrah, near Kolkata, the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal. During World War II, he studied fine arts at the Indian Art College but did not complete his studies. He started his freelance career for advertising agencies creating logos. During the 1950s, he illustrated several children’s books, including adventure novels and the translation of international classics for a major publishing house Dev Sahitya Kutir.
His legendary creations
Handa Bhonda: His first comic Handa Bhonda debuted in 1962 in the Bengali children’s monthly Shuktara, also published by Dev Sahitya Kutir. The story is about two young boys similar to the characters of Laurel and Hardy. The skinny and mischievous Handa always tries to cause trouble for his bulky friend Bhonda, however, the humble Bhonda always comes out victorious.
Handa Bhonda is the oldest Bengali comic written by a solo writer-artist and has been published for over five decades.
Here is an animated episode of the series:
Bantul the Great: Bantul (Batul) is the first Bengali comic superhero to defend people against thieves and hooligans since 1965, and he also appears in Shuktara magazine. The big-bodied, muscle-muscled character was influenced by Debnath’s friend, the famous Bengali bodybuilder Manohar Aich. But Bantul didn’t have any superpowers yet. During the Bangladesh Liberation War and the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, editors and publishers asked Debnath to make Bantul invincible. The character had an incredibly powerful physique and bullets had been bouncing off him ever since.
The series is also broadcast on Indian television:
Not Phoned: Nonte Phonte began appearing in the monthly children’s magazine Kishore Bharati in 1969. These are the fun adventures of two young boys Nonte and Fonte, who keep their boarding school superintendent on his toes.
Sandip Talukdar tried to translate a page from Nonte and Fonte comics for international readers.
— Sandip Talukdar (@sandipcal) January 18, 2022
Devarsi Ghosh from Indian news portal Scroll.in shares other lesser-known Debnath characters:
Patalchand the Magician (established in 1969), a young neighborhood magician whose powers solve local problems; Bahadur Beral (created in 1982), a marvelous cat too intelligent for its own good; Danpite Khadu aar tar Chemical Dadu (established 1983), a Rick and Morty-like couple consisting of a young boy and his scientist grandfather whose bizarre inventions are central to the stories; and Petuk Master Batuklal (established in 1984), the last of Debnath’s serialized creations, who is a gluttonous schoolteacher who designs ways to steal food but is always stopped in his tracks by the students.
However, Twitter user Vinod thinks Debnath’s most underrated character is Goyenda (Detective) Kousik:
You might have heard of some famous creations of Narayan Debnath like
Batul, Handa-Bhonda, Nonte-Phonte, Khandu, Bahadur Beral. But perhaps the most underrated is Kousik. A biomechanically enhanced super spy comes face to face with megalomaniacs
Art- https://t.co/c4ERtRGWfm pic.twitter.com/nvPiJ3vfJ8
— Vinod (@VinodDX9) January 18, 2022
Most of his comic book series have been published as books, and some of his works have been on television and broadcast for decades. The Indian Institute of Cartoonists paid tribute to more than six decades of his career in comics:
IIC is very sad to inform you that octogenarian comic artist Mr. Narayan Debnath, 97, has just passed away. The Padmashri Prize (2021) was recently presented to him at his residence. He has created over 2000 comics and illustrations in 60 years. Incredible achievement! Rest in peace. pic.twitter.com/NDbEd9wMOc
— IIC (@CartoonistsInd) January 18, 2022
Social media tributes
Writer Subharanjan shares an illustration of Debnath’s cartoon characters:
— SUBHARANJAN (@Subharanjan_) January 18, 2022
Journalist Soumyadipta Banerjee wonders if the tradition of reading “comics” in Bengali will continue:
Today’s children will not understand this brand of humor. They will never know the pure pleasure of reading “comics”. I proudly belong to the last generation that thrived on comic books.
Narayan Debnath cartoon characters were a big part of my childhood.
Om Shanthi. pic.twitter.com/oy1WMlC0vV
— Soumyadipta (@Soumyadipta) January 18, 2022
Om Shanti is an invocation for peace or an invocation to God
Journalist Bihan Sen Gupta believes the loss is personal:
A loss that seems personal. #NarayanDebnath was an inseparable part of childhood, just like Lila Majumdar, for any Bengali child. Long before we knew Hulk, we knew Batul; long before hostel life began, Nonte-Fonte introduced us to this part of a fun world 🙂 pic.twitter.com/wrW7VedlOI
— Bihan Sengupta (@BihanSengupta91) January 18, 2022
Debnath was also immensely popular in Bangladesh. Sports journalist Soumik remembers him:
Narayan Debnath will be remembered for his creative work, a well-known personality here in Bangladesh for the kids of the 90s. A tribute for him at Gauri Sankar Lane, Kushtia.
Years ago, members of Dhaka Comics went to meet him in Kolkata. He was thrilled to know the love for his work here https://t.co/7iQ1rUK4wJ pic.twitter.com/YWFvUQ6HzI
— বাংলার ছেলে 🇧🇩 (@iSoumikSaheb) January 18, 2022
Writer and scientist AM (@bhalomanush) believes that Debnath never received the accolades he deserved:
Narayan Debnath never received the accolades he deserved. Firstly because his creations were exclusively in Bengali. And secondly because he made children’s comics that were warm, relatable, and funny. Had they been pissed off, literary or political, he would have been taken more seriously.
— AM (@bhalomanush) January 18, 2022
However, Debnath has achieved some recognition in India. He received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2013 as well as the Banga Bibhushan awarded by the Government of West Bengal in the same year. He received an honorary D. Litt from Rabindra Bharati University in 2015.
Debnath was also awarded the Padma Sri, India’s fourth highest civilian honor in 2021, which he received in hospital on January 13, 2022.
Indian Twitter user Shivani tweeted:
The Father of Graphic Literature in Bengal #NarayanDebnath, a genius that has not been recognized as it should be. He gave us a whole galaxy of heroes raised at home at a time when digital toots didn’t exist and were still creating🌟
Had #PadmaShriMedal at the hospital🥺My childhood memories😌. pic.twitter.com/YG2rZgCS6o
— Shivani🇮🇳 🖤💜🖤 (@MostlySane007) January 18, 2022