A board, some brushes, a bottle of black ink and various other drawing materials. That’s all Narayan Debnath needed to ignite the imagination of generations of young Bengali readers for six decades with his cult comics.
The creator of Bantoul the Great, Handa Bhonda, Nonte Fonte and several other naughty and valiant childhood companions died on Tuesday at a clinic in South Kolkata where he had been admitted since December 24. He was 96 years old.
Debnath suffered from low hemoglobin and kidney problems. The end came at 10:15 a.m., according to family sources. He is survived by his daughter Namita and his sons Swapan and Tapas.
A Sahitya Akademi winner, Debnath was awarded the Banga Bibhushan in 2013 and a DLitt from Rabindra Bharati University in 2015. He was awarded the Padma Shri last year and just six days ago the award reached its bedside when he was already on BiPap.
Born and raised in Howrah’s Shibpur, Debnath went to a private art school in Dharamtala which later merged into the Indian Art College. The outbreak of World War II interrupted his training after five years.
Debnath began by designing labels for cosmetics companies and creating advertising images that would run on slides in cinemas.
A proofreader introduced him to Dev Sahitya Kutir, for whom he started illustrating book covers. Then an offer came from the publication’s children’s magazine Suktara to create a comic strip.
A sporadic start was made with four Bhonda panels in late 1951. In 1962 Handa joined him and the clumsy boys were cast in a monthly comic strip.
The concept was quite foreign and with the exception of Kafi Khan’s (Pratul Chandra Lahiri) Sheyal Pandit in Jugantar, there was no local inspiration. “I drew them in the Laurel and Hardy mode. The fat one, named Bhonda, was cool and cautious, while his counterpart was Handa, a little too smart and pompous, who was always in trouble,” Debnath said. The telegraph in an interview.
Their popularity created a demand for a second tape, to be printed in color. Thus was born in 1965 Bantoul the Great — a carcass of a man, with a bulging chest and muscular arms but disproportionately narrow in his legs and with the face of a boy.
After four editions were published, India went to war with Pakistan. Bantu was sent to fight the enemies, raising tanks and changing the direction of cannon shells by blowing through the muzzle. Bullets bounce off him. “He came back as a war hero, whistling. It was such a compelling visual that it became a household name,” said Rupa Majumdar, director of Dev Sahitya Kutir.
Nonte-Fonte and their boarding school exploits appeared at the request of another magazine, Kishore Bharati, in 1969. His last contribution was printed in the 2017 edition of Puja de Suktara.
Previously, in 1961, he had created comic strips for Anandamela to mark the centenary of the birth of Rabindranath Tagore.
“He remains our best-selling author to this day,” said Diptangshu Mondal of Deep Prakashan, who printed his complete works in 2014. “Unlike Herge, who had a team to help with TintinDebnath did everything himself – storyboard, illustration, dialogues… That alone makes him an all-time great in his field,” he added.
His final rites were performed at Shibpur Crematorium and his death was greeted by the President, Prime Minister and Chief Minister among others.