NEW DELHI (Reuters Life!) - In a classroom tucked away amidst the hustle and bustle of a village in New Delhi, Asif Hussain raises his right arm with a blunt pencil clutched in his hand to ask a question before getting back to completing his comic strip.
Instructed to tell a visual story based on personal experiences, about 30 children are depicting issues like corruption, crime and poor sanitation at a comics workshop in the village of Basti Hazrat Nizamuddin.
“We tell them that they have to focus on an issue directly connected with them and not from a textbook,” Sharad Sharma, the man behind the workshop, told Reuters.
“The idea is to document their own lives. As a result, the stories are not fairy tales or superhero stories, but real life stories.”
The story-telling is simple with no color used and only four panels making up the entire comic strip, helping to strengthen the message being portrayed.
One by 11-year-old Salman illustrates corruption in the police force. A community member reports a hit-and-run accident to the local police. The culprit, sporting dark clothes and snazzy shades, is found and arrested. However, he is told he can avoid a prison term by offering a kickback.
Through his World Comics India organization, Sharma has set up workshops across India and South Asia working mainly with disenfranchised communities to get them to use comics as a communication tool.
He has conducted sessions in villages with high rates of farmer suicides and with people living in remote tribal regions of India’s Maoist heartland.
In the workshops, Sharma offers tips on drawing before letting loose his participants — both children and adults — allowing them to put together their own piece of visual journalism.
“What I do is about self-expression, it’s about the common people, their say, a chance for them to speak up as their voices are not being heard,” he says.
A key stage in the process is distributing the completed comics by placing them in public areas like bus stops and outside shops. For that reason, the comics are produced in black and white to make copies cheaply.
And with fewer than 10 percent of India’s 1.2 billion population considered web users, this age-old form of distribution remains relevant in huge swaths of the country.
The comics are also accessible to those with low levels of literacy. In Basti Hazrat Nizamuddin, literacy rates are far higher amongst men and boys than women and girls, says Shveta Mathur of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which works with the community.
“There’s a sense of ownership of what is written. There has to be a group of kids from within the area who can say, ‘yes, this is something we did’ and the association the parents have in what their child has done,” says Mathur.
The children from the centuries-old village are also left with a sense of empowerment.
“I feel like I’m doing something important,” young Asif Hussain said.
Reporting by Atish Patel