Kolkata: Renowned cartoonist and the creator of Bengali comic characters like ‘Bantul The Great’ and ‘Handa-Bhonda’, Nonte-Phonte etc Narayan Deb Nath has been admitted to a private nursing home in Kolkata on Tuesday due to old age related ailment.
Mr. Debnath’s condition is stable now, said the doctors.
In the late ’50s, after graduating from Indian Art College, he began his career as an artist. Starting with Bantul the Great, the first Bengali superhero, Debnath also created Nonte-Phonte, Handa-Bhonda, Bahadur Beral and Shutki-Mutki for two major Bengali magazines.
Since he has never been a full-time employee of any of the magazines, taking copyright protection never crossed his mind when he was young. “He is a pure artist. For him, his work was the most important thing and he never paid heed to other issues.He is very down to earth and saw the world in the same way ,” says Debnath’s son Tapash.
But he realised how wrong he was in 2006, when Kishor Bharati magazine published a four-page Nonte-Phonte strip in their Puja edition, which was actually an ad for a popular health drink brand. “Some other artist drew it and the publisher did not even ask for my consent. After I raised the issue, they apologised and tried to pay me `2,000,” remembers Debnath. Surprisingly, next year the publication repeated the same thing.
The same year, in a documentary film on Narayan Debnath by Pratim Charrerjee, the publishers of Deb Sahitya Kuthir and Patra Bharati announced that they planned to continue with the characters after the death of Debnath. “Again in 2011, when my father was admitted to hospital, Kishor Bharati published Nonte-Phonte drawn by another artist. This hurt my father deeply ,” Tapash added.
Tridib Chatterjee, the proprietor of Patra Bharati and the editor of Kishor Bharati magazine, agreed that they once printed Nonte-Phonte drawn by another artist, but only because Debnath was ill and in hospital. “We took his permission and paid him `5,000,” he contends. But more than all of these, Debnath was hurt by the misuse of his charac ters. “All his characters are created with specific ideologies. Bantul, for example, was created during the Bangladesh War and it is a personifi cation of India. Now, if someone starts drawing the character, deviating from its basic philosophy , it would be unjust to the character and also the creator.
For this reason, Herge did not allow Tintin to be drawn after his death,” says comics researcher Santanu Ghosh.
Sourav Mondal, the proprietor of Softoons Entertainment Media LLP, the company that had made the Nonte Phonte series and sold it to different television channels from 2001 to 2010, agreed that some changes were made in the storylines -like the smoking episode. “When we had to make a 20 minute episode from a two-page strip, some changes were inevitable,” Mondal said.
But the question remains that if Debnath has never applied for copyright, how can he stop others from drawing his characters after his death?
Siddharth Das, a city-based copyright lawyer, says, “At the time of creation, the painter or the author automatically gets the exclusive rights to his creation.For that he does not have to apply for copyright. But if his characters are being misused, then the matter goes to court, where having a copyright certificate makes it easy to assert one’s claim,” he said.
Abroad, artists either give up their cartoon characters for syndication, which leads to spinoffs on multiple media outlets and also earns huge revenues, or, like Bill Watterson and his Calvin and Hobbes series, they ensure that no one has access to the characters but themselves. Since Debnath has done neither, the fate of his characters -among the most iconic in Bengali literary and art history -hangs in balance.