Much before we marveled at the Avenger superheroes — Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow — a Bengali superhero, Bantul The Great, with bulging chest and narrow legs awed us all. Bantul is invincible. He took on the tanks and diffused bombs. For kids and adults alike in Bengal, Bantul is a hero. Like Bantul, we also found the antics of Nonte-Phonte and Handa Bhonda equally entertaining. In a Bengali household, childhood is incomplete without flipping through the pages of Narayan Debnath’s comics, the creator of these fascinating cartoon characters.
On Tuesday, a part of our childhood was lost forever with the death of the renowned cartoonist. Debnath passed away at a private hospital in Kolkata on Tuesday morning at 97.
A recipient of Padma Shri, Debnath was admitted to the hospital on December 24 and was put on ventilator support. In 2013, he was awarded Bangabibhusan and later the Sahitya Academy Award.
It was in 1965 that his famous cartoon character Bantul was first published. In an interview, Debnath had said India had just gone to war with Pakistan at that time and he showed Bantul lifting a tank and throwing it to the enemies. The character of Bantul was an instant hit with the readers. And it remained so till today. Later, Bantul was published in colour.
In 1969, Debnath came up with another famous creation – Nonte Phonte – two mischievous Bengali boys and their antics. The comic strips were again a hit. In between, he tried Patalchand the Magician, which didn’t find many takers. His popular comic characters – Handa Bhonda – were published in 1962. The comic strip had two more characters, Keltu da and Superintendent Sir. The comic strips saw unprecedented popularity, which made the publisher come out in colour too.
Debnath’s comic style was quintessentially Bengali. Though Nonte Phonte, Handa Bhonda and Bantul were his most famous cartoons, he had created other characters like Petuk Master Batuklal, Daanpite Khandu Aar Tar Chemical Dadu, Black Diamond Indrajit Roy, Detective Koushik Roy, Bahadur Beral, and Sutki-Mutki. In fact, he tried attempting serious cartoon with Detective Koushik Roy.
But the grand old man of Bengali cartoon changed with time. And so did his characters. Keltu Da danced to the tunes of Shah Rukh Khan’s ‘Chaiya Chaiya’ while just like Gen Z, Handa Bhonda used mobile phones. Also, his character spoke in a mix of Bengali, English and Hindi like today’s generation. Through his comic strips, he spoke about issues like fake godmen or ghost possessions.
A number of celebrities spoke about how their childhood was deeply attached to Debnath and his comics.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee condoled the death of the renowned visual artist.
“Extremely sad that the noted litterateur, illustrator, cartoonist, and creator of some immortal characters for children’s world, Narayan Debnath is no more. He had created Bantul the Great, Handa- Bhonda, Nonte- Fonte, figures that have been etched in our hearts for decades,” Mamata Banerjee tweeted.