The Priya comics (2014-ongoing) were launched among a range of cultural responses to the reportage of the brutal gang-rape and death of Jyoti Singh Pandey, a 23-year-old woman, in New Delhi on 16 December 2012.
In 2014, when Priya’s Shakti was created by Ram Devineni and Vikas K. Menon (with art by Dan Goldman), its cover featured the looming deity Shiva beside Parvati and the protagonist Priya; Shiva’s apocalyptic third eye is drawn open, signalling his rage. In Black Women in Sequence, Deborah Elizabeth Whaley argues that while the term “sequential art” signifies panel-based progression, however “the “sequential” in sequential art assumes that the images are in order but does not presume that the images are linear in form or interpretation.”1 For Whaley, the form of sequential art presents the “critical terrain where the complexities of narrative and visuality collide.”2 This happens “by coupling images with text, and by distilling complex ideas into truncated panels or images for active wide readership.”3 In the comic, Priya lives in a village and is a devout follower of the goddess Parvati. A survivor of rape, Priya’s prayers move Parvati who incarnates in Priya’s form, appealing to the village Panchayat for justice, but her pleas are dismissed and instead she is accosted. Shiva’s anger flares with dire repercussions for humankind till Parvati intervenes, vesting Priya with a vahan (an animal that accompanies deities in Hinduism, associated with their iconography) in the form of a flying tiger named Sahas (courage), and the “shakti” to sense the distress of victims of gender-based crimes.
Priya heralds an order of gender equality, inspiring others to join in her efforts, she flies to new places as part of her mission. In the second comic book, Priya’s Mirror (2016), co-written by Paromita Vohra and Devineni, where she encourages a community of acid attack survivors to reclaim their identities by vanquishing a “demon” who holds them captive. Analysing the concluding panels of Priya’s Shakti, which depict a range of real-world social movements such as the Gulabi gang in conjunction with Priya’s efforts, Rukmini Pande and Samira Nadkarni note that: “The juxtaposition of all these events in a single panel has the effect of creating a false sense of historicity, a rhetorical flourish that reproduces the machinations of Hindu nationalism.”4
The evocation and persistence of worship and the assertion of justice as a result of devotion in the comics propels us to ask what traditions are being reinforced through the stylistic and narrative choices of the early Priya comics. To accompany the comics, street art in New Delhi and Mumbai has depicted Priya in the accoutrements and costumes donned by Hindu goddesses in popular visual culture, such as the religious graphic novels and comic books of Amar Chitra Katha, calendar art and prints featuring deities.5 In an analysis of the standalone comic book devoted to Shakuntala in the catalogue of Amar Chitra Katha, Nandini Chandra evokes Raymond Williams’ observation that “a ‘selective tradition’ constituted by a dominant ruling class or group is about the past only insofar as it ‘is intended to connect with and ratify the present’”.6 The year Priya’s Shakti was released marked the ascendancy of the National Democratic Alliance’s electoral campaign that cast its leader Narendra Modi in the figure of Shiva, with the Hindu supremacist rhetoric rising to a fever pitch in national politics.7
One is then compelled to ask: Besides Hinduism and womanhood, what is Priya’s social location? Why is Priya’s battle against the evil forces of patriarchy a result of a divine boon by a majoritarian god? And crucially, is the patriarchy that Priya challenges autonomous from feudal, caste-based systems of discrimination? Writing about the formal devices of Dalit art and graphic novels, Ruchika Bhatia and Devika Mehra contend that the “text itself becomes a site for struggle through which the reader is enlightened to unmask the ideological struggle inside and outside the text.”8 The depiction of Priya as a devout Hindu woman, with no allusion to her caste or wider community leaves much to be asked of a character touted as India’s first “feminist” superhero, while revealing mainstream feminism’s well-documented blindness to caste.9
In 2020, Priya was “re-branded” as a young adult figure in the comic book Priya’s Mask (2020). This avatar of Priya has no allusions to divine endowment or rituals of worship. Priya is in plainclothes, with no jewelry, except a minimal gold headband, accompanied by the flying and ferocious Sahas. The art, with line and colouring by Syd Fini and Neda Kazemifar, is sleeker. Written by Shubhra Prakash, the narrative features a rare development, a collaboration with Jiya, the Burka Avenger, a comic book heroine created by pop-star Haroon in 2016, and telecast on Nick Pakistan. Before teaming up with Jiya, the story focuses on Priya accompanying a healthcare worker’s child who is left alone while her mother serves in a hospital, treating those afflicted by Covid-19. Flying over the city with the child, Priya discusses the critical work being done by healthcare workers. It is a tender moment, followed by a scene eerily reminiscent of the Modi government’s call in April 2020 for people to bang utensils and clap in honour of essential workers.10 The child organises her neighborhood to ring bells and clap for her mother as she returns from work. While this can be read as advice to counter reports of stigma against frontline workers, the hollow symbolism of such applause in a situation of a sustained lack of provisions and protections for essential workers sits poorly.
Priya and the Wolves (2020) tackles the issue of child trafficking and increased vulnerability among children of migrant labourers, who were left stranded as cities introduced lockdowns to combat covid transmission. With the cyclic rise in Covid-19 cases, the announcement of lockdowns in India had been made with little to no notice, or any provisions to assuage the precarity of daily-wage workers and migrant labourers.11 The first nationwide lockdown for three weeks was announced on 24 March, 2020, with a four hours’ notice before severe restrictions on mobility and the suspension of public transport were introduced. While the central government has denied having any data on the exodus of migrant workers in the parliament, a study estimated that the “lockdown affected the livelihoods of nearly 4 crore internal migrants.”12 Reports of increased trafficking of children following the exodus and cyclones surfaced last year, capturing a sliver of the crisis.
Written by Ruchira Gupta, the head of Apne Aap Women Worldwide,andillustrated by Melanconnie, Priya and the Wolves holds a strong editorial focus, highlighting the story of a single family on an arduous journey home, and the victory of a little girl against traffickers due to the timely intervention of Priya. At twelve pages, the comic benefits from an unwavering focus on the duress suffered by migrant families and their increased exposure to crime. Yet the narrative confines itself within a unilateral paradigm of gender, never noting dimensions of caste discrimination or community-based action. The lack of an intersectional approach to identity across the Priya comics flattens their pedagogical imperative, even as new avatars pitched to a global audience are crafted. The wolves are as abstract in their predatory masculinity, as Priya is reductive in her advocacy of empathy alone. Perhaps the moral of the story rests in the community-led cafe established by the survivors of acid attack in Priya’s Mirror or Ruchira Gupta’s Apne Aap NGO, where the migrant family is rehabilitated in Priya and the Wolves. These spaces speak of collective action, inclusive structures, and mutual empowerment, providing a more robust basis for illustrating positive social action.
1 Whaley, Deborah Elizabeth. Black Women in Sequence: Re-inking Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime. United Kingdom, University of Washington Press, 2015, pp. 14.
2 Whaley, Deborah Elizabeth. Black Women in Sequence: Re-inking Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime, pp. 182.
3 Whaley, Deborah Elizabeth. Black Women in Sequence: Re-inking Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime, pp. 184.
4 Pande, Rukmini, and Samira Nadkarni. 2018. "I Will Tell Your Story: New Media Activism and the Indian
“Rape Crisis”." Journal of Feminist Scholarship 11 (Fall), pp. 38, https://digitalcommons.uri.edu/jfs/vol11/
5 Uberoi, Patricia. “Feminine Identity and Nationalist Ethos in Indian Calendar Art.” Economic and Political Weekly, 25 (17), 1990, pp. 41-8. Jain, Kajri. Gods in the Bazaar: The Economies of Indian Calendar Art. United Kingdom, Duke University Press, 2007.
6 Chandra, Nandini. “The Amar Chitra Katha Shakuntala: Pin-Up or Role Model?” South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, vol. 4, 2010, pp. 21.
7 Ghosh, Avijit. “New Twist to Old Chant: ‘Har Har Modi’ in Varanasi.” The Times of India, 22 Mar. 2014,
8 Bhatia, Ruchika and Mehra, Devika. “(Re-)imaging caste in graphic novels: a study of A Gardener in the Wasteland and Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability.” Dalit Text: Aesthetics and Politics Re-imagined, edited by Judith Misrahi-Barak, K. Satyanarayana and Nicole Thiara. United Kingdom, Taylor & Francis, 2019, pp. 197.
9 See: Joshi, Purva. “All About Priya’s Shakti: India’s First Feminist Superhero.” Hindustan Times, 14 Oct. 2016, ; Pande, Rukmini, and Samira Nadkarni. 2018. "I Will Tell Your Story: New Media Activism and the Indian
“Rape Crisis”." Journal of Feminist Scholarship 11 (Fall): 28-45, https://digitalcommons.uri.edu/jfs/vol11/
10 Khan, Radha. “Banging plates will not defeat coronavirus - we must build a quality public-health system to do that.” Scroll, 22 Mar. 2020,
11 EPW Engage. “COVID-19: Examining the Impact of Lockdown in India after One Year.” Economic and Political Weekly, 24 Mar. 2021,
12 Singh , S K et al. “Reverse Migration of Labourers amidst COVID-19 .” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 55, Issue No. 32-33, 08 Aug. 202 0.