An essay recounting an overlooked, contemporary cultural revolution ushered in through children's comics
If I recall correctly, the venue was Ravindra Kalakshetra, Bangalore, sometime in the mid-1980s. The 1300-capacity hall was home to a scene of a sea of humanity in the heat of summer holidays. In that enclosed desert devoid of airconditioners, cheap, rickety fans rattled loudly and tirelessly but were ineffectual in trying to keep the throng of children and parents cool but instead succeeded in circulating hot air and collective fumes of foul breath which had a unique stench of its own.
The occasion: a quiz competition, a grand finale of sorts, conducted by Uncle Pai.
There was a backstory to it.
A few months prior to this event, schoolchildren across the country falling in the nine – thirteen age range were invited to fill out a questionnaire appearing in various titles of Amar Chitra Katha (ACK), and Tinkle issues. By a process of elimination (who answered most of the questions correctly), a select few would make it to the aforementioned finale in different cities and towns where the venerable Uncle Pai would himself be on stage as the quizmaster. The top three winners would get to visit the Amar Chitra Katha office in Bombay, apart from getting assorted goodies. But even the vast number of children who gave wrong answers as Uncle Pai quizzed them on stage would be given a modest gift hamper containing various titles from the sumptuous stable of Amar Chitra Katha.
Standing on stage with The Uncle Pai still remains one of the memories thousands of people from my generation greatly cherish.
A truthful rendering of contemporary cultural history of India reveals how Uncle Pai became an unlikely legend in the prime of his own lifetime as we shall see.
If memory serves me right again, this was the fifth or sixth edition of this annual quiz. It appeared that parents, more than their kids, were eager to see their boys and girls dazzle on stage with Uncle Pai. There was no school that didn’t stock multiple copies of the same ACK titles and Tinkle issues. Street-corner newspaper and magazine stalls and newsagents saw their profits bulge thanks to ACK and Tinkle.
What began in 1967 as a modest endeavour that was born out of a deep-seated cultural conviction achieved three things with great aplomb.
One, it became an innovative, commercially successful, and path-breaking publishing phenomenon in a genre that was largely nascent and spawned a massive spurt in the comic-book industry by instilling confidence in others who had aspired to but hadn’t so far dared venture into the arena.
Two, it educated, nay reawakened at least two generations of Indians to the wealth of their own cultural and historical heritage in a fun and lively manner. Amar Chitra Katha comics represent cultural unlearning and re-education. In hindsight, it is truly astonishing to note that Hindu minds could be decolonized even in this fashion.
Three, it successfully held its own against the dominant and popular comic book series syndicated and redistributed from the West such as Phantom, Mandrake, Flash Gordon, and so on.
But first here is some data that shows the sheer scale of success that ACK has left behind.
The seeds for Amar Chitra Katha’s trailblazing journey were sown much earlier in 1947 by two intrepid and successful entrepreneurs and legendary (primarily) Telugu film producers, B Nagi Reddy and Chakrapani when they launched the children’s comic magazine, Chandamama in Telugu, which continues to occupy a cult status in the minds of millions of Indians. At its peak, it had a readership of about 200000 and was published in 13 languages including English. It is to Chandamama that we owe the resuscitation of the legendary and never-ending series of stories of Vikram and Betal, which Ramanand Sagar successfully adapted as a TV series for Doordarshan.
The journey of Amar Chitra Katha begins with its founder Anant Pai, who would go on to earn renown as “Uncle” Pai. Hailing from Karkala (near Mangalore, then part of the Madras Presidency), he moved to Bombay and took a dual degree in Physics and Chemical technology and joined Times of India. He became a junior executive in the Books division there. In irony-mixed hindsight, he went on to head the Indrajal Comics label of the Times group, which syndicated the Phantom and Mandrake titles.
Indeed, the story of how Anant Pai left the Times Group to found ACK is interesting in itself. In February 1967, he watched a quiz show on Doordarshan where participants easily answered questions from Greek mythology but didn’t know the answer to the question “In the Ramayana, who is Rama's mother?" Consequently, he approached the Times management with a proposal to start a comic book series that featured stories from the Indian puranic, historical and other lore. The proposal was declined and Anant Pai fortuitously quit his job.
After patiently knocking on numerous doors, Anant Pai finally found the portals that would welcome his passion for the cultural re-education of India’s children. G.L. Mirchandani of the India Book House (IBH) agreed to fund Pai’s venture. Another account of the actual origins of Amar Chitra Katha says that it was actually founded by a Bangalore-based employee of IBH, G.K. Ananthram who persuaded Mirchandani to fund these comic books, all of which were to be in Kannada. However
Long story short, Anant Pai became the writer, editor and publisher of Amar Chitra Katha in the form we’re all familiar with.
In February 1970, ACK launched its first title, Krishna. The next 18 months saw titles like Shakuntala, The Pandava Princes, Savitri, Rama, Nala and Damayanti, Harishchandra, The Sons of Rama, Hanuman and Mahabharata. These titles remain among ACK’s bestsellers to this day. After three years, ACK sold only about 20000 copies in English, Hindi and Marathi put together. But by 1975, the comics began an upward trajectory largely due to that time-tested and still, the best marketing tool: word of mouth. By the late 1970s, ACK was selling copies in the range of 3.5 million annually. Two notable factors in this meteoric rise included the constant demand for reprints and explosive sales during the festival seasons of Dasara and Deepavali: ACK comics were given as gifts to children on these occasions, something largely unthinkable today.
At its zenith in the mid-to-late 1980s, Amar Chitra Katha and “Uncle” Pai, as we noted earlier, had become household names and cultural celebrities. Its success spurred Pai to launch a general children’s comic, Tinkle, Brainwave, Partha (a short-lived personality development monthly magazine for teenagers), Chimpu (a commercial failure), and later an audiobook titled Storytime with Uncle Pai.
The onset and growing popularity of television largely killed Amar Chitra Katha as it was perceived in popular imagination. Its last title, Jawaharlal Nehru was published ironically in the momentous year of 1991 when Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao unleashed economic reforms and transformed almost every facet of India, making a clean break with its Nehruvian communist past.
This landmark decision of 1991 can also be taken as a starting point of sorts to examine the legacy of Amar Chitra Katha.
A defining element of this legacy is the manner in which Anant Pai intuitively tapped into the innate cultural and civilizational DNA of middle and lower-middle class India of that era. This point has been repeated ad nauseam, but the socialist decades of the 1970s and 80s were marked by an all-round breakdown of institutions, governance, economy, and law. Acute shortages of essential commodities, interminable queues, skyrocketing unemployment rates, regular bandhs and hartals, chaotic housing system, a stated national policy of aversion to private enterprise…the list goes on.
It was in this dismal scenario that Anant Pai managed to convince a ravaged middle class India to part with 75 Paise for each copy of his ACK titles when this money would buy a roundtrip bus fare from home to office in most Indian cities. However, it is a great tribute to this middle class India which gladly parted with the money because it recognized the incalculable value that his comics brought to their children: providing them a value-based and culturally-rooted education that were fast disappearing from their formal schooling. As hindsight clearly shows, ACK comics singlehandedly prevented hundreds of thousands of Hindu children from turning out like say, Barkha Dutt and her teeming clones in the media and elsewhere.
Chandamama, which had accomplished the same feat albeit in a different manner, had shut down in 1980 after the death of its colossus-like editor, Kodavatiganti Kutumba Rao. ACK in many ways, filled this void creatively, effectively and on a more diverse and ambitious scale.
The titles and themes ACK chose are by themselves a reflection of this. Together, they constitute an elevating cultural feast comprising a brilliant and well-thought out mix of Indian history, epics, Puranas, and profiles of eminent people from the dawn of Sanatana civilisation. Some of these titles continue to endure in their appeal and popularity. In a narrative technique that is laced with shades of inspiration from Chandamama, they inform and educate the mind, give wings to the imagination of children, inculcate a sense of wonder, and make them revisit these comics again and again, and yet again. Even today, I unabashedly read some random ACK or Chandamama comic and derive the same delight and astonishment that I did when I first read them. In that sense, they are both ageless and transcend age.
The ACK narrative technique also reflects the unbroken and timeless Indian tradition of grandparents telling stories to their grandchildren or an elder, to the children of a chawl or under the proverbial village banyan tree. There is another quality to this timeless storytelling tradition: the Ramayana, Mahabharata and other stories can be enjoyed by a child, adult, and old person alike, and the same stories can be heard innumerable times without dilution or loss in its enjoyment quotient. Those who’re familiar with this tradition will attest to a simple, verifiable fact: of pestering your mother or (preferably) grandmother to “narrate the story of Dhruva or Prahlada or Muchukunda or Kumbhakarna again and again and again.” The additional joy was that the grandmother would happily narrate these stories again and again and again. In a sense, it can be confidently claimed that more than Veda Vyasa, it is these grandmothers who were the greater storytellers. The fact that millions of these grandmothers across Bharatavarsha’s vast and sacred geography kept this tradition alive for thousands of years is simultaneously an unparalleled cultural summit and a monumental national and cultural tragedy given how they have all but vanished.
The fact that the ACK comics succeeded in perpetuating this storytelling tradition should truthfully be regarded as an unprecedented innovation. Then, the additional fact that ACK pulled this off in an era of wildly popular comics like Phantom, the Strong, Invincible, and White superhero who leads and protects the primitive, savage, and Black pygmies against random evil men, should actually be celebrated in India as a great festival of cultural triumph. But then, we live in an era where even the highest levels of judiciary actively works at denigrating and destroying Hindu festivals. Of course, no Harvard Business School case study exists on the cultural and publishing revolution that ACK singlehandedly unleashed and none will emerge in the foreseeable future.
On the contrary, true to form, racist and bigoted textual abuses against ACK have been appearing roughly beginning with the new millennium. At the moment, it is too premature to predict how fast and how deep and wide this perversion will spread and eventually swallow the elevating cultural legacy of ACK and ingest it in the bottomless pit of Left-Liberal toxicity.
Compendiums like Ramayana, Mahabharata, Dashavatara, Tales from the Panchatantra, Tales from the Jatakas, Tales of Hanuman, Tales of Birbal, Tales from Hitopadesha, Great Plays of Kalidasa, Bengali Classics, Animal Tales of India, the Story of the Freedom Struggle…. continue to remain as big draws. Similarly, individual titles like Krishna, Shakuntala, Rama, Savitri, Hanuman, Chanakya, Shivaji, Buddha, Rana Pratap, Prithviraj Chauhan, Mirabai, Guru Nanak, Guru Arjan, Ahalyabai Holkar, Kannagi, The Gita, Raja Bhoja, Krishnadevaraya, Angulimala, Lachit Borpukhan, Hemu, The Churning of the Ocean… have also continued to endure.
Another notable fact stands in contrast and as an era-separator: economics. If I recall correctly, the (individual) issue price of ACK titles before they shut down was roughly around ₹ 15. Today, folks don’t think twice before spending a few thousands to acquire reprints of these old titles, and the company has quickly cashed in on the demand by offering gilded editions, box sets and offering all sorts of visual razzmatazz at ransom-like prices. Among others, today’s customers of ACK include New Age rich kids like Rana Daggubati. Although the metaphor might sound stretched, one can compare this enduring appeal to the Himalayas: culturally-rooted folks visit them as a sacred site of pilgrimage, and others as a potential site for a luxury resort.
Indeed, when one regards the entire ACK corpus, the sheer range and scale of its accomplishment is truly spectacular leaving us mute in admiration. Apart from Anant Pai’s innate grasp of the power of effective storytelling to convey values, history, mythology, riddles, puzzles, and other subjects to young children, there is an oft-overlooked fact hiding in plain sight. This fact is what instinctively generates bile from the innards of the Left-Liberals.
ACK’s history titles tell the truth as is, especially regarding the medieval Muslim rule. Be it Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb, Babur, Humayun,Sher Shah, Guru Tegh Bahadur, Rana Pratap (which correctly shows him as an indomitable warrior fighting for Bharatavarsha’s freedom), etc. These comics have none of the historical whitewashing that had already infected our children’s history textbooks back then.
The ACK team also had some fine writing and artistic talent. Notable writers include Kamala Chandrakant, Margie Sastry, Subba Rao, and Debrani Mitra among others. Illustrators included the formidable Ram Waeerkar (a permanent fixture in both ACK and Tinkle), C.D. Rane, Ashok Dongre, V.B. Halbe, Luis Fernandez, and Jeffery Fowler. Their depictions of our epic and Puranic characters like Shakuntala, Damayanti, Sita, Draupadi, Chitrangada, Satyavati, Satyabhama, Bhishma, Ravana, Kumbhakarna, Veda Vyasa, et al almost come alive under the fine ministrations of their brushes. Even in the constricting realm of comic panels, they are original and aesthetically pleasing. This artistry is also evident in scenes involving a variety of emotional expressions of fury, eroticism, love, compassion, etc akin to watching a drama or movie.
Apart from television, which mainly dealt a deathblow to ACK, a significant generational change hastened its fall from a three-decade-long, unrivalled glory. The 1990s generation onwards could no longer identify with ACK comics with the same intimacy as the previous ones did. Another crucial factor was the rather rapid change in the character of the Indian middle class. A good chunk of the children of the (middle class) 1970s had grown up and had mostly migrated to (mostly) the United States—the infamous “brain drain” syndrome about which reams upon reams of paper were expended. They chose career over culture. Over time, the deep-rooted values etc that the ACK comics had instilled in this and the 1980s generation were largely consumed by the all-swallowing monster called American capitalism and lifestyle.
However, while ACK stopped publishing new titles, a significant demand began to emerge for reprints of older ones around mid-1990s. By 2000 CE, ACK had sold 790000 copies. Obviously, these figures pale in comparison to ACK’s bygone era of pre-eminence but they become significant when we observe that nearly fifty Indian comic book publishers shut down between the 1997—2003 period. These numbers are also testimony to ACK’s conviction-filled foundations, which continue to make them relevant, appealing and valuable. To keep pace with the digital age, ACK now offers its own digital store and also has its own comic app offering archival titles.
But one really wonders how much longer it can keep pace. One could hazard a guess. The 1980s generation was perhaps the last that grew up with a sense of wonder and awe when it read the ACK comics, using nothing but the unfettered and unaided imagination of a child to decipher these stories as its imagination and wonder informed it and equipped it with wings. Gadgets have chained our children’s imaginations in ways that adults are yet to fathom.
Needless, the malaise is the most acute with the millennial generation. Add to this the merciless and nonstop assault from media of every sort: perhaps the most dangerous of them all is the silent barbarism of the invasion of reality TV right on their palms, on demand. It perversely gives a new meaning to the transcendence of space and time. From countless generations of imaginative and highly creative children to one and half generations of highly sexualized children: this is the mortal challenge that ACK faces. Or to put it politely, a generation that grows up in this environment, amid such influential distractions might either see no value in reading ACK type of comics or at best, might merely “consume” it as just another app.
Even as I write this conclusion and as someone who still inhabits the same world as these children, I realize the full value of that sweltering afternoon in Ravindra Kalakshetra. And the irreplaceable legacy of Amar Chitra Katha as a national and cultural milestone.