Remembering ACK, Tinkle comics and Chandamama.
Once upon a time, there was magic hidden between the pages of a comic book. They came under the common branding of Amar Chitra Katha and opened a window to a world most of us didn’t know existed – stories drawn from Indian history, mythology, folk lore and legend. Stories we had perhaps heard about but forgotten under the burden of academic pursuits and the struggles of our day-to-day existence. As illustrated books with thought and speech bubbles for the dialogues exchanged between them, all captured within 31 pages. There were tiny footnotes to explain typically Indian words, rituals, Gods, customs and so on. Each comic made a dent in our hard-saved pocket money – a dent of Rs.2.50 to begin, which was later raised by 0.50 paisa.
One man was responsible for this comic book revolution - Anant Pai. Story has it that he was on an official trip from Mumbai to Delhi in 1967, intrigued by the television set that had entered the capital through Doordarshan. Wanting to have a dekko of what lay behind that box, he watched a television programme through the display window of a shop. He was shocked to discover that in the quiz show, children could give correct answers to questions around Socrates and Winston Churchill, but did not know the name of Rama’s mother!
This chemical engineer orphaned as a young boy, realised that children loved comic book heroes like The Phantom. Leisure reading of children studying in English medium schools was also confined to Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Enid Blyton’s and a few comics like Richie Rich and Tintin.
Phantom made ‘politically correct’ for the Indian reader. Image source: thephantomhead.com
He wanted to bring Indian kids back to their roots and joined India Book House, one of the leading publishers in Bombay that was largely into printing, publishing, distribution and selling of books. Pai had already introduced the Phantom series as the first cartoon strip in The Times of India and wanted to use this form of visual reading to entertain and educate through Indian stories. And so the first Indian comic book was born under the brand name of Amar Chitra Katha. It went on to become one of the most popular and high selling series of Indian comics.
Slowly, sales picked up. ACK classics initially used primary colours - blue, green and yellow but graduated to full colours as it’s popularity began to rise. Pai and his team extended the parameters to bring in regional languages - beginning with translations in Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, and Telugu and further into Bengali, Assamese, Malayalam, Punjabi, Tamil, Urdu and even Sanskrit. It reached beyond its initial target of a middle-class readership to transcend class barriers and reach the upper class children. As ACK reached its 20th birthday in 1986, sales reached a peak of 5 crore copies, and then only two years later, a whopping 7 crores.
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Frequency also went from one classic every month to to one every fortnight around 1980. This was when IBH also launched its comic magazine Tinkle, that caught the reading fancy of all children at the time. The language used was simple, straightforward, and easy to understand by children not studying in English medium schools.
An entire generation isn’t even aware of this. Image source: amarchitrakatha.com
Amar Chitra Katha opened doors to an alternative visual culture that strived to adhere to its Indian roots. Yet, like all mothers everywhere, I would not allow my daughter to devour the comic books she was slowly getting addicted to. “It will take you away from your studies,” was my boring refrain. Scared of being stopped from reading what she had grown to love, she handed me an issue of Tinkle and asked me to read it. Tinkle was a weekly comic magazine brought out by the same publication – India Book House and the same man. I was bowled over. It was informative, funny, entertaining and carried a message and amusing adventures of the characters. It took me to one story from the ACK series, Ganga and I became a child all over again. I bought my daughter an annual subscription for Tinkle and, separated by a generation, we enjoyed the stories that could be read over and over again.
A position adopted by politicians today? Image source: wishberry.com
Chandamama, another magazine along the same lines, began to create and publish stories adapted from the Indian mythologies such as Ramayana and Mahabharata in 1947, just before Independence. In publication to this day, the magazine and its illustrations are known for its unique storytelling, reminiscent of grandparents' bedtime stories conveyed in print format. This was backed very innovatively with promotional strategies organized by IBH of fancy dress contests, displays in petrol pumps and book stores across every Indian city, launching new titles with press conferences graced by eminent personalities. By 1992, ACK classics were published and sold in 38 Indian and non-Indian languages by which time, Anant Pai had evolved into the children’s icon “Uncle Pai.”
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Not surprisingly, these books started facing a lot of flak from sociologists, cultural historians, comic specialists and so on. This critique is an on-going process of sometimes making mincemeat of the series or questioning its authenticity or pointing out its pro-Hindu, anti-minority and extremely patriarchal bias as far as the representation of women characters go. There has been a lot of research both by Indian and foreign scholars on ACK’s representation of women.
Moot points were, women are conspicuous by their complete absence from the story and the illustrations such as Chandragupta Maurya or many of the Birbal stories. However, there were women protagonists in classics featuring Ganga, Draupadi, Shakuntala, Savitri, Vasavdatta, Mirabai, Padmini, Tarabai, Rani of Jhansi, Uloopi, Chand Bibi, Urvashi, Sukanya and many others. Another noticeable absence was in the Makers of Modern India series of 13 personalities that does not feature a single woman, though India has had many women leaders who should have found place among these makers. Leaders like Indira Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu are not part of this series and Kalpana Chawla was an afterthought. The same absence is noticed in the visibility of Muslim and Sikh leaders.
Rohan Islam, a Bengali literature scholar, in a detailed analysis raises questions about the ACK series that mark out sharp differences between “they” and “we”, “bad” and “good”, “us” and “them”. Islam also draws our attention to the Brahmin-Hindu-Male that takes precedence over Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and of course, women. He states quite assertively that the equations drawn between the Hindu identity and the National identity are quite sharply underlined.
Making History lessons fun. Image source: Amazon.com
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This leaves us with questions. Why must we always place an entertaining comic series for children with informative stories on our culture, leadership, freedom struggle by contextualising it against the changing history and politics of changing times? Can one deny the historical significance of a classic series that has stood the test of time and space for four long decades? Can we deny ourselves the joy we got going through those stories and wonderful illustrations that took children away from their exams and more serious books? Take away the political, patriarchal and communal biases, which do not appear pronounced while we are reading purely for entertainment and information, and what we have is a harmonious ride into our cultural past.
Uncle Pai is no more. Long live uncle Pai. And with the magic between the yellowed pages of an antique Amar Chitra Katha, we can all live happily ever after. Or, can we?
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com
By Shoma A. Chatterji
Cover photo credit: Amazon.com