If memory serves me right, the venue was Ravindra Kalakshetra, Bangalore, sometime in the mid-1980s. The 1300-capacity hall was home to a scene of the proverbial sea of humanity in the heat of summer holidays. In that non-air-conditioner era, cheap fans whirred loudly, tirelessly but were ineffectual in trying to keep the throng of children and parents cool but only succeeded in circulating hot air.
The occasion: a quiz competition, a grand finale or 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 the titles of Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) and Tinkle. 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 got it wrong on stage would be given a gift hamper of sorts containing various titles from the vast stable of Amar Chitra Katha. Standing on stage with the Uncle Pai still remains one of the memories I greatly cherish.
And 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 and tremendously successful publishing phenomenon in the commercial sense and spawned a massive spurt in the comic-book industry by instilling confidence in others who had wished 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. In a sense, ACK comics represent both cultural education and re-education.
Three, it held its own successfully against the equally successful comic book series syndicated and redistributed from the West such as Phantom, Mandrake, Flash Gordon, and so on.
In a way, 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. 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 going on to become a junior executive in the Books division there. Ironically, he eventually headed the Indrajal Comics brand of the Times group, which syndicated the Phantom and Mandrake titles.
Indeed, the story of how he left the Times Group to found ACK is quite well-known. 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 was Rama's mother?" Consequently, he approached the Times management with a proposal to start comics that featured stories from the Indian mythological, historical and other lore. The proposal was declined and Anant Pai quit his job.
Eventually, G L Mirchandani of the India Book House agreed to fund Pai’s venture. Pai became the writer, editor and publisher of Amar Chitra Katha. In February 1970, ACK launched its first title, Krishna. The first 18 months of ACK’s inception 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 to take off and 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 skyrocketing sales during the festival seasons of Dasara and Deepavali.
At its zenith in the mid-to-late 1980s, Amar Chitra Katha and “Uncle” Pai, as we noted earlier, had become household names, 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 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 socialist-communist past.
One can begin anywhere, but this landmark 1991 event can be taken as a starting point of sorts to examine the legacy of Amar Chitra Katha.
One significant element 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 the time. It’s been repeated ad nauseam, but the socialist decades of the 1970s and 80s was 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 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 India to part with 75 Paise for each copy of his ACK title when this money would buy a roundtrip bus fare from home to office in Indian cities. This Middle India gladly parted with the money for it saw the value his comics brought to their children: providing them a value-based and rooted education that were fast disappearing from their formal schooling.
Chandamama, which had done the same thing 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 scale.
The titles and themes ACK chose are in itself a reflection of this. They were a brilliant and well-thought out mix of Indian history, epics, mythology, and profiles of eminent people. As we observe, some of these titles continue to endure in their appeal and popularity. In a narrative technique that also has 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. This narrative technique reflects the unbroken and timeless Indian tradition of grandparents telling stories to their grandchildren or to the children of a chawl or under the proverbial village banyan tree.
In this, ACK comics follow the same timeless Indian tradition of weaving a tale that transcends time and space: The Ramayana, Mahabharata and other stories can be enjoyed by a child, adult, and old person alike. Although they’re written primarily for children in a simple enough but free-flowing, engaging language, the same comics appeal to adults as well.
And so, compendiums like Ramayana, Mahabharata, Dashavatara, Tales from the Panchatantra, Tales from the Jatakas, Tales of Hanuman, Tales of Birbal, Great Plays of Kalidasa, Tales from Hitopadesha, Bengali Classics, Animal Tales of India, the Story of the Freedom Struggle…. continue to be a big draw. Needless to say, 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.
Indeed, when one regards the entire ACK corpus, the sheer range and scale of its accomplishment is truly spectacular leaving us mute in admiration. As also Anant Pai’s innate grasp of the power of effective storytelling to convey values, history, mythology, riddles, puzzles, and numerous other subjects to young children.
Neither did ACK’s history titles hesitate to tell the truth as is. Be it Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb, Humayun, (Akbar’s true face in) Rana Pratap, Sher Shah, Guru Tegh Bahadur, there was none of the historical whitewashing that had already infested history textbooks back then. Small wonder that ACK has unfairly and repeatedly been targeted by the dominant academic and intellectual establishment which is hostile to any expression of nativity and Hinduness.
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 (who was like a permanent fixture for both ACK and Tinkle), C D Rane, Ashok Dongre, V B Halbe, Luis Fernandez, and Jeffery Fowler. Their depictions of our epic and mythological characters like Shakuntala, Damayanti, Sita, Draupadi, Chitrangada, Satyavati, Satyabhama, Bhishma, Ravana, Kumbhakarna, Veda Vyasa, et al almost come alive under the ministrations of their brushes. They are pretty 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.
It could be said that it was television that chiefly dealt a deathblow to ACK, and the 1990s generation onwards could no longer identify with ACK comics with the same intimacy as the previous ones did. Another important factor was the rather rapid change in the character of the Indian middle class. The children of the 1970s had grown up and had mostly migrated abroad—the infamous “brain drain” syndrome about which reams upon reams of paper were expended. Career over comics became the norm. It didn’t matter what deep-rooted values and other noble things they had instilled in this and the 1980s generation.
However, while ACK stopped publishing new titles, a significant demand began to emerge for reprints of older ones around mid-1990s.
Obviously, these figures pale in comparison to ACK’s bygone era of glory but they become significant when we observe that nearly fifty Indian comic book publishers shut down in 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. I could hazard a guess. The 1980s generation was perhaps the last that grew up with a sense of wonder and awe when it read ACK comics, using nothing but the unfettered and unaided imagination of a child, to decipher these stories as its imagination and wonder informed it. Gadgets have robbed precisely this from the subsequent generations.
Needless, the malaise is the most acute with the millennial generation. Add to this the merciless and nonstop assault from media of every sort and more dangerously, the dangerous invasion of reality TV, this generation has become sexualized very early. It might sound cynical but 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.
And even as I type this conclusion, I realize the full value of that afternoon in Ravindra Kalakshetra. And the true legacy of Amar Chitra Katha as a cultural milestone.