My generation, now the forty- somethings, grew up with a series of benevolent uncles. Uncle Badri taught us to draw on national television. Uncle Pai taught us our history, our mythology, and in so doing, had a huge hand in determining how we saw ourselves.
But Anant Pai, who died on Thursday after a brief illness, was more than just the kindly teller of tales. The master mythopoeist had his own creation story.
“One day, in February 1967, I was in Delhi,” he told me when we met several years ago. “There, at the junction of Gurudwara Road and Azma Khan Road was a shop called Maharaja Lal & Sons. It was selling televisions sets. At that time, Delhi had television but Mumbai didn’t. A quiz show was in progress. None of the contestants could answer a simple question like, “Who is the mother of Lord Rama?” I felt bad about that but I tried to explain it to myself.
They were not interested in mythology, not interested in the past. They were looking to the future. But then the next question was about a god from Mount Olympus and all of them knew the answer. I realised that these young people had been alienated from their own culture. And I realised that comics might be a way of bringing them back.”
He began to work on the idea but several publishers refused to listen. Finally, he met GL Mirchandani, proprietor of India Book House, who saw the possibilities of the idea. He started work on the Illustrated Classics as they were originally called. (For all those who like trivia: The first 10 are Illustrated Classics; the name Amar Chitra Katha starts with number 11.)
He took no salary for the first few months: wrote it, drew it and then went out and marketed it, working assiduously on bookstores, schools, libraries, anywhere, everywhere. He arranged drawing competitions and quizzes and story-telling competitions, compering them, judging them, connecting with his market.
And this was where his genius lay. He understood the market. He knew he had to reach children but he had to reach into their parents’ pockets too. The language was kept clean and simple. No slang, for instance. Colloquial expressions were allowed in the speech bubbles but not in the commentary.
But what he had to battle, he said, was the generalised attitude that ‘comics were bad for children’. “In those days, principals would never allow a comic into the school library. So in 1978, I conducted a study in 30 schools with 981 students. One group was taught about Razia Sultana, (the daughter of Iltutmish who, for a brief while in the 13th century, ruled India) in the standard format, using text books and classroom instruction. The other read the Amar Chitra Katha on Razia Sultana. When the two groups were compared on recall, the group that read the comic scored much, much better. There was no comparison, even in terms of questions like the year in which she ascended the throne. With that data, I went to the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan headed then by Baldev Mahajan. He took a look at my study and ordered that central schools could use government funds to buy Amar Chitra Katha.”
Eventually, in the glory days, ACK was the only competition to the glossy products of America. Those 440 titles shared space with Hergé’s Tintin and wiped the floor with Bela and Bahadur. In the 1980s, Tinkle was launched, too late for us, but thirty-somethings still remember Shikari Shambhu and the adventures of Kalia the Crow.
The gloss may have worn off in an age where the competition for children’s eyeballs is savage but the series continues. Mother Teresa and Hampi and Surjo Sen have been released. Samir Patil who owns ACK Media believes that the ACK gyaan bhandar is as vibrant a mother lode as it was when we traded the comic books as infants.
And there is something reassuring about the fact that Patil says that Uncle Pai was at work to the end. “He had chosen 40 turning points in India’s history which he felt offered some ‘Glimpses of Glory’. He had commissioned paintings based on them which were to be turned into an exhibition that would tour schools. It would become a large format book,” says Samir Patil of ACK Media.
Glimpses of Glory? The man on the street corner in Delhi whose heart ached for a generation with no roots had not changed in 50 years. We, who have lost an uncle, may take some consolation from that.
Jerry Pinto is a Mumbai-based writer