The Classic Popular: Amar Chitra Katha (1957-2007)
Yoda Press *Rs 425*
Bloody Hell. Who would have thought that as I lay reading my favourite Amar Chitra Katha issue Dasha Avatar, some 30 years ago, I was willy-nilly being seeped in something more sinister than the adventures of the ten incarnations of Vishnu would suggest. Even as I recall my favourite frame from that edition showing Vamana Avatar, growing to his full XXXXL-Lord Vishnu size and raising his foot to place on the demon king Bali's head, I've been left goggleeyed by the unravellings made by Nandini Chandra in this brilliant journey into the heart of India's most famous ink- and-colour phenomenon, the Amar Chitra Katha.
Chandra applies Roland Barthes' observation on a photograph being always invisible, "it is not it that we see", to the illustrated mythology and history series that really started off in February 1970 with the title, Krishna.
At the root of the Amar Chitra Katha phenomenon was the whole Nehruvian notion of disseminating cultural values. Under the vision of Anant 'Uncle' Pai, and conjoined with a 1967 Unesco endorsement to use comics for the purpose, the idea of illustrated kathas came into being.
But as Chandra points out, right from the outset, the notion of culture and nation was conflated with Hindu iconic narratives. In essence, the role of the (Hindu) grandmother was taken over by Pai's missionary enterprise.
Chandra's investigations into Amar Chitra Katha are textual, anthropological and political. And the fact that all three strands are intertwined becomes clearer not only when we read about Pai's Gowda Saraswat Brahmin moorings - and, therefore, highlighting the Amar Chitra Katha as a product of "the exile's need to find roots and establish originary traditions" mirrored by the creators of the comics who all were migrants in Bombay - but also by the many 'empirical' anecdotes that are logically scattered throughout this slim book.
For instance, we learn that the Amar Chitra Katha team had only one Muslim artist - Yusuf Bangalorewala who in the 90s turned his back on what he suddenly started considering "idolatrous content". Another artist, Ram Waeerkar, initially drew Ram in Ramayana with a beard in accordance with the pothi tradition of Karnataka he was familiar with. Pai shot it down and insisted on the more 'Raja Ravi Varma-approved' muscular Ram (which, in turn, Varma modelled on Western classical figures). The explanation provided by Pai - and also applied to the depiction of Christ on the cross nailed at his palms, rather than the historically correct impalement at his wrists - was "extra-historical embroidery done at the behest of people's sentiments". While Chandra points out that such 'embroidery' was also applicable to avoid "the brutal" - Bayan Khan's headless body hung out for display by the 14-year-old Emperor Akbar, for instance - the Amar Chitra Katha was the carrier of a Hindu-centric rollcall of stereotypes with lecherous Muslims, primitive non-Hindus and passive(-aggressive?) women galore.
For someone whose aesthetics of the female form - one hopes not behaviour - have been irreparably moulded by peering into the belly buttons of Amar Chitra Katha lasses, Chandra's chapter, Free Spirits: Women in ACK is fascinatingly illuminating. As the author points out "what marks out ACK from other comics in the market, both Indian and foreign, is the considerable visibility of women and the voice invested in them". In the Amar Chitra Katha's Indianised/Hinduised version of the Madonna-Whore binary, the Sati-Shakti principle works like neurotic clockwork.
Even the 'bad girls' have a duality: "As long as they revert to a world where mother goddess cults were dominant, they at least produce the memory of a female utopia where women are their own creatures, without the burden of reproduction, monogamy and domesticity Indeed, this world is shown to belong either to the celestial nymphs or the demonesses, with their associated charge of whorishness as contained in the former's degeneration into temple prostitution and the latter's identification with low caste harlotry" And here I had been innocently following the apsaras down the primrose path.
With the arrival of television, the Amar Chitra Katha slumped - until a strategic reformulation and repackaging catered to the NRI readership. In this Chandra points to the efforts of India Book House and ACK publisher Padmini Mirchandani (who was responsible for bringing out the issue on Kalpana Chawla in 2005) and others in the ACK team like Margie Sastry For many of us, the Amar Chitra Katha is a nostalgic bag we try and get our kids to dip into, partly to share our youthful exuberance on discovering comic book mythologicals'n'history and partly to get a new, disconnected generation of English-reading Indians to 'know the past' (the way we got the 'know the past').
Chandra tells us - sometimes a tad ominously but most of the times with the relish of an explorer of ideas - that it's more than just that. There's more to the chitras than meets the eye.