Amazing stories, engaging characters: The history of comics in India
They came into existence after 1947, saw a golden period in the 1980s, fell in popularity by the late ’90s, but now look ready for a revival. The bewitchment with Indian comic books continues.
I just learnt last week that I am a xennial, a word that my computer still feels is a typing mistake. In the Indian context, it represents a generation that travelled long distances in trains every summer to spend time with relatives, that bought its dose of entertainment – comic books -- from the AH Wheeler Stalls at railway stations.
Times were simpler and so were our imaginary friends – a village do-gooder with a brain that worked faster than computer, a shape-shifting snakeman who could shoot live snakes from his wrists or a dog-faced vigilante who would punish gangsters with style.
Back in the day, before 1947, comic books were an alien concept to a nation busy fighting for its freedom, an unknown dream for children growing up at that time.
“During the Second World War, groups of foreign soldiers used to get down in Bombay. From the Bombay dockyard they were sent to another place via a small railway line from where they would leave for Burma,” recalls celebrated artist and author Aabid Surti. “The trains in which they travelled were really slow and I used to run after them along with other kids. Sometimes some kindhearted soldier would throw us a few chocolates, coins etc.. On one such occasion, a soldier threw a comic book. We had never seen a comic book before and all of us kids pounced on it and ripped it apart. I ended up getting one page. It was a Mickey Mouse comic. I loved the art so much that I started copying it. Because of that one page I am a cartoonist today.” Surti created many memorable characters, including the quirky middle-class philosopher cartoon character Dhabbuji.
But it wasn’t until 1964 that a comic book imprint was launched – Indrajal. The first Indrajal comic, Phantom’s Belt (Vetal Ki Mekhla in Hindi) was released in March 1964. The adventures of Phantom became a rage with Indian readers, he was rechristened Vetaal in Hindi and Oronyo Deb in Bangla. Gulshan Rai, publisher of Diamond Comics, who used to run a bookstore in Delhi’s Dariyaganj in the ’70s remembers, “People would queue up before our store for the new issue of Indrajal comics.”
But there was another revolution waiting to happen. The late Anant Pai, who died in 2011, and is widely regarded as the father of Indian comics, worked in the publishing industry, and always dreamt about making Indian comics with stories drawn from Indian history and culture, drawn by Indian artists. During a visit to Delhi in 1967, he saw a TV quiz show, where none of the young contestants knew the name of Ram’s mother though they could answer questions about Greek gods. This made Pai all the more determined to implement his dream. He met GL Mirchandani and HG Mirchandani of the publishing house, IBH, and though they were a bit cautious, they gave him the go-ahead. Pai began hunting for an artist to work on the first Indian Amar Chitra Katha, a comic based on the adventures of Krishna.
He found cartoonist Ram Waeerkar, who showed Pai some pages drawn by him in the Indian ornamental style that Pai had in mind. Waeerkar, who died in 2003, did the maximum Amar Chitra Katha Titles.
Amar Chitra Katha’s first original Indian comic book, Krishna, was a big hit. With over five million copies sold, it remains their best-selling title till date, and is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
Indrajal too was ready to launch its first Indian comic book hero. They contacted Aabid Surti who had already created Inspector Azaad, a popular character, to create a new comic book hero. “Dacoits were a big nuisance in the ’70s, especially in central and northern India, so I based my hero in Chambal. I wanted to make him a progressive Indian, so we made him wear a kurta with a pair of jeans,” says Surti of Bahadur, who went on to become one of India’s most-loved comic book heroes. The first Bahadur story The Red Brick House (Laal Haveli Ka Rahasya in Hindi) released in December 1976 and was a massive success. Indrajal later tried coming up with other Indian heroes like Aditya and Dara in the late ’80s but none of them proved to be as successful as Bahadur.
No Gore Please
Meanwhile, a silent revolution was taking place in the north of India. Inspired by the popularity of American comics, a bunch of artists was ready to storm the comics scene. One of them was cartoonist Pran Kumar Sharma.
Pran’s comic strips, notably featuring Chacha Chaudhary stayed away from direct violence. They were about a utopian world where an old man Chacha Chaudhary would fight crime using his wit and at times a bamboo stick, He was an unlikely superhero, an antithesis to the very idea of square-jawed western superheroes. “I had seen western comics and I wanted to change the perception of muscular, good-looking superheroes like Phantom, Superman, and Batman. So I thought, ‘What if I break the stereotype?’ I thought of an old man, short, bald and a little frail, but I based him on Chanakya and gave him the power of wit. This is how Chacha Chaudhary was conceived,” said Pran in a 2009 interview. Chacha Chaudhary was a roaring success, and started as a syndicated strip in 1969. He entered the world of comic books with Chacha Chaudhary Antariksh Mein, published by Diamond Comics in 1980.
Cartoonist Pran, who was born to a policeman father in Kasoor district (now in Pakistan), saw so much bloodshed when his family moved from Pakistan to India in 1948, that all his life, he tried to stay away from showing blood in his comics. Even when he created the eponymous baddie Raka in Chacha Chaudhary Aur Raka, where he had to draw blood, it always had a tinge of tar, a blackness to it.
Aversion to drawing blood is something that was true of several other comic book creators too who were products of Partition. Such as Gulab Kapoor, the publisher of humour comic magazine Madhu Muskan. Even when he started publishing the whodunnit detective comic series Babloo, where every now and then there was a murder, artist Husain Zamin was asked to avoid colouring blood. All the stories had white blood.
The Indian Superheroes
Started in 1978, Diamond Comics published Faulaadi Singh, one of the very first Indian sci-fi superheroes, and added kid detectives Rajan-Iqbal to their roster of heroes. The names Rajan Iqbal were already popular, thanks to the best-selling children’s novels written by SC Bedi. The success of Rajan Iqbal kickstarted the buddy-detective genre in Indian comics. To bring about a sense of national integration, most of these duos had one Hindu and one Muslim character - Rajan Iqbal, Ram Rahim, Sagar Salim and many others.
By the mid 1980s, Indian comics had reached their golden age, with more than 20 publishers publishing a vivid range of comics.
But India was changing, India’s problems were changing and Indian comics had to change with the times. The assassination of Indira Gandhi made terrorism a household topic. Two years later, the newly-launched Raj Comics announced its flagship character Nagraj, whose mission was to fight terrorism, using the mythical powers of the snakes he possessed.
“We wanted to create a superhero who had his base in Indian mythology and there was nothing better than introducing a superhero who had the powers of a naag,” says Sanjay Gupta, the co-creator of Nagraj. The covers of Nagraj comics were aesthetically painted and had a James Bond movie feel to them. Over-the-top villains and adventures spread across the globe made Nagraj a fan favourite. Drawn by Pratap Mulik and written by Sanjay Gupta, Nagraj became a trendsetter in many ways. Now every publisher wanted costumed superheroes in their comics.
Anant Pai was successfully editing Tinkle, a magazine he had launched in 1980. Tinkle stands out as one of the best-selling kids’ magazines even now and its characters like Suppandi, Kaalia The Crow, Shikari Shambhu etc. are huge favourites, even after more than three decades.
But the flavour of the day remained superheroes. Nagraj aur Bughaku, a double-sized comic book starring Raj Comics’ flagship characters Nagraj and Super Commando Dhruv published in 1991, sold more than 900,000 copies within the first three months of its release, a record that still remains unmatched.
What followed next was a wave of Indian superheroes published by old and new publishers alike. Raj Comics expanded its superhero universe; their most interesting creation was Doga, India’s first anti-hero, who wears the mask of a dog and roams around the streets of Mumbai. Around the same time, Indrajal Comics took its last breath and shut down its business.
While the comic book villains could never defeat these heroes, the advent of cable and video games did. By the late ’90s most of the publishers had to shut shop and by the early 2000s there were only two big players left in the market, Raj Comics and Diamond Comics.
It would take almost a decade and a handful of new publishers to revive comic book culture in India. With the launch of Virgin Comics in 2006, Indian comics not only got a new lease of life, but also inspired new entrepreneurs to enter the market and try their hand in creating new content for a new generation. The late 2000s saw a revival in the comic book market -- older readers began returning to their favourite imaginary friends and buying the books they drooled over at lending libraries. New readers were also ready to sample these titles. Technology helped characters like Chacha Chaudhary, Nagraj, Dhruv and Doga to leap out of comic book pages and land on our smartphones. Publishers like Raj Comics and Diamond Comics are reprinting their old titles. Things are looking up.
Alok Sharma is a writer-filmmaker, whose upcoming documentary, Chitrakatha, traces the history of Indian comic books.