Amar Chitra Kathas: Where Art Thou?

Photo Source: Amar Chitra Katha – Shantanu & Bheeshma A hot, humid summer afternoon – suffocating loo blowing, ma sleeping after giving strict instructions to not venture out, watch TV or surf internet. Imagine this in the summer of the 90s! Do you find something missing? I do. I miss getting awestruck by Lord Rama’s wondrous feats as goodness triumphed over or marveling at Birbal’s ready wit. Yes, a large part of my childhood was spent reading the Amar Chitra Kathas and getting enthralled by their graphic tales. Today as I look back in a reverie, I cannot help but contemplate how much I gained out of these comics. The comics in vibrant colors using the Indian Calendar Art were my doorway into the Indian folklore, mythology and religious arena. And not only me, but a lot of other kids around me. We grew up in a time when the only means of getting more out of our playdates was to spend the entire afternoons with our friends; making castles out of sand or playing kitchen set with our dolls. Unlike the kids of today, we grew up to be fans of Chacha Choudhary’s genius, Sabu’s heroics, Pinky’s wit and Motu-Patlu’s senseless but amusing adventures. To top it all, we got our healthy dosage of moral and ethical values from the monthly supplements of Amar Chitra Kathas. As a voracious reader, I fondly remember carrying my copy in trains and buses during journeys. A lot of my love for reading stems from the visual artistry that preceded short texts, which made imbibing the religion and mythology easier and fun. Founded in 1967 by the Indian artist Anant Pai to educate the young Indian kids about their cultural heritage, Amar Chitra Kathas have gone on to become India’s most loved and largest selling comic books. With over a 90 million copies in about 20 languages, the imprint has over 400 titles. Uncle Pai, as he is fondly referred to by the kids and adults alike, recalls that he was surprised to know that the Indian school kids knew more about Greek and Roman mythology than their own folklore, mythology and religion. The family of Amar Chitra Katha includes prominent writers like Kamala Chandrakant, Subba Rao, Margie Sastry, C.R. Sharma and Debrani Mitra and prolific illustrators including Ram Weerkar, Yusuf Lien, Jeffrey Fowler, Pratap Mullick, Dilip Kadam, Souren Roy, C.D Rane and so on.

Photo Source: Uncle Pai

While those of us who grew up surrounded by comics and the make-believe world they presented in front of us, the young ones today, do not need medium such as paper books to put their imagination to test. Technology has made Artificial Intelligence a household word today. You can simply “Google” to find a 360 degree view of the whole world and some factions of the universe. Why spend a hundred bucks to invest in the good, old books when you can download a few rhyme apps, some interactive android games and let your kid learn all that there is to learn about the Indian mythology via the internet? And all of this is for free! Moreover, the recent controversies surrounding the Amar Chitra Katha comics being religiously inaccurate and reinforcing gender stereotypes have put them on the backburner all the more. My nieces and nephews would rather try to work out the cheat codes on the multi-player online games on my laptop rather than sit with me and listen to me reciting the fables of Rani Padmini and Rani of Jhansi. How can I tell them that the same book which is irrelevant to them inspired me to win the Fancy Dress Competition in the third standard? More than this, there was this acquisitive temptation to gather as many books as one could. One derived the same or more pleasure out of collecting Amar Chitra Kathas especially the older editions than reading the ones. And who can forget the comics on loan? After having confirmed this with several colleagues and friends of mine, I am sure now that I am not the only entrepreneurial businesswoman – for most of my friends lent, borrowed or bought comic books out of their pocket money. The paltry sum of 2 rupees for a “slightly used” Chacha Chaudhary Digest! Oh, what would I give to go back to those days? Although the Amar Chitra Katha empire has retained its stature in terms of India’s largest comic sellers today, I do not recall any new comic books series being launched in India. With the advent of all these Marvel and DC Movies, the collectors seem to be on rise, but sadly, there are no takers for our indigenous comics. No bidders on eBay either! Is it our negligence or the lack of adequate marketing for these books; it’s hard to fathom. I still buy the occasional Chacha Chaudhary from the railway bookstands for my nostalgia fix. Although have not bought any religious comic in a while given the inaccurate content controversy. Whether or not the comics will rejuvenate to their former glory, the age old tradition of storytelling is not going to smoke out soon. The Kahaani Festival, produced by Teamwork Arts is successfully exploring and reviving the art of storytelling with enhanced media. The concept of recital also remains the same; it involves dance, music, theatre and puppetry to reignite the love for stories. So far, the Kahaani festival has brought together storytellers and revived a multitude of narratives from India and around the world.   - Shaambhavi Pathak