If you really wanted to understand “Uncle Pai”, the man behind the Amar Chitra Katha comic books and the children’s magazine Tinkle, it was best not to meet him in adult company. Children reacted to Anant Pai, who died this weekend at the age of 80, in much the same way they responded to another legend, Ruskin Bond — with the unabashed adoration children reserve for adults who have, at heart, retained the ability to remain children themselves.
Critics have often been more reserved about the success and the influence of the 700-odd titles in the Amar Chitra Katha arsenal. When Anant Pai came out with the first ten titles, then known as Illustrated Classics, his attempt at the Indian comic book was an emotional response. The story behind the Amar Chitra Kathas is almost as much part of legend as the books themselves. Anant Pai had a failed children’s magazine behind him, and a respectable career at the Times of India when his attention was caught by a Doordarshan quiz. Asked who Rama’s mother was, the contestants were unable to answer. “I felt it was not his fault,” Pai said when we spoke about that particular incident. “We were reading Enid Blyton, children couldn’t be expected to read the scriptures, and where were our own stories?”
In the 1960s, the Children’s Book Trust had just begun producing its own set of titles, but these were highly uneven in quality, and the stories were often didactic — in later decades, the CBT would produce some lovely children’s books, but the tone of the 1960s list was often somewhat dour. For children who read in languages such as Bengali, Hindi, Marathi, Tamil and Gujarati, there was a wealth of well-loved classics. But the English-language bookshelf had little original writing when Uncle Pai started off the Amar Chitra Katha series — Enid Blyton, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins dominated the market, their stories timelessly beguiling but also distinctly foreign.
The Amar Chitra Kathas are such a venerable, monumental part of our reading today and our childhood memories in previous decades that it’s easy to forget just how ambitious Uncle Pai was. The first ten titles, under the Illustrated Classics name, were not Indian at all — they were retellings of Western fairy tales, much like the abridged classics still sold by the sackful today. The 11th title in the series, Krishna, came out under the Amar Chitra Katha imprint.
The next few give you a sense of where Uncle Pai was headed: Shakuntala, the Pandava Princes, Savitri, Rama, Nala Damayanti, Harishchandra, The Sons of Rama, the Mahabharata. The next 20 titles would broaden the canvas to include historical figures from Rana Pratap to Ashoka and Mirabai. By the 66th issue, Uncle Pai was confident enough to include comics on Zarathushtra and Ravana; by the 86th, he was adapting classics such as Bankimchandra’s Ananda Math. By the 2000s, the Amar Chitra Katha series included excursions into the lives of Bonaparte, Louis Pasteur, Hieun Tsang, Jesus Christ, Pandit Nehru, all retold alongside the endless retellings of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The most recent Amar Chitra Kathas include comic books on the lives of JRD Tata, Kalpana Chawla and Swami Chinmayananda — whether these attempts to build a modern canon will be as successful as the original mythological and historical galaxy remains to be seen.
For critics like Nandini Chandra and JA Lent, or revisionist artists like Chitra Ganesh, the Amar Chitra Katha’s popularity masks a more uncomfortable story. What children still love about the comic books is their easy, uncomplicated storylines, the retellings from (largely) Hindu mythology, the simple language that is rarely condescending. But the Amar Chitra Katha series also reflected the stereotypes and prejudices of mainstream Indian culture; pink-skinned, fair heroes and heroines, dark asuras and villains, passive women drawn as in Indian calendar art from the male perspective. Some scholars have also argued that the Amar Chitra Katha series were reflexively Hindu-dominated, with only the “good” Muslim kings like Ashoka finding representation; many have pointed out that the comic books offer an abridged and necessarily less complex version of history.
It’s hard not to agree with much of the criticism. But when I look back at my own childhood, this is also true: as with many Indians, much of my sense of history and mythology came from the Amar Chitra Katha universe. By retelling the myths and legends he had grown up with, in a form that children loved, Uncle Pai gave us the keys to the past in a way no textbooks in India could replicate. The comics were riddled with stereotypes, perhaps, but they were, for a very long time, all we had. The most important thing Uncle Pai did was to give us back our own history, in an Indian accent.