Slips between the lip and the strip

Chitra Ganesh, Tales of Amnesia, Ghost

Dhruvi Acharya, Words III

The story about Amar Chitra Katha was great fun to do especially because everyone I talked to also seemed to be having a good time.

WHEN ANANT PAI, an engineer from Karnataka, started Amar Chitra Katha in 1967 he wanted to bring entertainment into the dull lives of schoolchildren. He and the team that worked with him in India Book House created a runaway success. Gods, humans, demons, saints and revolutionaries frolicked, fought and loved within brightly coloured panels. Equally acceptable to children and parents, Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) was to become an authoritative source for Indian mythology. Everyone from costume designers of mythological serials to school teachers and trivia hounds saw familiar and unfamiliar tales through the ACK lenses. The selfstyled Uncle Pai was told decades later by then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee that only he could fill the warm spot left empty by ‘Chacha Nehru’.

Though just as ubiquitous as in their heyday, the comics are today discussed with nostalgia by thirty-somethings, spoken of in the same breath as Amul hoardings and the “Ek chidiya anek chidiya” national integration jingles — benchmarks for an object’s transformation into cultural artifact. But, art and academia are suddenly giving ACK new attention disconcertingly devoid of nostalgia.

Nandini Chandra, a Delhi academic, has spent the last 12 years studying the ACK as a text and an institution. She says while the aging Pai remains an avuncular, chatty man with a sincere interest in education, the ideological underpinnings of ACK bear much closer scrutiny.

Chandra, writes in her new book The Classic Popular: Amar Chitra Katha, 1967-2007 (Yoda Press) that every ACK fan would benefit from understanding how the comics conflated the Hindu with the national. Chandra makes a convincing argument that the comics combine relatively innocuous text with far more troubling visuals. The bearded Muslim and the dark-skinned person are rendered stock villains in a vast majority of the 600-odd original ACK titles. Women characters enjoy emancipation in the narratives but are framed so that their bodies are viewed through the eyes of the ravishing villain. Lower caste heroes and saints are pushed to the margins by Brahmin characters.

Yusuf Lien aka Bangalorewala, ACK’s lone Muslim painter, whose poignant Mirabai won awards, eventually found the ill-concealed propaganda too much to work with. “Muslim freedom fighters and Aurangzeb were sidelined and ‘grey-zone’ mystics such as Dara Shikoh and Kabir were chosen as representatives of the Muslim,” he told Chandra.

AS YOU READ The Classic Popular and look at the strips again you are first amazed at how much you remember, and then because you had not noticed these obvious details before. “When I first started rereading these comics I was startled at how insidious it was myself.” But Chandra also says that by creating a corpus of folk tales and local history ACK artists and writers inadvertently subverted the monolithic national vision for a more nuanced perspective.

While the politics of ACK would worry a careful reader others look past the manipulative content fondly. Hyderabad-based comics collector Satyajit Chetri is one such fan. Two rooms of his home have been set aside for several thousands of contemporary and vintage comics from around the world. These include 500-odd ACKs. Chetri says, “My interest in comics began because of ACK. I used to find them useful for quizzing and then I really got into them. As an adult I look at them more critically and can see how the comics are biased. But ACK is still very cool because of all the research they did.” Chetri adores the hard-to-find original ACKs and even harder-to-find early comics which were printed only in blue, green and yellow. It distresses him, the proud owner of an original watercolour by Japanese manga artist Goseki Kojima, to hear that ACK lost their original artwork in a fire.

Chetri, a serious fan, even made a pilgrimage to Mumbai to see Pai. Though thrilled to meet Pai, Chetri is also fascinated with the late Ram Waekar, one of the handful of artists who created the look of ACK. To Chetri, Waekar is like Steve Ditko, the co-creator of Spiderman who was overshadowed by his partner Stan Lee. “His women were beautiful. His drawing style has wonderful, clear lines.”

One of the greatest pleasures in reading Chandra's book is the introduction to the minds behind ACK. Not quite as dramatic as the events of graphic novelist Will Eisner’s autobiographical The Dreamer but fascinating nevertheless. Through this she also traces the visual vocabulary of individual artists. Calendar and poster art, Modesty Blaise, American thrillers, the Peruvian artist Boris Vallejo all combined to create iconography in ACK at once bland and incendiary. It is from Chandra we learn that Waekar first drew a bearded Ram in the Pothi traditions of his homestate Karnataka. He was immediately asked by Pai to redraw Ram in the Ravi Varma style. Waekar, who was just as shrewd, drew on other acceptable sources, which is why we see in one Waekar panel a Ram who bears a striking resemblance to Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan. It was also Waekar who established the ACK convention of fair complexions for gods and human beings while depicting demons as universally dark.

Though the comics were clearly influenced by Hindi cinema’s framing, the artists generally looked down upon the industry. This is despite the fact that one of the ACK artists, CM Vitankar, was formerly one half of a film-poster painter duo, Thakur-Vitankar, a pair so celebrated for their work that movies were released months later to match their schedule. .

During the time Chandra worked on this frequently grim book, she would have been cheered to see artist Chitra Ganesh’s work (now showing at Chatterjee and Lal, Mumbai). Ganesh too probes the tension between the words and imagery in ACK. Ganesh integrates fragments of the originals with pen and ink drawings and replaces the text with her own lyricism.

A first look at Ganesh’s Tales of Amnesia, a 21-part comic series, does not reveal anything unusual, so familiar are we with ACK or, more likely, with the memory of it. Look again. Dark nipples, heads on ritual salvers in the hands of gentle ladies, a woman performing oral sex and monstrous bodies composed of fragments of the pink limbs that all ACK heroines had.

Ganesh is a 33-year-old Brooklyner, who like thousands of others, had read ACK comics when she was a child, picking them up both in New York and on family trips to India. Some years ago she revisited them as an adult, “I was at a residency and my girlfriend at the time mailed me a care package with some comics,” she said. “ACK comics disseminate prescriptive models of nationalism, religious expression and sexuality. I’d like to create mythology that poses questions rather than clear answers.”

Unlike the weepy yet amusing women who feature in Roy Liechtenstein’s work (an artist Ganesh is often compared with), the heroines of Tales of Amnesia are violent, volatile creatures escaping ACK’s Lakshman rekha. In her book Chandra has an irritable passage questioning how Pai arrived at ACK’s now famous costumes for women. Channeling the spirit of Raja Ravi Varma, ACK was able to conceal the sensual in the divine — in knotty, diaphanous garments. Chandra, when she finally encountered Ganesh’s work this week was gleeful. “I am so glad the breasts are popping out in her comics.”

Dhruvi Acharya, a 36-yearold painter, also engages with the disjunct between art and text in ACK. But she has gone in the opposite direction from Ganesh. In her Words series (now showing at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai) Acharya has kept the ACK blurbs but erased the images. Detached from the panels they are ridiculous. “How strong and firm is his grip,” says one. Acharya, whose art usually radiates cool wit, gives in to a rare snigger.

In the West once beloved figures like Enid Blyton have been reviled for political incorrectness, banned from bookshelves and children. In India Chandra’s book may cause some disquiet among very scrupulous parents. But Chandra says that she admires ACK for what it is and sees no reason for exile — just some distance. She says, “ACK was avowedly for children but the creators knew that adults were the actual buyers. They needed to be amused and interested first. There is also a clear understanding that children are canny and don't need to be protected. They need to learn that the world contains evil and duplicity.” It is unlikely that Pai foresaw that his immortal picture books could one day be displayed as object lessons in duplicity.


Great article (and brilliant, brilliant ACK-y strip here!)

There are two things I remember about ACks in ym adult life: one is the hooha the Shiv Sena created when Nancy Adjania's article about the representation of Shivaji in ACK came out; and the second is how reluctant I am for my son to read them. They're so politically suspect, so gruesome (why did we never see how much blood and gore they contained? Why do I think my son wont' come out of his childhood as unscathed as I did out of mine?) and often so cheesy.

And yet, so much of what we know of history or mythology is confined to what we learnt for our ACKs, no?

August 16, 2008 at 10:58 AM  

wow... how did i miss nancy adajania on this? it would have been nice for my piece. Its surprising how many people around me have picked up amar chitra kathas while i was working on the piece and and had the same mixture of nostalgia and worry. Also... which is what i ws trying to say in my piece... that it might actually be a useful thing to use to talk to kids... i dunno but i dont have kids so cant say

August 18, 2008 at 12:52 AM  

hmm. well, it wasn't entirely about amar chitra katha, but i distinctly remember her mentioning it at the beginning somewhere...can't find a link to the original, but three right-wing articles quote the same few sentences from it!

here (it comes in the comment, way down)


and here.

Now to go cleanse my palate. or something.

August 18, 2008 at 9:11 PM  

thanks for this.:)

August 21, 2008 at 10:08 AM  

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