Source : The Hindu
Change is in the air at legendary comic house Amar Chitra Katha, which turned 50 this year
Benevolent kings and their beauteous queens stroll in palace gardens or verdant forests while loyal servants eavesdrop and evil enemies plot. Meanwhile, marauding armies scale impossibly high walls and are beaten back by animals that can miraculously talk. A courtier outwits his king every single time and a poet brings strong men to their knees with his intelligence.
This complex cast of characters operating in a fantastical world held us in thrall every single issue ofAmar Chitra Kathathat we devoured eagerly. As the legendary comic brand reaches its 50th year of production, with over 450 titles to its credit and an astounding 100 million copies sold in over 35 languages, like any 50-year-old, it is emerging from its own version of a mid-life crisis.
Although adored by two generations of Indians, in the last 10 years, some of the adulation has been countered by scepticism bordering on outrage about what has been labelled Amar Chitra Katha’s ‘regressive’ content, both in its art and script.
A number of scholarly writings have come up, criticising and condemning the comics for reinforcing stereotypes: women characters are too subservient, caste hierarchy is established by skin colour, with upper caste characters invariably lighter toned, and its religious biases are clear. The controversy has been similar to what the Enid Blyton pantheon faced, forcing it to rethink its golliwogs and dwarves.
Beards and saris
If all this had happened in an Amar Chitra Katha, a single word from the superhero (placed in a spiky speech bubble) would have reduced the grumbling detractors to tiny, powerless creatures to be borne away on a tidal wave of nostalgia and affection. But real life is less forgiving. Thus, recently, when young artists in the comic house’s studios pointed out that there were no women in the crowd scene in a new title on Sardar Patel, Reena Ittyerah Puri, Executive Editor, immediately had it rectified by removing beards and adding saris for some of the crowd.
And if you pick up a comic today, you will notice that Ravana is now a handsome dude, Rama has a six-pack, and the Vanara army has both fair and dark characters.
Reena believes the comic’s role is to tell a story, and Amar Chitra Katha is clear it wants to tell the popular version of stories, thus always choosing to showcase tales as depicted in ancient texts rather than in archaeological readings. But equally she believes the comics must respond to social change.
“I believe we must change with the times, be ourselves,” she says. “Women are leaders and strong characters and we are writing comics to show that. Today, we don’t allow stereotypes. In mythology, men and women play certain pre-set roles. We cannot change those stories and have to tell them as they are. But we can choose whether to tell them at all or not.”
Mainstay of childhood
For children growing up in the early 70s, such as this writer, comics were the most exciting event of childhood, lent and borrowed on a daily basis, a precious currency to settle debts and favours. Among these, the Amar Chitra Kathas came right on top. Their familiar storylines, already partially imbibed through festivals and music, dance, theatre and grandma’s stories, were comforting yet exciting.
They were also priced within reach (the first one sold at 75 paise) and available at all local booksellers and railway bookstalls. Television had just about arrived, and wasn’t yet an addiction. Enid Blyton and her ilk formed the mainstay of pre-teenage reading.
For this generation of Indians with little access to and limited knowledge of our literary traditions, it was Amar Chitra Katha with its valiant heroes and voluptuous heroines that opened up the country’s vast storehouse of ancient tales. Take the Panchatantra , a set of fables dating back at least 2,000 years, of which there are more than a hundred versions translated into at least 50 languages. Yet, in the India of the 60s and 70s, were it not for the comics, the delightful tale of ‘The Monkey and the Crocodile’ could have possibly been lost since they weren’t as widely published in English then as they are today.
In the early decades after Independence, English medium schools still had texts and syllabi dictated by British systems that had us read and critique mostly foreign writers and poets.
The odd Nissim Ezekiel or Rabindranath Tagore would sneak in but did little to reveal the magnitude of literary work across languages available in our culture. Books were also expensive, and families relied on lending libraries and paperback titles.
In this milieu,the Amar Chitra Katha, brainchild of Anant Pai, reasonably priced and available in multiple languages, filled the gap admirably. Anybody could own one. Faithfully scripted from fables, folktales and history, and printed in 32-page booklets, the comics used vivid imagery and easy storylines.
And they had a firm moral compass. Like Grimm’s fairytales, good always triumphed over evil, and wit and wisdom won the day. The narrative could be understood and appreciated by anyone from five to 50. The language was simple, with no slang, often with classical intonations, and there was a helpful glossary to boot.
Winning parents over
That was an era when comics were not seen as literary masterpieces. They were frowned upon for their ‘light’ and vapid content. But suddenly here was Amar Chitra Katha, presenting mythology in a comic format. It broke brand new ground and as word of its solidly researched content began to spread, suddenly our parents were giving us permission to read them and they were even seen as worthwhile gifts.
About 20% of the 450 comics in the stable, or about a 100-odd, are based on the epics andPuranas, while the rest are fables and folk tales, classical and modern Indian literature, histories and biographies. TheMahabharataseries alone totals 43 singles and theRamayana, 36. The former accounts for 15% of its comics sold.
There is a gorgeous three-volume, 1,200 page omnibus edition of theMahabharata, priced at Rs. 2,499. And as part of its 50-year celebrations, the group has developedValmiki’sRamayanainto a six-volume set that took six years to create.
Unlike other comic series then that revolved around a single entity and his universe, Phantom or Mandrake, for instance, Amar Chitra Katha created broad subsets.
Thus, it could expand laterally from a variety of tales on gods, goddesses and myths to the witty and wise courtier Birbal, comic poet Tenali Raman or musical legend Tansen to warriors like Shivaji or Razia Sultana to famous dynasts like Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka or epic tales like Shakuntala and Nala Damayanti.
A look at the titles produced in the last 15 years, however, shows a definite shift towards biographies and potted histories of contemporary heroes. Reena is aware of the pitfalls of presenting religious history in communally sensitive times and prefers to choose non-controversial titles. “We have grown so many walls, and I would like to put out more stories about inclusive people like Kabir or social reformers like Savitribai Phule,” she says.
Going the Manga way
New titles include 21 stories on Param Vir Chakra awardees, one on Lachit Borphukan, the Assamese leader who fought the Mughals, naturalists Jim Corbett and Salim Ali, warrior Thacholi Othenan of Kerala who was respected far and wide for his martial art skills, queen Ahilyabai Holkar, Rani Chennamma of Kittur, and so on. There is even a comic planned on Swachh Bharat, commissioned by the government.
Anuraag Agarwal heads Business Development and Strategy, Mergers and Acquisitions at Future Group, which bought the Amar Chitra Katha brand from ShareKhan in 2010. He is pushing hard to widen his market, hoping to follow the famously successful Japanese Manga model, which is read by all ages.
Agarwal says: “We want to make our epics mainstream, relevant to children and others. A lot of Indians in their 30s and 40s are interested in reading about their history, connecting to their roots. Comics are easy reading for both readers and non-readers.”
His plans include a mobile phone app and getting on Google Play. They are also planning ACK Junior titles, storybooks with visuals. “Today, children have a lot more media options,” says Agarwal, “We may lose them if we don’t catch them early.” These books will be priced at Rs. 75 to Rs. 100.
Although official figures are not available, group executives admit that business is growing at an impressive 30% a year, and most of the offtake is from traditional bookstores. You get multiple options; you can pick a single or go for a set.
In 2018, they plan an international push, catering not just to the Indian diaspora, but to comic readers and story lovers across the world. Clearly, Amar Chitra Katha plans to stay on in our lives well into the 21st century.
The writer grew up reading Amar Chitra Katha and Enid Blyton in the 70s. She blames her love of British food on
those early years.