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Mal Peet
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Anant Pai

interviewed by Nandini Nayar
July 2005

Anant Pai and Amar Chitra Katha – the two are synonymous in India. Anant Pai, popularly 'Uncle Pai' to millions of children in India, is seen as the father of the Indian comic book. His creation, the Amar Chitra Katha – literally ‘Immortal Pictorial Tales’ – is today a venerated institution. Amar Chitra Katha was introduced in India at a time when the western heroes – Superman and Phantom – were making waves and thrilling the English educated Indian child. Anant Pai realized that what Indian children needed was stories from their own history and culture. And that is how Amar Chitra Katha was born.
The first title in the series was Krishna in 1967. Success was slow in coming but once it began, there was no stopping the series. Today, with over 400 hundred titles (reportedly selling 1,000,000 issues every fortnight – in various languages), the series is seen as a one-stop-shop for culture and history. The success of the series lies in the fact that incidents from Indian history, tales of the various gods from the huge pantheon of gods and goddesses, are all presented in a suitably abridged form accompanied by bright illustrations. Of course there are those who claim the series is politically incorrect and limited in vocabulary and ideas. But for generations of people, both within India and away from the home shores, Amar Chitra Katha, with the distinctive logo, are familiar and dear, bringing back memories of childhood and the lazy enjoyment of devouring an exciting comic. Here Anant Pai, also the editor of a children’s magazine in the comic book format, Tinkle, answers questions posed by Nandini Nayar.

Amar Chitra Katha has shaped the sensibilities of several generations of Indians, given them an enjoyable introduction to the history and the culture of their country. The purpose behind the endeavor is clearly very noble. How did you decide on the comic book format? Comics are western in their concept and history. Comics are often treated as the lesser, form of literature by serious readers. In this context, how certain were you of your ability to use comics to narrate an entire culture to a generation that had no inkling of the depth and significance of their heritage?

I was not a comics buff. I had never read comics before I started working on Amar Chitra Katha. Many ideas occurred. Among them, comics seemed a very interesting way to introduce Indian children to their heritage. I noticed that my nephews and nieces were very fond of reading comics. This convinced me that children love to read comics. Therefore, I used this medium. When the first few comics were produced I remember I was rebuked by a few principals of schools for bringing out comics. I remember Dadasaheb Rege of Bal Mohan Vidya Mandir, Mumbai, firmly telling me, “I will not permit our students to read comics.”
I promised educationists that I would never use slang in Amar Chitra Katha. I would not use colloquial expressions in the commentary panels. These were permitted in the speech balloons. Thus I tried to soften the objections to comics on the grounds that they spoiled the language. We had many meetings with educations in Feb 1978. A seminar was held on the role of Chitra Katha in school education, on February 14, 1978.
Dr. Pratap Chandra Chunder, the Union Minister of education was the chief guest at the seminar.
Shri Baldev Mahajan, Commissioner of the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan presided over the seminar. Representatives of the NCERT, Directorate of Education, Delhi participated in the seminar. I had read a paper on Chitra Kathas in school education. All this slowly improved the acceptability of the comics.

Once you had decided on the format of retelling, how did you go about the actual process of adapting the stories? History-writing, in the form of a documentary, is easier, since it is basically a recital of facts that can be conveyed. But Indian mythology – or any mythology – is really confusing, even to the people who have known it for long. What form did the adaptation take ? Was it a case of discarding certain things and highlighting only the important ones or did you have a particular goal when rewriting each story?

Yes, the task was difficult. There were many versions of the incidents in different Puranas. However, the Ramayana (an epic about the valiant King Rama) and the Mahabharata [the story of the great war fought by the armies of the Kauravas and the Pandavas] did not have major variants. Krithivasa Ramayana of Bengali [the language spoken by the people in the state of Bengal] differed in some ways.
I had laid down the following instructions for writing scripts for Amar Chitra Katha.

Tell the Truth.
Tell what is pleasing to listen to.
The Unpleasant truth need not be told.
At the same time just because it is pleasing do not tell an untruth.

We used the editor’s privilege to add emphasis to or to reduce gore from events and happenings. For example, the headless body of Hemu was ordered to be displayed near the gate. To reduce the unpleasant effect on young minds the scene was made inconspicuous. When there were instances capable of promoting national integration, we did emphasize them. For example, the love and respect shown by the Muslim jailor to Lokamanya Tilak was emphasized. In short we have taken a little liberty by adding or reducing emphases on certain incidents.

The illustrations are an important part of any book, more so when it is a comic book. How did you go about providing the illustrations for the comics? Did you have a certain vision of how the characters were to be presented or did you give a free rein to the artist? For instance, do we make the human face martial and vigorous or delicate and sensitive?

Of course the most difficult part of the work in the editorial department was to provide references to the artists. For example it is easy to write a book on Swami Vivekananda. In the printed book, we can print his speech at the parliament of Religious in Chicago. “Dear brothers and sisters of America..." In the Chitra Katha format the editorial department had to provide references like the visuals of the audience, the visuals of the people on the dais, the order in which they were seated or what was in the background etc.
We had very little references even on history. We showed warriors with well-built bodies. For example in our Amar Chitra Katha “Bahman Shah” we have shown not only Bahman Shah but his immediate circle of generals also as tall and strong.

This leads on from my earlier question. The illustrations of gods and goddesses in Amar Chitra Katha portray them as more human than god like, while calendars in India portray them as cherubic and angelic. Was this a conscious decision – in order to convince children that the gods too are human??

Ravi Varma had painted many pictures of Indian gods and goddesses like Laxmi, Krishna dancing on the serpent Kalia, Krishna holding up Goverdhan. He had also done paintings of Nala and Damayanti, Bhagiratha bringing down Ganga from heaven etc. He was living in Mumbai and clad his women in the traditional Maharashtrian saris. He showed goddesses in choli (blouse). When Draupadi was being seized by her hair by Dusshasana, she pleads, “With only one garment on me, how can I attend the sabha?” From this and many descriptions in the classics, we learnt about costumes. We showed women wearing an “antariya” (lower garment), an “uttariya” (upper garment), stanapatta (covering the breasts) Prapata (which held in place the Uttariya), etc. There are references to men as well as women wearing “Ushnesha” (covering for the head). We did not follow the examples set by Ravi Varma in costumes. We checked the references available in the classics to ensure that the gods and goddesses were dressed in ways similar to those present in ancient India.

What target audience did you have in mind when you picked the English comic book format? Do you see a divergence between Amar Chitra Katha in English and in the regional language?

The target audience I had in mind was 8-14.
There are no differences between Amar Chitra Katha in English and in regional languages.

‘Krishna’ was the first title of the series. Was there any particular reason for choosing this god, from the pantheon of Indian gods, for the inaugural issue?

Krishna is a character close to my heart.
In my house, the pictures and statuettes of Krishna are to be found all over the place. “Who at this point of time is the most virtuous, the most brave, the knower of the right from wrong, grateful to those who help him, truthful and firm in his resolve? If there is such a person I want to sing of him,” asks Valmiki. “Indeed there is such a person – Rama of Ayodhya”. And Valmiki writes the poems on Rama. Rama was a role model. Krishna is not shown as a perfect person. He is like one of us.

This is a question that comes from and within children’s literature in general. Does one provide a ‘sterilized’ tale for children, if at all? Mythology and history are always, in all cultures, full of war bloodshed and violence. How does one present such a tale to a child? Amar Chitra Katha has not been above graphic representations of killings and violence. The title ‘Prahlad’ springs to the mind. The final panel, which shows the half-man half lion, Narasimha, killing the proud Hiranyakashyapu, is truly gory, with Narasimha tearing open the stomach and blood dripping out. How do you handle such themes when deciding on what goes into a book?

The scene of Narasimha killing is very gory. Here I had no other alternative except to show this scene. Without this scene there would have been no comic on Prahlad. While illustrating Amar Chitra Katha, we have avoided showing grotesque and gory scenes, as I have said earlier.

Reports of the death of the printed word are constantly being reported by the media, right alongside surveys that indicate falling ‘reading habits’. In this context what do you see for Amar Chitra Katha in the future?

I do not think that the rule of printed word is over. Exposing children to cartoon films and video games has reduced the span of attention of youngsters and they are also exposed to a lot of violence in cartoon films from U.S.A. Even the Hollywood film stars have realised the impact of TV on young minds. Many of them have put restrictions on their children viewing TV for more than 2-3 ours a day.
Stories have been an effective medium to inculcate values, throughout the history of mankind. The parents who become aware of this will induce the children to be away from TV for quite sometime. Please note whenever a new medium of communication comes on the scene there has been a furore. When a touring talkies visited our town a maid servant came to my grandma and said, “Give me one anna. I want to buy a ticket for the cinema. I am told on a white screen people go round trees singing songs and talking to each another. I want to see it."
My grandma gave her one anna. I watched this scene from behind the door. When the maidservant made her exit, I made my entry and said, “I also want to see people running around trees and singing songs.”
My grandma had then said, “Children from decent families do not see movies.”
When printing was first introduced many must have felt a threat to their positions.

JK Rowling’s Harry Potter has dazzled children around the world Indian children too have suddenly started reading books again. Your comments on this phenomenon.

Children have always been fascinated by superhuman actions. Fairy tales and Tales of magic provide spurs to their imagination. Children get over this phase. As for the reading habit, books like Rowling’s can help in improving reading habits.

© 2005 ACHUKA


Editor: Michael Thorn
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