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The Legacy Of Amar Chitra Katha

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An assistant professor of religion at Bucknell University, McLain is steeped in South Asian culture — her latest project is a study of the legacy of Raja Ravi Varma, the rich influence of his paintings in Indian public culture and Bazaar art — calendars, movie posters, postcards, erotica, and modern Hindu iconography. For her study of ACK, Karline began with its readers, flung far and wide. And, then again, right there in Mumbai where she spoke with college students. What she heard over and over again, from old and young readers, was the ubiquitous presence of the comics in not just their growing up, but in shaping an Indian sensibility. One of her scholarly objective here is to show how these comics construct a middle class Hindu identity.

For many of its middle class Brahmin readers it was clearly a nationalist or Hindu sensibility. But even its non-Hindu readers gushed that the comics had inspired in them an emotional sense of feeling Indian. Like the many readers represented in McLain’s book, I too came fresh from a reading diet of Phantom, Mandrake and Tarzan to ACK. I remember it was a little infra dig to be seen with a Krishna or a Rama or Shakuntala comic when you could looking hipper with Marvel or Tintin. But coming from a slightly evangelical Christian home, I couldn’t get enough of these comics, and it was a back entry to Hindu mythology which I had begun to grow fascinated with.

Karline McLain spoke to college students, advertising copywriters, grandparents, and families in Disaporic Indian communities. Uncles were willing Amar Chitra Kathas to their nieces and nephews; fathers handed whole bound sets to sons as legacies, and grandmothers carefully preserved the comics with brown paper as if they were school books or religious icons. One of McLain’s fascinating discoveries in her exploration of the world of ACK is stumbling on the true first edition of the Krishna comic, the first comic from the ACK stable. Doing the book-crawl in Mumbai’s pavement bookstalls, she came across a tattered copy of this issue (No. 11), which seemed the same comic and yet different.

The artist was obviously the same but some of the panels were different from all the reprinted versions: they lacked the miracles. Later she found out from Pai that as a chemical engineer he had been skeptical of including miracles in these comics, but when they proved popular (imagine the Marvel superheroes without super powers), Krishna was now shown lifting the mountain. McLain’s tells us that Pai had become frustrated with Indrajal comics dropping the Indian section they promised – the reason Pai had agreed to edit the comics. Years later he chanced on a TV quiz show in Delhi that showed a team of St Stephens boys unable to answer questions on Hindu mythology but answering correctly when quizzed on Greek mythology.

He took the idea of a comic about Indian mythology and national heroes to several publishers, all of whom rejected it until he found H.G. Mirchandani, publishing director at India Book House, who agreed. Pai published Krishna in 1969, and the issue was numbered 11. Yusuf Bangalorewala, Pratap Mulick and Ram Waeerkar illustrated the issue. At first the ACK comics sold slowly, and then began outselling Phantom, Mandrake and Tarzan. They had to be careful not to imitate the style of those comics, and evolved their own style of panel drawing. The comics at once focused on the diversity in Indian culture, writing, inking and drawing stories about Hindu gods, saints, Muslim kings, British villains, musicians, and mod

When McLain wrote to readers asking them if they thought the comics were also political, they were diverse responses with one group saying it was “insane to think it as being part of a political agenda” and the other declaring it as “damm Hindutva propaganda to brainwash children.” One reader wrote this: “Amar Chitra Katha embraces globalisation without giving in to homogenisation: India is a country with an equally great past as any European country. While it is important to embrace modernity, it is important to do so on one’s own terms.”

Some wrote to say that even today when they prayed at puja time, the picture that came to their minds of Rama or Krishna was of the comics. McLane points out that the panels featuring gods and goddesses were drawn looking slightly left so as not to induce darshan or gaze. Krishna has been reprinted more than 60 times, McLain informs us, selling more than a million copies. Almost every reader of Amar Chitra Katha interviewed here has spoken of the spiritual force the comics radiate — this, Karline McLane notes, is unique in the history of comic books. Which is one, among many reasons, why these comics will always be beloved not just to Indians but be special to comic book lovers everywhere.