Rahe amar yeh chitra katha…

The past few days, I have been seeing many comments, posts, messages and heartfelt sadness on the passing away of Uncle Pai (aka Anant Pai), the creator of Amar Chitra Katha(ACK) and Tinkle.

I actually doubt how many Indians really know they owe their childhood to this man. And how many designers who are now into animation and graphics ever connected the dots to the one of the oldest comic books from this country. These comics and their stories allowed generations to imagine Indian mythology and their characters, a feat still to be surpassed by any animator or TV serial or movie.

So this is not just a loss of a visualiser or an entrepreneur. This is a loss of an icon who’s art was storytelling. An icon of innovation, and icon of design. Uncle Pai was someone who put India on to the global cultural map through his comics, way before the fads or fascination with India began in the West. These comics also never let us forget India while we went exploring Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree…

Some interesting facts about this journey of ACK and Tinkle (courtesy Wikipedia):
1. Amar Chitra Katha is one of India’s largest selling comic book series, with more than 90 million copies sold in 20 Indian languages.
2. Founded in 1967 by Anant Pai, the imprint has more than 400 titles that retell stories from the great Indian epics, mythology, history, folklore, and fables in a comic book format.
3. ACK was an attempt to teach Indian children about their cultural heritage. Pai was shocked that Indian students could answer questions on Greek and Roman mythology, but were ignorant of their own history, mythology and folklore. It so happened that a quiz contest aired on Doordarshan in February 1967, in which participants could easily answer questions pertaining to Greek mythology, but were unable to reply to the question “In the Ramayana, who was Rama’s mother?”
4.The original printings of Amar Chitra were not in full colour—because of budgetary constraints, the panels were printed using yellow, blue and green. Subsequent issues, however, changed to full colour.
5. There are special editions of the epics like the Mahabharata which is available in a 3 volume 1300+ pages set.The illustrations which seem to be quite Raja Ravi Varma’s style have only added to the overall appeal.
6. At the height of its popularity, in the mid-eighties, it had been translated into Bengali, Marathi, Assamese, Gujarati, Punjabi, Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Sanskrit and Urdu and selling half a million copies a month. Some titles were also translated into French, Spanish, German, Swahili, Fijian, Indonesian, and Serbo-Croat. This success inspired other publishing houses who launched their own series on their own themes: Dreamland Publications and Diamond Comics at New Delhi, and Jaico Publishing House at Mumbai.
7. For most, Indian history, a jumble of names and dates, came alive as stories. The detailed research of architecture, costumes, regional flavours and facts ensured that the comics were widely accepted into the mainstream, both parents and teachers using them as educational aids.
8. Tinkle was India’s first comic book for children! Characters like Suppandi, Shikhari Shambhu and Kaalia are household names…
9. To an extent, these books, with their homogenized and unbiased character descriptions went a long way in promoting national integration and increasing inter-provincial awareness throughout the country.

This last point itself talks of how simple graphics can bind a nation.

The comic book history of India dates back to the early 1900s. Most of these were comic strips. One of earliest attempts is by comic magazine Chandamama, which has been published in more than 5 languages since 1947. It developed from the adaptations of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in the 1960s, to educational comics for children, caricatures in print media, and adaptations of American superheroes. What with stories from the Puranas, Indian Mythology like Ramayana, Popular Folk tales like King Vikramaditya and the Vetal, etc Chandamama is in a class of its own. Their illustrations and artwork were totally different and very interesting to see.

Indrajal Comics was a series launched by the publisher of The Times of India, Bennet, Coleman & Co in March 1964. The first 32 issues contained Lee Falk’s The Phantom stories, but thereafter, the title alternated between various King Features characters, including Lee Falk’s Mandrake, Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, Rip Kirby and Phil Corrigan, Roy Crane’s Buz Sawyer, Allen Saunders’ Mike Nomad and Kerry Drake and Steve Dowling’s Garth. Later it also published Bahadur, an Indian comic hero created by Aabid Surti.

The cover artwork for the first 50 or so issues of Indrajal Comics was done by B.Govind, with the back cover featuring a pin-up poster. Govind’s painted covers are highly regarded amongst Indian Phantom fans, and are on par with those of George Wilson for the Gold Key series and the Avon novels from the USA. He was the creator of India’s superhero Bahadur.

[Govind Brahmania is no more among us. He passed away on 9th December, 2009. It is more sad because not even a single newspaper published a single news about this great creator. Not even TOI , the publication group for whom he worked for years.]

Pran Kumar Sharma created numerous strips, like Shrimatiji, Pinki, Billoo and the popular Chacha Chaudhary in the 1970s.

In the 1980s, Target, a children and youth magazine published two page comics. Detective Moochwala by Ajit Ninan and Gardhab Das, the singing donkey, by Neelabh & Jayanto, were its most popular characters.

Target magazine was an innovator as its artwork was original and of a high quality for its time. Manjula Padmanabhan, one of the few Indian female comic authors, did illustrations for Target. She also created a female comic character called Suki which was serialized in Sunday Observer in the 1980s.

Another notable Indian comic publishing house is Raj Comics, home of characters such as Nagraj, (a superhero who has subsequently made the transition to television), Doga, Super Commando Dhruva, Parmanu and various others. In Tamil Nadu, Alagar comics is the most famous one. Its available in both English and Tamil.

The Modern ventures and Graphic Novels:
In 2006, a partnership between Richard Branson’s Virgin group, and India’s Gotham Comics, led to a new company, Virgin Comics, geared towards creating new lines of comics rooted in Indian mythology and Indian history. The first series of comics were published in 2006, to mixed critical reviews. The main icon of Virgin Comics was the superhero Devi, but other series included a fantasy adaptation of the ancient Ramayana epic, a series based on the life of a supernaturally adept Sadhu.

Fluid Friction Comics are an International comics company with an Indian partner who have taken Indian mythology as the inspiration for their comic series. Their premier series DevaShard is an embellishment on the life of Karna and their future titles will be based around other integral characters from the Mahabharata. All stories are based in a fictional world based on a mythological idea of the Earth 7,000 years ago named Bhumi. The artwork in the comics has been produced by a truly international team featuring artists from both the Eastern & Western hemispheres. DevaShard launched for the first time in India just before Diwali in October 2008.

Illustrated Orchids is a comic book company that is operated by the Indian Singaporean diaspora. The company has creative studios in India, and is led by creative director Sudhir Sehgal.

In 2009, an ambitious new company entered the graphic novel market. Based in New Delhi, India, Campfire Graphic Novels has a distribution network with several major publishing houses around the world.

Although the idea of comic books are being replaced by graphic novels, the fact of the matter is that what people like Uncle Pai and others of his time started then in order to promote the ‘Indianess’, has now become an USP for most publishing houses. People want to read about India and comics from India. What better legacy could these stalwarts leave behind…

ps: India unfortunately never duly acknowledged people like Uncle Pai; and it will be a shame if we let others who have contributed to building our culture through comics pass by us unsung.
I think we should put together all these graphic artists’ works in a museum for teaching all new budding designers.

pps: I have been contemplating to start a comic library for the past 2-3 years, never got to doing it. But soon… will update as and when that happens.


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