An ode to India’s immortal comic books

By Dev Nadkarni

No introduction to Amar Chitra Katha –the well known comic book series on Indian mythology, legend and history– is necessary to those of us who grew up in India in the 1970s and thereafter.

Millions of copies of the 450-odd titles have been printed and translated into over 50 languages worldwide. A few dozen of the best selling titles are still being reprinted after 40 years. At least a couple of generations of people of Indian origin relate to their roots through the ACK series –no matter where in the world they live.

For me personally, the connection with ACK is something I deeply cherish. Having been raised on them since I was seven years old, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with the series both as author and associate editor (during which time we also launched an equally popular children’s magazine called Tinkle – now available in the Auckland library system).

It was a few years ago that Karline McLain first contacted when she was researching for her PhD thesis on ACK. She consulted with me on a number of aspects of the series over the next several months. Little did I know until last week that having earned her doctorate on ACK, she had also published a book on the subject titled India’s Immortal Comic Books: Gods, Kings, and Other Heroes (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009). The book hit the stands only last week.

We at the Indian Weekender congratulated Karline and sent her a few questions that we thought would interest our readers, many of who we are sure have seen and read ACK at one time or another. Here are excerpts from the email interview:

What fascinated you about ACK?
I first realised how important ACK comics were to the global Indian community when I was a graduate student teaching assistant at The University of Texas at Austin (USA), where many students of Indian heritage enrolled in the undergraduate courses on South Asian religion and culture. Frequently, these comics were the primary means by which these students had learned Hindu mythology and Indian history as they were growing up.

Tell us about your research in India
In 2001-2002, I received a Fulbright grant that enabled me to travel to India to engage in further research on these comic books for my PhD thesis.  When I arrived at the comic book studio in Mumbai, the founding editor Anant Pai (Uncle Pai to millions of Indian kids) promptly showed me to an empty desk that had been cleared for my arrival.  I spent the next year analysing the production and consumption of ACK.  When at the studio I moved between my desk in the artists’ enclave, the glassed-in editorial offices that overlooked the artists’ floor, and the studio library, observing the production of these comics and interacting with their creators.  I also travelled throughout India to conduct interviews with freelance artists in Pune, New Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, and other locations.

What were your impressions about living and working in India?
First, I must note my gratitude for all of the hospitality I was shown by so many people throughout India as I worked on this project. Where else could a scholar come and be welcomed into an office for a whole year?  And of course many, many people welcomed me into their homes and shared their comic book collections with me.

How in your opinion has ACK contributed to India’s long story telling tradition that has been essentially oral in nature?
One way that ACK has contributed to India’s story telling tradition is by acting as a substitute grandparent in the lives of Indian children, both in urban India and around the globe.  During the time that these comic books were created, many families in India were leaving the joint family structure behind as they migrated from villages to urban areas in search of employment and educational opportunities.  Thus the generation of readers who grew up in urban India in the 1970s and later often did not have an extended support network — no grandparent to tell them stories at bedtime.  Parents took comfort in these comic books, giving them to their children as a substitute for that long-standing oral tradition that had been passed on from one generation to the next. The same occurred in the diaspora context.  As one NRI in Canada explained to me, “I was born and raised in Edmonton, Canada. Both of my parents are from the U.P. As we did not have any relatives here when I was growing up, I relied almost exclusively on ACK for learning about Hinduism and the history of India.”

What struck you most about the series?
When I first began to study it was how sacred these comics are to some readers, which makes them unlike any other comics in the world that I am aware of.

Can you tell us a little about your book?
Through studies of a range of issues (including “Krishna,” “Durga,” “Shakuntala,” “Shivaji,” “Shah Jahan,” and “Mahatma Gandhi”) this book demonstrates that Amar Chitra Katha comics, as a form of public culture that has reached into the everyday lives of millions of Indian children over the past four decades, are a crucial site for studying the active creation and recreation of religious and national identities.  Through my many interviews with comic book creators and readers, I learned that the concepts of Hinduism and Indianness presented in this comic book series are not static, but have ultimately been arrived at through the interaction of the founder with editors, authors, artists, and readers.  As comic book creators decide which mythological and historical figures to single out and cast as Indian heroes, and as comic book readers decide which issues to buy and which to bypass, they are actively participating in a continuing discussion about what it means to be a modern Hindu and what it means to be Indian today.