Amar Chitra Katha’s final chapter

By Dev Nadkarni

For millions of Indians like me, our acquaintance with India’s incredibly rich history, mythology, folklore and culture would have been so much the poorer without Amar Chitra Katha, the legendary comic book series, whose visionary founding editor Ananth ‘Uncle’ Pai passed away this week.

I had the good fortune of not just having been raised with a growing library of Amar Chitra Katha since I was five but also realising a childhood dream of actually working with Uncle Pai on the celebrated comic book series and its sister publication Tinkle for a few years – that, too, as my very first job in my writing career!

Uncle Pai was a legend in his lifetime.

He was the google before Google. His knowledge was colossal and his memory prodigious. Be they chapters from the Bhagwad Gita or long verses from the Guru Granth Sahib and be they Kabir’s Dohas, lengthy shlokas from the Upanishads or Tagore’s Bengali poems, he could reel them off effortlessly to drive home a point – whether at work or in the course of his wonderfully engaging extempore speeches.

We would walk into his office anytime and ask him any question: a date in history, a place name, the sequence of a dynasty – anything. And we would have the answer in seconds.

He knew eight languages – he could read, write and speak in each of them and had even authored books and magazine articles in some of them. He would often converse with me in our native Konkani even in the office.

He was a scholar cast in the classic old mould of pre-independence philosopher-statesmen like Dr S Radhakrishnan. But unlike them, he was able to explain the most abstruse of concepts to young children in an amazingly interesting way. That was his gift.

Though he didn’t have any of his own, children were Uncle Pai’s be all and end all. His dedication to regaling them with books, stories, anecdotes, quiz contests, running nation wide clubs and playing mentor, career guide and friend was consummate.

Children from Srinagar to Thiruananthapuram and from Dwaraka to Gauhati adored him and on a typical day in the Amar Chitra Katha offices, as many as three hundred letters would be opened and read by a dedicated staff tasked only with reading and replying to children’s letters and filing away contributions for future publication.

“Nothing encourages a child as much as recognition and nothing discourages as much as the lack of it,” Uncle Pai would say insisting that every letter was acknowledged – and he replied to many of them personally, with great fondness. Remember, that was before the age of computers and email – so it involved dictating to stenos, typing, mailing, filing, keeping written records …

I know of several people who have still saved the replies they received from Uncle Pai to show their own kids.

His day would begin at 4am and he would be in the office at the crack of dawn. As well as attending to the voluminous correspondence, he had to pore through script ideas for future Amar Chitra Katha titles, edit scripts, guide illustrators, supervise production and oversee distribution besides looking after the publishing company’s other children’s publications like Tinkle.

Publishing for children was the brilliant chemical engineer’s passion from the very start. Having failed to run a children’s magazine in the 1950s, he joined the publishers of the Times of Indian in the 1960s and was asked to come up with ideas to fill the idle capacity of the newly imported colour printing plant that was used to churn out the prestigious Illustrated weekly, Femina and Filmfare.

Uncle Pai saw this as a great opportunity to indulge in his passion: of starting with Indian illustrated classics for children but the publishers didn’t share his excitement. He struck a deal with New York based King Features and converted Phantom and Mandrake comic strips into 32 page books published monthly and then fortnightly.

In comics with shorter stories that finished in 28 pages, he inserted what could well be India’s first-ever regular comic book feature – Around the world with Kunju Pillay, which catalogued the eponymous character’s bicycle journeys around the world.

Having successfully launched the comic series, which was published under the banner “Indrajal Comics,” Uncle Pai began to scout for publishers to back his Indian illustrated classics project. That’s when he met with G.L. Mirchandani, the founder of India Book House who said he would back the project as long as Uncle Pai would not charge for his own labours until it went into print and recovered the expenses.

Uncle Pai took up the challenge and scoured hard to find a good illustrator. He found Ram Waeerkar to illustrate the first script, “Krishna.” Waeerkar remained with the project for several decades his death a few years ago – and “Krishna” remains the most reprinted title in the series having sold several million copies in nearly 50 languages around the world.

The first half a dozen titles took long and made it to the newsstands quite irregularly. It took a few years and a team – comprising Kamala Chandrakant and Subba Rao besides about a dozen illustrators and a production set up – before Amar Chitra Katha began to roll as a successful enterprise.

Uncle Pai won many accolades in his long career with Amar Chitra Katha. While leading that great enterprise, he also rang a syndicated feature service, Rang Rekha Features, which he later sold and a personality development system based on Indian values called Partha.

I know of several Partha graduates around the world who have greatly succeeded in their professional and personal lives and who look back at Uncle Pai and the “Partha Institute” with fondness and gratitude.

After the Mirchandanis sold Amar Chitra Katha to a private equity enterprise, the new set up stopped publishing new titles instead leveraging the creative and intellectual capital that had been created over the decades by launching a series of products based on the series. Both Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle though are still published and are highly successful as a series of repackaged products from their earlier avataars.

Though the new set up continued to employ Uncle Pai and looked after him well, he had little to do in the last years of his life. For a man who put in 18 tireless hours a day to create products like Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle for much of his life, such a void was hard to handle, according to those close to him.

The 81-year-old had a fall about ten days ago, which necessitated surgery to his hip. He passed away after a massive heart attack while recovering quite well from the fall. He is survived by his dear wife Lalitha, several nephews and nieces – and of course by millions upon millions of Indians who will remember Uncle Pai’s immense contribution to their early lives.