Telling India’s History Through Comics
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Telling India’s History Through Comics

AHMEDABAD, India — More than 50 years ago, on a TV quiz show on India’s only channel, students easily answered questions about Greek and Roman mythology, but were stumped when asked the name of the mother of Rama, an important Hindu deity.

Shocked that students were ignorant of their own history and culture, Anant Pai quit his job and launched a comic book publisher.

Since then, Amar Chitra Katha (ACK), which translates as “immortal picture stories,” has been making comic book versions of traditional Indian folk tales and Hindu myths. They have been must-reads for generations of Indian children and are still relevant today, even after the death of the company’s founder and the waning of print media across the world.

The comic book format, which Pai borrowed from the West, “helped tell complicated stories in the shortest, simplest way,” said Reena Puri, ACK’s editor-in-chief, who has been with the company for more than 30 years.

She adds that the idea of “bringing stories of India to children of India” contributed immensely to the comics’ popularity. Indeed, the series has reached a publishing milestone for Indian comic books, selling a total of more than 86 million copies spanning some 440 titles.

Amar Chitra Katha, which translates to “immortal picture stories,” was launched to introduce Indian children to their rich history and culture.

The first ACK comic was published in 1970. Written by Pai and illustrated by another staff member, it retold the story of Krishna, the shepherd boy Indians worship as the eighth avatar of Vishnu. In “India’s Immortal Comic Books,” author Karline McLain writes that Pai was a devotee of Krishna, which is why the company’s first comic was based on him.

By the late 1970s, ACK was selling 5 million copies a year, reaching a peak circulation of about 700,000 a month.

Pai served as writer, editor and publisher until he died in Mumbai in 2011. In his final interview, he explained how picture stories have been an effective way of telling tales from ancient times.

“Some of the earliest stories from the prehistoric era were recorded in pictures — tales of exciting hunts and discovery,” he was quoted as saying in the interview published a week after his death. “I believe that we can instill good values in children through stories, show them a good path. If these stories are illustrated, then there’s nothing better.”

Amar Chitra Katha founder Anant Pai, depicted in this comic book-style illustration, served as the company’s writer, editor and publisher until his death in 2011.

At first, ACK comics were mythological, retelling Sanskrit stories of Hindu deities like Krishna and Rama. The series expanded to include a variety of historical figures: celebrated Hindu kings, Mughal sultans, women rulers, medieval poets and freedom fighters.

After 2010, starting with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mother Teresa, the company shifted to stories featuring more women and modern figures. There has even been a series on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s weekly radio program.

“The comics offered history, mythology and life-lesson stories in an easy-to-understand way,” said Shoma Abhyankar, 48, who loved the comics as a child. “They were a part of growing up. I learnt more from those books, rather than my school history books.”

Today, many Indians brought up at home and abroad agree that the comics were one of their foremost, if not only, sources of religious, historical and moral education.

Preeti Vyas, ACK’s chief executive, also read the comics as a child. Now her son reads them. Parents’ desire to acquaint children with Indian values, heritage and heroes has also contributed to the books’ long-standing popularity.

But Vyas acknowledges that ACK could end up becoming a “nostalgia brand” without new fans. To address that risk, she decided to go digital-first, keeping history and culture at the forefront.

Editor-in-chief Reena Puri, fourth from left, works with her team at Amar Chitra Katha to create a new comic book. 

“COVID-19 opened up new avenues,” Vyas said. “Our app, never a priority, suddenly took center stage.”

During the pandemic, the company offered free access to its digital library for 21 days. Children were hooked and parents around the world signed up for digital subscriptions. Sales, which had stagnated since 2000, saw a resurgence. “We got half a million new customers,” Vyas said.

The company is now focusing on modern formats like apps, a digital library, an augmented- and virtual-reality library, audiobooks and animation. “Our strong digital push has kept us stay relevant and helped us grow,” Vyas said.

ACK says its sales are growing at a rate of 40% per year. “We have 2.5 million subscribers across the world, with an average reading time of 21 minutes on the app, a strong metric,” said Vyas.

Roughly 30% of the app’s users are from outside India. The Indian diaspora is a vital customer base, given that the comics offer Indians a “route to your roots,” Vyas said.

ACK recently became the first Indian comic book publisher to exhibit at San Diego Comic-Con, North America’s largest comic book convention. “Despite little advertising, Indians at San Diego Comic-Con were very excited to see us,” Puri, the editor-in-chief, said.

Amar Chitra Katha recently became the first Indian comic book company to exhibit at San Diego Comic-Con, where it received an enthusiastic response. 

The comics are reaching non-Indian communities, too. Selected stories are now available in as many as 25 languages. Globally known figures like Mahatma Gandhi are popular, while “Buddhist stories do well in Southeast Asia,” Vyas said.

The publisher has more plans. It recently partnered with Applause Entertainment, a Mumbai-based content creation studio, to produce TV dramas, films, documentaries and cartoons based on its comics. Digital intellectual property company Ikonz will help turn popular characters into non-fungible tokens.

Indian actor and producer Rana Daggubati has announced a new live-action film based on ACK’s take on the story of Hiranyakashyap, a demon king.

Despite the publisher’s huge success, not everyone is a fan: Some critics complain that the comic books package Indian culture, oversimplify historical ideas and peddle a Hindu nationalist ideology.

In “Sculpting the Middle Class: History, Masculinity and the Amar Chitra Katha,” Deepa Srinivas decries “the fashioning of a nationalist, Brahmin-ized yet modern masculinity as the idea for emulation by middle-class children.”

Amar Chitra Katha CEO Preeti Vyas, left, and actor Rana Daggubati announce the launch of a new film telling the story of demon king Hiranyakashyap, based on a comic book of the same name.

Nandini Chandra, an associate professor at University of Hawaii at Manoa, agrees that ACK has left an indelible cultural imprint on Indians’ idea of the country.

She believes that the heroes and stories that emerge from the comics came at a moment in India’s history when it was seeking a national popular consensus, and that Pai saw his work primarily as a nation-building exercise. It seems pertinent “to talk about how the image in the mirror it provides of the Indian nation is a source of deep identification and deep alienation. We need to remember its double legacy,” said Chandra, whose book “The Classic Popular” investigates ACK’s anthropological and political leanings.

But Puri rebuts the critics, saying ACK stories are meant for all children. “They’re part of a shared heritage and were never meant to be divisive,” she said, adding that its newer comics focus more on women, sports heroes and social change-makers.

Criticism aside, it is clear that Amar Chitra Katha remains India’s favorite storyteller. Alongside new digital subscriptions, print sales have remained relatively high, at around 2.5 million to 3 million copies a year.

As the innately Indian comics carry forward their legacy by reinventing content and exploring new formats, they remain a cultural touchstone and phenomenon.

Source : Nikeei Asia