An important part of my childhood, and one of the most defining contributions would be that of Amar Chitra Katha comics. My generation in fact owes significant gratitude to the founder Anant Pai for helping shape our thoughts and opinions, and also educating us about history and folklore.
It is inevitable, so let me declare that I don’t have any relation to Mr. Pai, but have basked in the rub-off of having the same surname. So when I refer to him as ‘Uncle Pai’ it is only using the name by which he was popularly called.
As the story goes the founder was quite disappointed to see students at a quiz not able to answer questions on Indian History but cracking all questions related to the US. (This was in the 70s – decades before the internet, telecom and liberalisation –so history is what we had a lot of!)
So, to help, Uncle Pai decided to launch Amar Chitra Katha. The first ten issues in fact were fairy tales from Grimms or Disney. Its only from the eleventh issue that Indian pride took off – and boy did it.
The first issue was one of Krishna, and I need to mention I was particularly lucky that it caught my father’s eye and he decided to buy this comic for our kids – as did most parents of my generation
One remarkable thing about the ACK comics was their price, I think it was even cheaper than the price of a loaf of bread, and it was naturally easy to make this choice of purchasing the book. The other was that the issues started coming out rapidly, almost one every week, I think – as we used to buy all of them and look forward to the next one each week.
The books were outstanding – and I’d say on par or even better than the American comics that we were so used to. As an adult when I start re-read some of the books, it is quite amazing to see the simple way in which Uncle Pai and his team were able to narrate a story and recount history with a dispassionate voice.
Among the remarkable ones are that of Akbar – if you read the comic (based on his daughter’s biography of the ruler) – the events in Akbar’s life are retold faithfully and in a very interesting manner. Years later when Ashutosh Gowarker made Jodhaa Akbar, and mind you he had a much larger team and loads of resources – his narrative was quite similar to what Uncle Pai had done so very meticulously with a limited team back in the 70s and 80s.
Similarly the ability to sift out the important and convey it in an easy-to-understand manner is what helped. If you want a concise and easy manner of understanding what the Bhagwad Gita stands for – you just need to reach out for ACK’s Mahabharata or their issue on the Gita.
The defining contribution of Uncle Pai and ACK however is that this is a rich compendium and recording of not just history, but mythology, folklore and even biographies of religious leaders and importantly freedom fighters. The books covered all religious leaders from the Sikh Gurus to Zarathustra and also covered concise biographies of literary personalities like Vidyasagar and Tagore, to social revolutionaries like Swami Vivekananda and RamMohan Roy to freedom fighters like Ambedkar, Sardar Patel etc.
Uncle Pai had a simple marketing strategy – have a great product, and it will sell itself – and the positive word of mouth was unbelievable - the books practically sold out like wildfire! However, initially it is mentioned that he used to go around asking shops to sell his books and even created small stands himself, to help them display the books. The other one which I am more familiar with was a series of school quizzes that he used to go around conducting. The prizes were of course ACK comics, and everyone attending would go home with at least one comic (by then there were at least 50 which had come out). The one quiz I attended was during at Hyderabad, and I think it was a build up to children’s day – and a few schools were invited to one of the auditoriums in Public gardens. Uncle Pai was the quiz master, and this was an unusual quiz, because row by row, everyone stood in queue and he would ask a question and if you answered you got a few and if you didn’t you got one comic. The kids were all curious to see what Uncle Pai looked like and it was boisterous noisy crowd. His trick to calm all kids down was quite simple – he mentioned how Rishis and even Kings would address a large gathering without the support of mikes and speakers – and this was possible he said, because everyone would keep quiet and listen in rapt attention. That helped calm the fray nerves.
NRIs and PIOs in particular, and generations to come are going to be grateful, as I am, to ACK and uncle Pai. Very few things celebrates India like ACK does!