In 1967, Anant Pai and his wife, who were visiting New Delhi, were at a bookstore in the city. The TV at the store was playing a quiz featuring some students from St Stephen’s College and Pai was disappointed when the participants couldn’t name the mother of Hindu god Ram. His disappointment only increased when one of them answered a toughie about a Greek god. And that was the moment Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) was born.
That anecdote is from Karline McLain’s 2009 book on Amar Chitra Katha and Pai, India’s Immortal Comic Books: Gods, Kings, and Other Heroes, from a chapter titled, aptly, The Father of Indian Comic Books.
Some 100 million copies of Amar Chitra Katha comics have been sold to date.
On Thursday, Pai, 81, “Uncle Pai” to many, died in Mumbai after a heart attack, less than a week after receiving a lifetime achievement award from the organizers of India’s first comic book convention, Comic Con India. For the past three years he had been working on a book called Glimpses of Glory, which dealt with 40 “defining moments” from India’s history.
“We’re still in a state of shock,” says Samir Patil, the CEO of ACK Media, which acquired a controlling stake in the Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha brands in 2007. “It’s the end of an era.”
“He was the father of the medium here,” says Alok Sharma, the director of Chitrakatha, an upcoming documentary on the history of Indian comics. “He was the man behind almost all the comics that emerged out of the 60s.”
Pai, a chemical engineer, joined Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd, the parent company of English daily The Times of India, in 1961 as a junior executive in the books division. It was there that he played a vital role in conceiving Indrajal Comics, the cult imprint that launched the superhero Bahadur.
Wide appeal: Anant Pai interacting with children; (right) the cover of Tinkle’s first issue. Photo by Alok Sharma
In the late 1950s, Bennett Coleman had acquired a set of expensive sheet-fed presses that remained largely idle expect for sporadic calendar-printing orders Indrajal Comics was conceived as a way of keeping these presses occupied, and Pai’s bosses wished to reprint the popular Superman and Batman comics of the time.
Pai wasn’t convinced. He did a “largely unscientific” survey and thought that the location-neutral Phantom comics would work better with an Indian audience. He also suggested reserving half of a 32-page issue for original, locally produced comic strips. “Even here, Pai was big on Rs.infotainment’,” Sharma says. “The pages were filled with nuggets of general knowledge, quizzes, and strips that explained scientific phenomenon.”
Indrajal was a success for Bennett Coleman, and the imprint soon began to run Flash Gordon and Mandrake the Magician, popular characters licensed from King Features, a US syndication company.
Pai quit Bennett Coleman in the mid-1960s.
Then came his Amar Chitra Katha moment with the quiz.
“Pai thought it was a shame that the youth of the time had little knowledge of Indian stories and tales,” says Sharma. He mulled over the idea of using comic books to teach what he deemed “Indian values and themes”, and took the idea to H.G. Mirchandani, then the publishing director at publishing firm India Book House (IBH).
Pai was hired as the editor of this new series, which he called “Amar Chitra Katha”. The idea was simple. “Bharat ke bachche agar sapne dekhein to Bharat ke sapne dekhein (If the children of India dream, let them dream of India),” he told Sharma in a 2009 interview.
Oddly, the first ten issues of ACK weren’t Indian at all—they were Hindi translations of fairy tales such as Cinderella and Red Riding Hood. Issue 11 marked the first significant shift in direction. It told the tale of Krishna, and Pai wrote it himself, adapting the story from multiple mythological texts. It was also the first ACK comic in English.
The issue was illustrated by a Mumbai-based artist, Ram Waeerkar, who modelled the now-iconic ACK style on Tarzan comics from the 1950s and 1960s. Pai spent a lot of time on his script, attempting to focus on compelling storytelling and toning down the ’miracles’ and fantastical nature of the tale. Sales were initially slow, with an estimated 20,000 copies sold in the first three years, but Pai stuck to the formula Krishna established. By the mid 1970s, ACK was India’s most popular comic series. The original Krishna has since been reprinted more than 60 times.
For the next four decades, Pai remained editor of the imprint, directing the production of each issue and frequently intervening to modify and write the scripts for them. The scope of the series would expand as well, covering the lives of political figures such as Jayaprakash Narayan and specific eras in history such as the discovery of the sea route to India. In interviews, he would insist that the books were “not mere comics, but art. Good art.”
Critics have since read Hindu idioms in at least some of the ACK books and highlighted the stereo-typical portrayal of Muslims in them, but no one who knew Pai could ever be convinced that he didn’t mean well. “His impact was incalculable in creating a national historical consciousness among India’s kids, though one could debate the nature of that consciousness,” says Abhijit Gupta, professor of English at Jadhavpur University who is working on a project to digitize Indian comics.
In 1980, wanting to expand on the “infotainment” idea he’d developed back at Indrajal, he decided to start a children’s magazine.
“There’s a fascinating story about how Tinkle got its name,” says Sharma. “It came out of Pai’s exasperation at the sheer number of meetings he had to attend to decide on the perfect name.” The executives at these interminable meetings frequently excused themselves to answer supposedly important phone calls, which they referred to as “tinkles”.
ACK, whose fans include former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, published over 600 issues till 1991. It resumed in 2007 after the takeover of IBH by ACK Media. And Pai stayed on as “chief storyteller” .
“We’ll continue to build on what he created,” says ACK’s Patil. “Keep his legacy alive.”