If someone said the publication you were reading was attempting to propagate “an ideal Hindu state underwritten by the ideology of feudalism”, you’d probably be a little worried. If that alarm was being raised about your favourite childhood comic-book series, you’d probably sit upright and listen closely. That’s exactly what Nandini Chandra cautions in her book ‘The Classical Popular: Amar Chitra Katha (1967-2007)’.
ACK comics create “an undisturbed continuum between mythology and history” and attempt to “project a Brahmin identity” as India’s defining ethos, says Chandra, who teaches English at Delhi’s Hansraj College. In a phone interview, she said the series, which has been popular with children since 1967, “is also exclusionary of women, Dalits and Muslims”. Chandra’s book is the result of a 12-year study of ACK, which started as her MPhil dissertation at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her decision to examine the comics closely was made against the backdrop of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s swelling popularity in the 1990s. Chandra says the comics work insidiously: The words are politically correct but the powerful visuals strengthen a Hindutva version of history, projecting India as a nation wronged by Muslim invaders.
“One could argue that ACK was nothing but an endeavour to get the entire history of colonization mounted on to the comic mode,” she writes. “There were no masked crime-fighters in purple skin-suits, but each issue had a superhero who attempted to wage war against foreign oppression, whether the “foreigner” was the Asura, Muslim or British”.
Despite her misgivings about ACK, Chandra says she doesn’t mean to suggest that children should be banned from reading the comics. “The objectionability comes from the socio-political environment,” she says. “There isn’t much in the comic per se that’s objectionable but what’s alarming is the shared understanding of the past that could be interpolated from the comics. I’m interested in what’s feeding this idea of the past and understanding its function.”
Nandini Chandra’s conclusions:
Muslims are treated as outsiders
The comics present “the stereotype of the evil, lusty and treacherous Muslim”, writes Chandra. That’s obvious from this panel (See picture)from Padmini, she says.
Violent revolutionaries are given disproportionate prominence
“Obscure revolutionaries were favoured over the more significant nationalist leaders, ostensibly because their life stories offered more drama,” Chandra says. “Considering the hegemonic power of Gandhi’s satyagraha or passive resistance, the valorization of a militant ideology (like in this panel(See picture) from Bhagat Singh) has an insidious subtext.”
It obliterates variations in stories
Even though Indian folk traditions have many different versions of the same story, ACK presents homogenous renderings of the narratives. For instance, Ram Waeerkar, one of the foremost illustrators of ACK, told Chandra that he had originally drawn Ram with a beard, based on the Pothi traditions of Kannada texts. But he was asked to model the hero on the image made famous by the 19th century painter Raja Ravi Varma.(See: picture)
‘The Classical Popular: Amar Chitra Katha (1967-2007)’, Yoda Press, Rs395.
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