The brave new world of Amar Chitra Katha
At the ACK (Amar Chitra Katha) Media headquarters in a crowded part of Mumbai’s Andheri suburb, there is a wall dedicated to Uncle Pai’s life. And it is fitting that it is chronicled through a series of comic book panels—from Vol. 834 of Amar Chitra Katha, which is dedicated to Anant Pai himself. 24 February marks the seventh death anniversary of the man who changed the face of children’s publishing in India over five decades with his comic book series, Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle.
The worlds he created were populated with magnificent goddesses, lion-hearted freedom fighters, bumbling villains, accidental detectives, anthropomorphic animals, and each of these real and imaginary characters was embroidered on to India’s larger cultural fabric, giving its young readers a context they understood. Since its inception in 1967, Amar Chitra Katha has sold more than 100 million copies in 20 Indian languages. Generation after generation inherited a Tinkle subscription from older siblings or family friends. For many, the first lessons in Hindu mythology and its vast pantheon of gods and demons came from Amar Chitra Katha, as did trivia on the country’s geography, history and famous personalities.
Pai wasn’t just an editor and publisher, he created effervescent new characters, witty comic strips, and was the original fun facts guy. He visited schools across the country and interacted with children in person and through letters, all of which won him legions of fans. Reena I. Puri, executive editor of Amar Chitra Katha, remembers him as someone who always wore a safari suit with sneakers—she describes him as “a storyteller down to his sports shoes”. He created comics that were fresh, engaging and informative, a winning formula for children and parents. This style of storytelling remains the driving force of the entire team at ACK Media—a mix of seasoned artists and editors who were recruited by Pai as well as the current crop of writers, illustrators, creative and business heads.
The Times They Are A-Changin’
With Pai at the helm, ACK Media’s world of stories expanded rapidly through collaborations between a group of talented writers and artists. Writers like Subba Rao, Luis Fernandes and Dev Nadkarni created a multitude of characters and built the universe they inhabited, over hundreds of issues. At the same time artists like Ram Waeerkar, V.B. Halbe and Pradeep Sathe brought to life characters like Krishna, Rani Padmini, the legendary Shikari Shambu, the loveable simpleton Suppandi, and Kalia the crow, frame by frame.
Puri says, “Anant Pai has left us the legacy of telling the stories of India to the children of India.” And that is a responsibility she takes seriously. Tinkle readers who grew up in the 1990s would remember Puri as the woman who brought goddesses, kings and queens, freedom fighters and other real and fantastic creatures into our lives. She calls herself the company dinosaur who started working at Tinkle in 1991 on the strong recommendation of her then 11-year-old son after passing a comic scripting test on Shikari Shambu. Later she moved on to Amar Chitra Katha. For her, the brand is as much about Pai’s values as it is about changing with the times. “Change has been an ongoing process in the growth story at Amar Chitra Katha. With the passage of time, we have become sensitive to new concerns and open to a range of new subjects for our titles.” This is reflected in the choice of titles.
“The comics have reflected the thinking of their times. What may be considered objectionable today may not have been so 40 years ago. We need to see each comic in its context and in its time. Today I have a young team who bring with them their thoughts and convictions. Our editors have always been sensitive about issues regarding gender and community, and are more so now. We are concerned about the environment, social issues and animal rights. Today, we want to tell the stories of musicians and sportsmen and collect regional folk tales of India. Tomorrow the focus might be on something else,” says Puri.
Group art director Savio Mascarenhas describes a similar process of change which has led to the evolution of new characters and the brand’s continuing relevance in the digital age: from the time he came on board as a full-time artist in 1994 under the mentorship of Pai, to his current role where he oversees all the illustration and artwork at Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle. Mascarenhas has seen the entire process of making comic books undergo a sea change with the digital revolution. Computers changed the entire style of panelling, sketching as well as layout design. Old hands in the company, like colourist and lettering artist Umesh Sarode, remember the days when they would hand-letter each comic panel, using rulers to measure the exact distance between letters. There was a shade card with a limited palette and colourists would have to use those shades to convey all the different costumes and settings. Yet, each character would be etched perfectly, conveying a range of emotions, actions and postures. Today, every member of Mascarenhas’ team uses a digital drawing board and most are quite pleased by the templates they can create in advance, like an array of potential costumes, interiors, furniture and so on.
Many of the characters have been handed down through successive generations of artists, and, although the basic look has remained the same, hairdos, clothes and other nuances have kept pace with the times. For example, a recent issue of Tinkle has Shikari Shambu swapping his standard khaki uniform for a Hawaiian shirt, although his eyes still remain carefully hidden under a hat, albeit one that is bright red in colour.
Suppandi, one of Tinkle’s most memorable and famous characters, has probably had the most interesting trajectory. Created by Waeerkar, Suppandi can’t hold down a job because of his inherent stupidity, and this often leads to humorous situations. Originally drawn as a domestic helper, he has since been recast as a regular 20-something—no longer is he drawn wearing a vest or with a towel draped over one shoulder. His intelligence, however, has not received any updates.
Interestingly, Suppandi’s heritage has been carried forward by the same family of artists. The character, with his odd-shaped head with three tufts of hair, was handed down from Ram Waeerkar to his son Sanjiv (who worked as a freelancer and drew quite a few Suppandi comics) and then to his daughter, Archana Amberkar, who continues to render new Suppandi comics for Tinkle, introducing the much loved simpleton to new readers.
Editorially also, the 21st century Suppandi has many avatars. He has been appropriated into ACK Media’s collaborations with financial institutions, such as an ongoing campaign for Tata Mutual Funds which makes investments simple for Suppandi—because if Suppandi can understand mutual funds, everyone can.
Tinkle editor-in-chief Rajani Thindiath also makes sure that the magazine is sensitive and diverse. The idea is to show role reversal wherever plausible. As a result, tweaks have been introduced to the older characters and storylines have been modified to fit the current times. And so Suppandi’s girlfriend has a full-time job and supports him. Shikari Shambu’s wife Shanti actually helps him out on his adventures rather than just chasing him like a crazy stereotypical spouse. The ideas are subtly interwoven into the stories, thereby making them more believable. How the artists draw different aspects of a character, from skin colour to body shape, is all subject to editorial scrutiny.
The new kids on the block
It was a love for comics that brought Neel Debdutt Paul, 31, to ACK Media. “I had been a fan for decades and when I heard of an opening at Tinkle, I jumped at the opportunity,” says Paul, who started as editor, Tinkle Digest (a 96-page compilation of old and new stories from Tinkle), and is currently the group creative director. He has held several roles in the company and one of his current jobs is to spearhead innovative brand activations and collaborations. “The idea came from a space of need because when we started approaching advertisers for Tinkle, we realized that they didn’t have ads meant for kids. So we started a small division that did just that. Now we’re working with brands that are targeting adults as well, because comics are often the simplest way to get your point across,” says Paul. So, in 2014, they collaborated with the Election Commission on a series of four-page short stories in Tinkle to explain the electoral process to children. They also did a comic for the Union ministry for urban development on the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.
It was sheer serendipity that led Shriya Ghate,32, to ACK. A friend was hosting a radio interview with the then editor of Tinkle Digest, Neel Debdutt Paul. “I was excited that Tinkle still existed and then in his interview Neel mentioned that they were looking for writers and editors. And just like that I applied and joined the editorial department,” says Ghate.
It has been five years, and Ghate has moved from being editor of Tinkle Digest, to business head of Tinkle. Today, when she talks about product innovation and creating new ways of selling the magazine, she brings fresh insight from her years of editorial experience, and knowledge of what readers want. In its 38th year, Tinkle has a monthly circulation of about 300,000 copies and its target readership is between the ages of 6-12.
Sean D’mello joined Tinkle straight out of college, drawn by the fact that comic book series allow writers to build an entire world. For 27-year-old D’mello, who is now the assistant editor, the magazine opened up the world of comic books and enabled him to appreciate Western comics.
More than a heritage brand
Ghate, D’mello and Paul are part of the company’s younger crew, who grew up as fans of the magazine—for them, working at ACK Media was like coming full circle. To them, Tinkle is not a heritage brand but something that looks forward. “When we have workshops, I realize that Tinkle has the same impact on a lot of people that it had on me as a kid. There are a number of kids who read Tinkle today who know and love the characters that exist today and for me this is my audience, and not the older generation who also grew up reading the brand and has great nostalgia for it,” says D’mello. Like many of the younger writers on the team, he is gung-ho about creating new characters rather than just working with the older ones. Yet some things remain unchanged and Tinkle has managed to hold on to its identity as a children’s magazine that represents the culture of the country so well.
Comics for a new age
One of D’mello’s high points has been the creation of Mapui Kawlim aka Wingstar, Tinkle’s first superhero from the North-East. When Thindiath and her team lined up all their characters, she saw that most of them were either from south India, Mumbai or other metros that the writers were familiar with. Wingstar was a character born out of the need for diversity. “It is always easier to set superheroes in metros. Aizawl provided a great backdrop as there were a lot more open spaces to experiment with,” says D’mello. When the first Wingstar story came out, a lot of people said that this was the superhero who was going to save the North-East and while D’mello laughingly admits that this was an overstatement, the fact that Wingstar was appreciated by readers felt great. The team spent hours trying to get the look right without pandering to stereotypes and their hard work was vindicated when a reader from the North-East wrote in saying, “Wingstar looks just like me!”
Today, ACK Media Pvt Ltd, backed by its parent company the Future Group, continues to be a significant player in the Indian comic book market and is taking on the challenge offered by tablets, e-readers, smartphones and web programming. Amar Chitra Katha has its own app across Windows, Android and iOS platforms as well as an e-commerce site. There is a YouTube channel called Suppandi And Friends. Augmented Reality (AR) also makes a regular appearance in Tinkle editorial content. ACK is also working with Nazara, a mobile gaming company, on games based on Tinkle characters.
Next-gen ACK Media realizes that in order to survive, it needs to take the stories to as many screens as possible. “We have to become medium-agnostic at some point and move beyond just physical retail on to YouTube channels, mobile gaming platforms, TV and other media. The idea is to become this all-encompassing children’s brand which you can find in every medium,” says Ghate.
The world Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle have inherited is very different from the one Pai lived in, yet the need for storytellers is far from over—and this is the legacy the brand is holding on to.
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