MUMBAI - Anant Pai, creator of India's iconic Amar Chitra Katha comic books,
died in Mumbai on February 24, aged 81. A heart attack ended his 43-year
innings as its founder editor, after selling 100 million copies in 20 languages
and achieving unprecedented success narrating Indian history and folklore to
children. His grown-up fans included prime ministers, chief ministers and
Popularly called "Uncle Pai" and the "Father of Indian Comics", Pai created a
powerful cultural force of nationalistic inputs for an
Indian child growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, with no Internet, cell phones,
iPods, and with only television entertainment from the state-run channel
Pai's inspiration for Amar Chitra Katha, meaning "immortal picture stories",
came in 1967 after seeing Indian children, including his nephew, showing more
knowledge of Western culture than on the Indian epic Ramayana.
When "Uncle Pai" died last Thursday at the SR Mehta and Kikabhai Hospital in
Mumbai, he left a legacy of over 440 titles of Amar Chitra Katha (ACK),
covering over 5,000 years of recorded history and folklore from every era,
region and religion in India. His multi-cultural comics became single largest
proof of India's standard slogan of the 1970s and 1980s: "Unity in Diversity".
Following the phenomenal success of Amar Chitra Katha, Pai launched the popular
Tinkle comics in April 1980, offering general knowledge and characters like the
bumbling Suppandi, scheming Tantri and Kalia the crow. He signed his editorials
on the front inside cover as "Uncle Pai".
Uncle Pa's Amar Chitra Kathas, selling three million copies annually, are
second in Asian popularity only after Japan's Manga, which have nearly a US$4
billion global market. And for generation of Indians, the words "Amar Chitra
Katha" are synonymous with childhood memories.
On February 25, "Uncle Pai" was paid tributes by the generation of Indians
worldwide who were school kids when the Beatles broke up, Microsoft was born,
Elvis Presley left the building forever, computer floppy disks arrived, the
Vietnam war ended and Abba swept the world.
"I grew up on a steady diet of Amar Chitra Katha comics from my Kashmir
Bookshop," said 40-year old Omar Abdullah, chief minister of the northern
Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, "and my yearly subscription of Tinkle".
"I learnt more from Amar Chitra Kathas than all my text books," said a message
on Twitter from 39-year old Barkha Dutt, group editor of NDTV English channels.
"Uncle Pai, thanks for all the wonderful childhood moments!" said Rutvik
Sanghvi; "Eternally grateful to him for my childhood connect with India," Meera
Ravi tweeted via her BlackBerry.
Uncle Pai's following was made up of as many millions of grown-ups as children.
Amar Chitra Katha fans included former Indian prime ministers Indira Gandhi,
Rajiv Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
When Indira Gandhi led India in the 1970s and early 1980s, international comics
from neighborhood book lending libraries filled our school summer holidays -
Tintin, Asterix, Dennis the Menace, Richie Rich, Phantom,Tarzan, Archie and
Lucky Luke. But Amar Chitra Katha comics were the common sight in urban Indian
Apart from the paternally-gifted stack of Amar Chitra Kathas, during my school
days in Don Bosco, Egmore, in Madras, now Chennai, my comic book source was
Princess Irene of Greece, who lived alone in the ground floor of our
two-storeyed rented house in Kilpauk Garden.
The friendly, saree-clad Princess Irene, born in Cape Town, South Africa,
sister of King Constantine of Greece and Spain's Queen Sophia, was studying
Indian philosophy, and shared her Amar Chitra Katha comics when I climbed up to
her study room window and called her for them, or when she came upstairs to
visit my mother.
From the A-4 sized color pages of Amar Chitra Katha, Princess Irene's Greek
ancestors like Alexander of Macedonia and great Indian emperors like Asoka,
Chandragupta Maurya, Akbar, came alive to be unforgettably etched in the mind
like Antonio Vivaldi's Spring from Four Seasons.
Amar Chitra Kathas celebrated some of the most fascinating characters in Indian
folklore like Arjuna, Abhimanyu and Karna from the epic Mahabharata;
from freedom fighters Rani Laxmibai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Subhas Chandra Bose
and Gandhiji, to timeless character-building tales from the ancient Jataka and
Orphaned in childhood and growing up with relatives, a young Anant Pai mastered
the ancient Indian languages of not only Sanskrit, but also the rarer Pali and
Magadhi, two languages spoken in northern and eastern India during the lifetime
of the Buddha
Pai was a chemical engineer, but worked for the Times of India group to bring
out the popular Indrajal comics featuring Lee Falk's Phantom and Mandrake the
Magician, before launching Amar Chitra Katha with publishers India Book House.
"What is really important is providing role models," Pai told the New York
Times in July 19, 2009. "A nation marches ahead, provided it has role models."
Pai himself did not see himself as a role model when I interviewed him for The
Statesman, during my debut days as journalist in the 1990s he was an unassuming
man with an aura of quiet strength. "Accuracy in detail," were Pai's words
lingering in memory from that interview, along with his eagerness to beat
Mumbai traffic snarls by driving home from the office at 4 pm.
Pai's drive for accuracy brought Amar Chitra Katha comics rare credibility for
cartoon books. "For a great many of the Indian readers with whom I spoke, Amar
Chitra Katha was instrumental in them teaching to appreciate the diversity of
India, and to locate their own local traditions within the larger national
tapestry," wrote Karline McLain in her book India's Immortal Comic Books
that was awarded the Edward Cameron Dimock, Jr, Prize in 2007 by the
Chicago-based American Institute of Indian Studies.
Pai has ensured his creations survived the 21st century. In 2007, Samir Patil,
a 40-year old former McKinsey consultant, acquired publishing rights for Amar
Chitra Katha. The newly formed ACK Media makes available Pai's lifetime works
in DVDs, online markets, video games, television, film and mobile phone
"History is a vast early warning system", American essayist Norman Cousins
famously said, and individuals and nations not learning from the past are
condemned to repeat mistakes of the past. The new generation of children is
getting their lessons from Uncle Pai's India's past on Cartoon Network and
Discovery Channel, as well as downloading the Amar Chitra Katha comics on their
Barely a week before Anant Pai died, he was in New Delhi on February 19 at
India's first annual Comics Convention, and received the "Special Lifetime
Achievement Award". For a generation of Indians, especially history students
like me, discovering my country started with Amar Chitra Katha.
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