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Monday, June 18, 2007

Gods, kings, mantris and Uncle Pai

Forty years ago Amar Chitra Katha was born out of a need to re-acquaint Indian children with history and heritage. "I saw a problem with children writing stories about Robert living in Warrington, and knowing the names of the Greek gods of Mount Olympus and not Lord
Rama's mother" says Anant Pai, founder-editor, Amar Chitra Katha comics.

Today, children are perhaps even less concerned with the trials and triumphs of gods, kings and Machiavellian ministers. "Maybe, but providing children with role models is an adult's responsibility" says Pai. "Besides, I don't believe in glorifying heritage, just being aware of it." Still, Amar Chitra Katha's recent titles have chosen more modern-day heroes, like Kalpana Chawla and J R D Tata.

"I was once told by the principal of a school that for as long as he was around, he would never allow comics into the classroom," chuckles Pai. "Today educationists realise that the comic format is only used so a history lesson becomes palatable." Amar Chitra Katha has even been the subject of PhD theses, but intellectual validation notwithstanding, things just aren't the same for Uncle Pai.

Amar Chitra Katha, that once brought out a title three or four times a month, is down to three or four titles a year, and from edition sizes of 1,00,000 to 20,000. "For comic characters born in the 1960s, the overwhelming presence of television in the mid-80s was a big blow" says Pai, referring to their waning fortunes and the closure of the equally iconic Indrajal Comics. It became uneconomical for India Book House, publishers of Amar Chitra Katha, to issue fresh titles, so they took to re-printing popular old ones.

But Anant Pai is far from disillusioned, indulging instead in some good old-fashioned nostalgia. His office is adorned with framed photographs of presidents and prime ministers releasing titles. He remembers the names of hundreds of little girls and boys whose affection he has encountered as "Pai chacha". Several of them, now grown up, keep in touch, still sentimental about their early interactions with Amar Chitra Katha.

Pai gets a few thousand letters a year. Most are from hopeful young writers, others write to ask him why the sky is blue or who his favourite heroine is.

Amar Chitra Katha will see improved times with television and mobile content providers seemingly eager for character acquisition rights. Pai's other comic brainchild, Tinkle, still sells 90,000 copies per issue, owing probably to its more generic protagonists like Shikari Shambhu and Pyarelal, bumbling but well-intentioned, who have survived the test of time and diminishing attention spans.

It's easy to see Pai was born to be a raconteur. He steps around awkward questions, but loves to tell a good tale. He lives by a moral code and believes everyone else should. "On the pretext of telling a story one can always slip in a moral" he laughs. And he does. I walk away with my head full of axioms like "insecure minds never prosper" or "if you have to say something let it be pleasant".

But best of all, he has what it takes to ensure Amar Chitra Katha continues to entertain and educate in perpetuity the belief that children will always be children.

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