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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Immortal Tales

A long time ago, 40 years to be precise, there was a storyteller. He would regale his nieces and nephews with animated narrations of epics and folk tales. Children of his locality too would pester Uncle Pai, as he was popularly known, for more stories. One fine day, Uncle Pai was confronted with a disturbing sight. “It was the summer of 1967. I was visiting Delhi with a friend when a crowd gathered around an electronic shop caught my attention. I discovered that they had gathered to watch a quiz show on television, where students from prestigious schools were participating. Though I was impressed to notice that they could answer difficult questions on Greek mythology, they were not able to name Ram’s mother,” says Uncle Pai or Anant Pai, the man behind the immensely popular Amar Chitra Katha series.

That day Pai made a solemn promise to familiarise Indian children with their own culture. “It’s imperative. How can we be responsible citizens without knowing about our own culture?” asks Pai.

Forty years and countless editions later, Amar Chitra Katha is a cultural force. “It is a part of almost every Indian child’s growing up process. My parents would thrust a copy of Karna or Ramayana to familiarise me with the epics. It was a welcome break from the world of Marvel Comics. They were colourful and informative,” says Rajarshi Bose, an employee of IFB Kolkata.

There is another school of thought that considers the illustrations in Amar Chitra Katha as more sophisticated than western comic strips. “I loved the drawings and the colours. It made me love Indian history as they showed it. I think it was a very evolved form of animation and art that existed in India and content-wise was at par with any DC or Marvel publication,” says Jaydeep Dharap, a Kolkata-based freelance voice trainer.

Yet many feel that Amar Chitra Katha was largely rendered through dominant bazaar realism, a derivative of the Raja Ravi Varma lithographs, that fed the nation’s imagination. “Amar Chitra Katha proved to be a provocative and clever chronicler of the perceptions of modern India. An intelligent reader will gather a lot about modern Indian history, contemporary culture and politics through it,” Says Rimi B Chatterjee, professor of English, Jadavpur University.

The feminist in Monalisa Sen, an employee with Cognizant Technology Solutions Kolkata, is affronted by the stereotypical portrayal of women in the series. “The series encouraged patriarchal norms. Women were depicted as servile doormats. Even the ridiculous curves that they projected were like Raja Ravi Verma figures. Pretty, but very objectified,” says Sen. Chatterjee, agrees. “Even when they were talking about rebellious feminist figures like Mirabai, their convictions were glossed over. Their need for self-assertion was sugar-coated as devotion to god,” says Chatterjee.

Others feel that the series overtly patronised the Hindu scriptures. “Amar Chitra Katha is essentially Hindu in its packaging, style and illustrations. Though it has pretensions of chronicling the history of a nation, one cannot deny that the retelling is a very selective one,” says Erik Jordan, a teacher with St Pauls Mission School.

Pai dismisses these charges with playful humour. “I have tried to be as balanced as possible. When the members of the Christian community approached me saying that I do not talk about them, I came up with a Jesus Christ bumper issue,” states Pai.

Yet, it cannot be denied that the series has played an important role in shaping the identity of the young in post-Independence India. “An entire generation grew up on Amar Chitra Katha. Young impressionable minds were moulded by it. The very fact that people like me are conducting Phd level research on it is a testimony to its impact,” sums up Aryak Guha, a Phd scholar at Jadavpur University’s English department.

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