“Timeless Picture Stories”: Historical and Religious Comics of India


What do you get when you combine the world’s oldest continuous culture, a society recovering from the aftermath of centuries of colonial occupation, and all the benefits and pitfalls of modern times?

If you’re India, one thing you get is a company that produces comic books about the subcontinent’s cultural heritage.

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Divine form: Amar Chitra Katha's interpretation of a pivotal moment in the Bhagavad Gita.
Divine form: Amar Chitra Katha’s interpretation of a pivotal moment in the Bhagavad Gita.

Amar Chitra Katha (loosely translated, “timeless picture stories”) comics are, for many who grew up in India, a fixture of youth. Sometimes gaudy, often surprisingly nuanced and touching, always sanitized-half the fun was reading between the lines of some gory or bawdy episode-these comics are something uniquely Indian, yet also oddly modern in both their execution and intent.

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The story goes that in 1967, Anant Pai, the founder of the Amar Chitra Katha endeavor, was watching a quiz show on Indian television. He was shocked to discover that students were able to answer questions dealing with Western classics, including Greek mythology, but had practically no clue about Indian epics and history. Such was the result of a British-originated school system. But how to get young people to absorb the stories of their own culture? And so, they say, Amar Chitra Katha was born.

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It’s pretty well established that this story is apocryphal. No doubt, some similar chain of events inspired Pai to create the comics, so perhaps this is merely a neat paraphrasing and not a total departure from what actually happened. It is absolutely true that, in the decades after Indian independence, there was a seesaw of changes in Indian values as the newly independent country found its footing in the modern world after being, for centuries, a site of colonial plunder and meddling.

The basic quandary was a Gordian knot: get rid of everything Western, and reclaim the proud heritage of India? (Not so fast: India, as a modern political construct, existed mostly because of British colonialism, having previously been a shifting collection of skirmishing kingdoms, ethnicities, languages, and religions-a state of perpetual disunity that the Brits used to their political advantage.) Or embrace Western ideas, education and language, and become a world power? (But at the cost of losing, in just a few generations, a cultural identity going back into ancient times, and of progressing too fast into a commercial, industrial age at odds with the reality of how most people in India, even now, live.)

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A personal favorite: one of many ACK stories of Birbal, a minister in the Emperor Akbar's court.
A personal favorite: one of many ACK stories of Birbal, a minister in the Emperor Akbar’s court.

Amar Chitra Katha comics hit an empty niche, serving up stories from Indian history and mythology (or in any case, relevant somehow to ancient or modern Indian identity) in a format designed to appeal to the young. ACK comics come in many stripes: fables and folktales (like Panchatantra, Jataka Tales, and Monkey Stories); mythology and epics (like the Ramayana and Mahabharata); humor and wit (including one of my childhood favorites, stories of the cleverness of one of the 14th century Mughal emperor Akbar’s ministers, Birbal); and biographies. This latter category includes prominent Indians like Gandhi, but also people of some significance to Indian culture, like Mother Teresa.

Best of all, ACK titles are going digital: you can buy them for reading on an iPad-talk about the ancient meeting the modern. The stories were first published in Kannada, a South Indian language, but were quickly translated into other languages, most importantly English. However anyone may have wanted it to be after the British vacated India, English had become-and was to remain-the lingua franca of India, amidst so many mother tongues and dialects (hundreds or thousands of each, depending on whom you ask). This also made these simplified Indian fables, mythologies and biographies consumable by other cultures.

To me, there is something poignant about these stories, their presentation and what the comics contain. Collections like “People Who Fought for Freedom,” a cross-section of both ancient and modern freedom fighters, speak to me of an attempt to put a single definition around an idea like oppression. There’s an attempt to frame it all in a very positive, inspiring light and send a message of a hopeful future. Some episodes of history, unfortunately, don’t fall into so neat a formula, and the comics necessarily resort to the trope of presenting good guys and bad guys, the latter often as exaggerated caricatures.

The story of the epic heroine Draupadi.
The story of the epic heroine Draupadi.

And so ACK, with its basic premise of “everything Indian is good,” is not without its controversies, although surprisingly few for an effort that attempts to take ancient ideas and values and bring them into today’s world. Indian book critic Nilanjana Roy lambasts the comics as an example of “the stereotypes and prejudices of mainstream Indian culture: pink-skinned, fair heroes and heroines, dark [demons] and villains, passive women drawn as in Indian calendar art from the male perspective.” In other words, Roy says, the comics perpetuate two troubling aspects of Indian culture that stubbornly refuse to go away: Indian society’s inherent racism, or preference for lighter skin, and its misogyny, carrying forward a traditional view of women as powerless chattel, obedient playthings.

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Other critics point out that episodes of jauhar and sati (two types of ritual suicide, the latter being too often less than voluntary when practiced outside the epics) are presented without adequate discussion and are shown to be acts of honorable piety. Then there’s the comics’ rather uneven portrayal of Muslims. Generally speaking, Islamic folk are okay if they appreciate, respect or are converted over to Hindu ideas (like the syncretist emperor Akbar), but villains if they in any way opposed Hinduism or Hindu rulers-no talk of “freedom fighting” there, you’d be hard pressed to find too many negative portrayals of Hindu culture or individuals except within a completely Hindu framework, like the epics.

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That sensibility is a pretty accurate reflection of how this issue plays out in India among the masses, but nevertheless, it gets concentrated in comics form. And whatever ACK founder Anant Pai’s jhansipolitical orientation or motives, Indian historical and mythological figures have definitely been adapted in the comics to serve the rhetoric of a united India proud of its (predominantly Hindu) cultural heritage.

In fairness, though, Indian culture and its depiction in these comics do give us powerful goddesses and figures like the Rani of Jhansi, one of my favorites, a sort of Joan of Arc character built around the story of a royal lady who rode out to battle in trying times.

Still, critics point out that the goddesses’ stories perpetuate female stereotypes, and that the foes the Rani went up against-tribals and British soldiers-are portrayed in a racist, oversimplified manner; so you truly can’t please everyone. Not to let anyone off the hook, but it really could have been a lot worse. India’s version of affirmative action is still (anachronistically and rather insultingly) called “Welfare of Scheduled Caste & Backward Classes” (the “schedule” being a list of unfortunates drawn up by their presumed betters, and the “backward classes” having been previously referred to as “backward tribes”).

Controversies though there may be around the way such issues play out in Amar Chitra Katha titles, the comics do provide insights into the Indian psyche, in a very accessible form. For me, there’s nothing like the memory of the strong-scented printing ink (a bit like kerosene), the rough paper, the flat colors-and the artwork that transported me into the worlds of legendary heroes, both ancient and modern. In every important respect, they served their intended purpose, to connect me to my Indian heritage at a young age (and even now, as I carefully collect them out of nostalgia).

Creatively, these comics, as an early influence during formative ages, definitely shaped me as a writer working in this medium. I wonder how many others like me they also inspired. I’m curious to see how Amar Chitra Katha’s titles evolve over time.