While watching a quiz show on Doordarshan back in the 1960s, Anant (Uncle) Pai was disgruntled by the fact that while the participants knew a lot about Greek heroes and mythology, they displayed an embarrassing lack of knowledge on Indian mythology.
That’s the moment he conceived the idea of creating a series on Indian mythology and culture. He soon quit his job with The Times of India and, a year later, in 1967, he launched Amar Chitra Katha, a seminal series of comic books published by India Book House that have documented Indian mythology, folk tales and ancient and modern history.
In the 1980s, Tinkle, the much-loved fortnightly children’s magazine that has given India some of its most popular comic characters like Suppandi, Tantri the Mantri and Shikari Shambhu, was launched by Uncle Pai under the aegis of ACK. Both brands were acquired by ACK Media in 2007.
Seminal work on Indian culture and mythology
The best part about Amar Chitra Katha is that the books were able to break down the extremely complex world of Indian mythology into easily readable stories, mirroring the ease with which our grandparents told us old stories. This is why they’ve played an integral role in Sneha Ramanan’s life, in shaping her idea of Indian culture as a child.
The senior consultant at a leading not-for-profit organisation in Mumbai says that it was reading these books after the passing of her grandparents that helped not only her but her parents to keep up with Indian folk tales in their cosmopolitan lives.
“Indian mythological stories have traditionally been passed down orally. My grandparents used to tell me at least one mythological story before putting me to bed. Once they passed, my parents didn’t really have a reservoir of stories to read to me every night. That’s when my mother bought my sister and me almost 2,000 Amar Chitra Kathas,” she tells ThePrint.
Kids these days are avidly watching Indian cartoons like Chota Bheem, Motu Patlu and Roll no.21, which have Indian settings, relatable relationships and very desi names. But for the average Indian kid growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, there were no relatable Indian cartoons on air. Their choices were largely limited to Japanese animes like Digimon, Pokemon, Sakura or American toons like Scooby Doo, the Powerpuff Girls and Ben 10. Comics like Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha then became the primary and sometimes only source of relatable stories deeply rooted in their culture.
Preeti Vyas, president of Amar Chitra Katha considers this the primary reason behind its immense success — with more than 300 million copies sold worldwide and growing and translation into Italian, French, Swahili, and, of course, multiple Indian languages. “Our mission has been to look at a profound body of work and to be able to keep its spirit alive while keeping it fresh and contemporary.”
According to Ramanan, while Amar Chitra Katha imparted a pool of historical and cultural knowledge, Tinkle taught moral lessons in a lighter way.
This has been the magazine’s goal from the beginning, a legacy that Rajani Thindiath has tried to strengthen and take forward ever since she took charge as editor-in-chief of Tinkle in 2016.
“All our stories try to inculcate progressive morals in our young readers. We’ve made a conscious effort of including more and more female characters in Tinkle.”
The comics have grown with us
Vyas loves how her 11-year-old son reads the same characters in Tinkle as she once did. The same characters have been able to transcend generations, which speaks volumes about the craft of the stories. But this also comes with the conscious effort of keeping the characters contemporary and relatable.
Suppandi, for example, one of the most iconic characters of Tinkle was introduced as this dumb yet thoughtful ‘servant’ who would goof up every other job. Suppandi’s goofiness has appealed to generations as it did to Vikrant Mehra an educational consultant in Mumbai.
“The enthusiasm with which Suppandi came to work every day, no matter how much he messed up made me think as a child that it’s better to be incompetent and thoughtful than be arrogant and unlikeable.”
Tinkle has tried to retain this very relatability and goofiness but with time the publishers have made a conscious effort to distance itself from the term ‘servant’, assigning Suppandi roles like photographer’s assistant where he has the opportunity to goof up, and at the same time, domestic staff are not demeaned in any way.
Other characters have seen similar transitions. Shikari Shambhu is now an animal conservationist, Tantri the Mantri went on to become king (and realised he probably wasn’t cut for the role).
“I’ve made a conscious effort to bring in more female characters, give narratives a much-needed female gaze, normalise things like children with physical disabilities, men cooking in the kitchen or boys crying,” says Thindiath.
She elaborates that Tinkle has tried to introduce characters from all over the country for children to understand their country’s diversity better. “Our contemporary characters include Yoga Yodha, a brother-sister duo who conjure spirit creatures through yogic poses, Mapui Kawlim, a Mizo girl who is a superhero, the antics of kids at a fictional school called Nilgiri Orchid International school based in the Nilgiri hills.”
Amar Chitra Katha isn’t far behind in presenting empowering stories from the past. One of its recent popular editions has been Rama’s Ring, which tells rare stories from the various different folk versions of the Ramayana. In one particularly popular story, the final arrow that kills Ravana is fired by Sita.
They also published Women Pathbreakers recently, a book that documents legendary women in India through the 1800s and 1900s, such as Pandita Ramabai, who changed the lives of child brides and widows, Anandibai Joshi who was the first female doctor in India and Rukhmabai who inspired the Age of Consent Act.
Free during the lockdown
After Prime Minister Modi announced a complete national lockdown for 21 days to slow the spread of coronavirus, ACK Media decided to waive the subscription fee for its online editions of these two series for 30 days.
“Our service is to our readers, the children of this country. We could see their fear, anxiety, and boredom. In our bid to curb that anxiety, we made our catalogue free for 30 days for everyone.” Vyas tells ThePrint. The move has been immensely popular among Indians and especially restless children nationwide as the brand has had more than 2.5 lakh users read these comics within a week.
They say a friend in need is a friend indeed. And who better to come to our aid in self-isolation than our favourite childhood friends?