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Immortalizing India's Master Storyteller

Posted: 02/27/2012 6:50 pm

How do you immortalize a master in his own art?

That was the question facing Vijay Sampath, the new CEO of ACK Media and editor Reena Puri over commemorating Anant Pai, the creator of India's Amar Chitra Katha comic book series. "Uncle" Pai passed away one year ago today at the age of 81 in Mumbai.

The answer seemed obvious: a comic book for the godfather of India's comic book industry. "Everyone felt that's what Uncle Pai would have liked, even if he never would have suggested it," Sampath says about Pai's trademark humility. It's a trait common throughout Amar Chitra Kathas and the one about its founder is no different. "The beauty of this comic is that it's designed the way Uncle Pai would have liked it. Its inspirational, it talks of a struggle and how the struggle is overcome and how the protagonist went on to do good things in the world at large. Which is what Uncle Pai wanted -- his whole existential purpose was that children should be happy and contented and filled with joy."

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Pai's cheerful demeanour was matched by the impact of his work. It began when he and artist Ram Waeerkar spent a year on the first and most successful issue, "Krishna", a simple three-colour pallet of everybody's favourite blue-skinned deity on low-grade paper. The stories focused on Indian history, Hindu mythology, famous personalities, parables and folktales; the two-part Gandhi issue marking the peak of the series came out in 1989. Alongside Tinkle, Suppandi and other fictional titles produced by its parent company, India Book House, Amar Chitra Katha became a juggernaut in the world of children's' publishing: the comic books have been translated into 38 languages including Serbo-Croat, Swahili & Bahasa Indonesian and -- by sheer virtue of being Indian -- as many as 700 million people have held an Amar Chitra Katha in their hands, even if they couldn't actually read it.

Here he explains one of the inspirations for creating Amar Chitra Katha:

Another inspiration for change:

However it wasn't just in scale that Pai mattered. As Karline McLain, a professor of South Asian Studies at Bucknell University notes in her book "India's Immortal Comic Books", Pai's dedicated work in sifting through, and then writing stories about Hinduism's enormous pantheon of gods (in the millions by most counts) helped solidify the modern canon around them. Its impact on the Indian diaspora was especially pronounced when in the pre-Internet days issues traveled by suitcases of relatives.

Born to a high caste Brahmin family in the state of Karnataka, Uncle Pai was not a political person. Yet he was subject to both effigy burning and political pandering over the years. He also came under fire for the sin of omission: glossing over character faults and violence in his stories. It made for powerful, if finite, storytelling. By the turn of the century, Sampath suggests the creative well of Amar Chitra Katha had run dry -- all the stories had been told and comic books as a whole had the imprimatur of a cottage-industry product.

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In 2005, ACK Media, a new startup, took up the torch lit by Uncle Pai. Inaugural CEO Samir Patil sensed the growing purchasing power of consumers as well as seismic shifts in online activity with new retailing, and distribution models gaining traction.

During the first years, he and his partner had reliable growth overseas as they navigated the growing Indian market. ACK threw itself into the children's entertainment industry and today offers a catalogue of products across multiple platforms, including apps, home video, film and television, mobile, gaming, and online services.

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The Anant Pai issue was launched just ahead of India's second annual Indian Comic Con last week (Uncle Pai was honored at the first event). Now, a plethora of competitors such as Campfire, Giddoo, Fenil and Vimanika are poised to give ACK Media a run for its money according to Sampath.

"The comic industry has seen a fairly significant revival by lots of new people coming on board with new products, new competitors, new genres -- everything! It also coincides with the revival of the superhero franchise from Marvel & DC in the film format, so a continuous slew of caped heroes and masked avengers which have had a good run in television and film these past 7-8 years has helped to increase the demand for comics."

Uncle Pai earned a chemical engineering degree before going into publishing in the 1950's. He firmly believed in science over faith, and once wrestled with an early story about Krishna holding up a mountain by a single finger. Whereas he initially depicted these scenes in an ambiguous fashion, neither endorsing nor excoriating them, he later decided to portray them as stupendous miracles, even if they stretched 20th Century credulity. It accorded to the belief animating his professional life: "One must tell the truth, one must tell what is pleasant, but don't tell what is unpleasant just because it is true."

Some of the values that motivated Uncle Pai

His stories earned him recognition in the global comics industry and seriously large piles of fan-mail. Immediately following his death, Indians at home and abroad mourned the death of the "Master Storyteller". Some even suggested him for the Bharat Ratna, the Jewel of India, the country's highest civilian honour. Uncle Pai left behind an enormous legacy in many ways... except one. He and his wife Lalita never had any children of their own.

The Anant Pai comic is available at the iTunes store here.

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