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Amar Chitra Katha and Its Cultural Ideology

The Classic Popular: Amar Chitra Katha (1967-2007) by Nandini Chandra

Amar Chitra Katha and Its Cultural Ideology

Rupleena Bose

cinema and the art form through the last five decades. What results is a brilliant and an iconic study of the most popular comic book of post-colonial India and the Hinduising ideology that it forwarded through the careful choice of stories from an ideal “ancient” past. Charting ACK as a

I have a passion for the epic: knights on chargers; two armies standing on either side of a dark plain on a misty morning three hundred years ago, preparing for battle; luckless men downing raki and exchanging unhappy love stories in meyhanes on a winter’s night; lovers disappearing into murky depths of the city in pursuit of a dead secret – these are immortal tales I’ve longed to tell, but all god gave me was this column, which calls for another kind of story altogether. And He gave me you, dear readers.

– Orhan Pamuk, The Black Book

T
ales of brave warrior gods, conniving demons, benevolent Hindu kings and clever ministers have gripped the child growing up in postcolonial India. Stories of heroic battles and stoic suffering brought to the comic book form meant for entertainment as well as pedagogic purposes; Amar Chitra Katha has been associated uncritically with the innocence and childhood memory itself. However, the dark side of nostalgia often comes to clearer light only in rare moments of criticality. Housed in images from childhood and stories of a perfect past, nostalgia translates into popular cultural symbols remodelling itself as the classic. The contextual meanings of the terms classic and popular point to the way studies of popular culture are necessary to dig deeper into the so-called acceptable truths in popular imagination.

Nandini Chandra in The Classic Popular writes,

Hero worship, an integral part of chil- dren’s literature is then put into the service of the life-narrative designed to foster n ational feeling. The premise of identification between hero and child is then magically affected through a common religious b onding (p 5).

Nandini Chandra’s book intervenes with the deepest insight into the nostalgic glory of childhood, the heroes and myths that condition the minds of children and

book review

The Classic Popular: Amar Chitra Katha (19672007) by Nandini Chandra (New Delhi: Yoda Press), 2008; pp xv + 243, Rs 395.

adults. In her exhaustive study of Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) from 1967 to 2007, Chandra penetrates into the cultural production of the popular comic strategically started and marketed by Anant Pai as his ideological project.

Hindu Myth, Hindu Nation

Unlike the hyper-individualism portrayed by the comic in the west, the comic in India in an attempt to attract mass readership relies and furthers stereotypes from the popular (read majoritarian) myths. Like the hero and heroine represented as the ideal masculine/feminine stereotypes in popular romance novels, ACK found favour with the mass market with their careful scripting of myth as history moulded into dominant stereotypes. The “hero” is seldom secular and ACK in its long history of producing selective stories simply translates the communal subconscious of the nation which saw Partition, 1984 riots, Babri masjid demolition, Gujarat riots, and so on. Through ACK’s communal agenda, Chandra further urges us to question our own collective childhood in post-colonial India and the apparatuses, which equate the Hindu with the national and the M uslim with the invader. With visuals and anchoring text, the child distanced from the memory of Partition is conditioned with a skewed view of history and a hegemonic idea of culture under the authentic claim of pedagogy by ACK.

Using cultural theories of Walter Benjamin, Barthes, Appadurai and others, Chandra looks not just at the comic form, but also at the interlinked economics of popular forms like publishing, advertising, cultural product, The Classic Popular looks at the material conditions leading to the production of the comic which was used by it’s owner Anant Pai to posit an idea of “seamless Hindu tradition” through tales from epics, freedom movement and glories of the Vedic age against the effects of colonial modernity and English education.

Chandra goes on to show how even subversive folk movements like Bhakti are represented as symbols of liberal reformative Hinduism. The reference to Bhakti as religious as opposed to the radicalism of the Bhakti movement locates the comic within a real market, a middle class/upper caste readership and the prerogative of the editorial committee.

Pointing to the use of the “life narrative” to tell the story of heroic figures in history by Amar Chitra Katha, Chandra compares it to the biographies in popular Hindi films, where both subsume the c onflicts of class, community and gender. And within the rubric of the comic/ pedagogic form that ACK identified itself with, it creates a fable like heroism, where conflict is only between the Hindu hero/ good and the deviant other/evil. This is easily achieved by ACK as children’s literature is seen as a genre defined by a s pecific market, where innocence and naturalness attributed to children demand superficial meanings.

Commenting on Pai’s interpretation of history, Chandra reveals how parallel history normally associated with comics becomes in the case of Amar Chitra Katha, a nationalist, Vaishnavite mode of history informed by the caste/class conditioning and political leaning of Anant Pai. This is, in turn, executed in the organisation through careful editorial control of the stories, texts, visuals and their possible meanings authenticated as glorious tales of Indian tradition. Writing on ACK’s alignments with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
may 23, 2009 vol xliv no 21

BOOK REVIEW

and the Hinduising drive of pedagogy by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Chandra refers back to the National Democratic Alliance government’s attempts to doctor and communalise the National Council of Education Research and Training textbooks with the help of populist forms.

The becoming of ACK comics as pedagogy and BJP’s admiration towards Pai reveal the dangers of nationalism bordering on Hindutva, which draws its definition from the 19th century anti-colonial struggle. Where the comic in India has attempted to identify itself as indigenous by reworking the form associated with western ideas, the effect has been the creation of an idea of tradition which was projected as “modern”. In post-colonial societies popular forms like comic, cinema become the vehicle of nation-building, where the “nation” is seen as monolithic and needs to be defined in opposition to the value system created by colonialism. However, it needs to be noted that the idea of “tradition” upheld by nationalists in popular imagination was a historical construct as colonialism needed to create the category of “tradition” against which colonial modernity was defined.

Both popular cinema and popular comics like ACK are realistic art built on such an hegemonic idea of “Indianness” that seeks to create a nation, where history is synonymous with Hindu myths and the Muslim invaders are shown to be outsiders violating the purity of brahminical system of culture and governance.

Picture Book Realism

Ravi Varma, it appears here, was crucial not so much for his trademark realism but for being Ravi Varma, a highly revered symbol of Hinduness. Consequently, when ACK artists invoked Ravi Varma, they were using his name as shorthand for a national consensus on what was Indian (p 87).

Sandria Freitag mentions that visual culture in India dates from the religious act of darsan prevalent in the act of viewing god (Christopher Pinney and Rachel Dwyer, ed., Pleasure and the Nation (New Delhi: OUP) 2001: 35-67). The film narrative was an extension of the visual culture dramatising mythologies for the viewers along with calendar art which used academic realism of Ravi Varma’s portraits to create popular visual references of Hindu gods and goddesses. The comic too through the picture tales of religious myths is part of the same visual culture of darsan premising itself on the realistic style of painting used by Varma.

Chandra’s interview with artist Waeerkar reveals that the Ravi Varma style of drawing was chosen to create the warrior, roman image of Ram and the Kannada pothi tradition of bearded Ram initially drawn by him for ACK was rejected. The symbolic world of illustrations leads the young readers to associate fair, roman, upper caste Hindu features as naturally good and the bearded sharp-jawed signifying the evil and lecherous Muslim. The illustrations are used to draw a recognisable visual link between upper caste brahmins, gods, and finally, Ram. Chandra analyses the illustrations used in ACK through her extensive study of the class and ideological positions of the artists rendering the images of heroism, valour, evil into styles borrowed from the cinematic angles and frames of

BOOK REVIEW

mainstream film industry. Discussing the caste and class compositions of the editorial and artistic team of ACK, Chandra discusses the brahmin hegemony of the personal and political space of the ACK team. Through interviews and cultural context of the artists, Chandra weaves forward her argument of ACK’s liberal Hindu policies which cleverly exploits the “uneven split between the visual projected as popular and textual as elite” (p 12).

Bringing out the clash between the illustrators’ own artistic styles and the overarching policy of Pai, Chandra gives the example of the Mira/Krishna story in ACK. Drawn by the only Muslim illustrator in ACK, Yusuf Lien, Chandra narrates the disillusionment of Yusuf Lien from the working system of ACK and its right wing agenda. She goes on to notice that the Yusuf’s strokes of Mira and Krishna creates a fluid androgynous image of the man making him softer than the hardened masculine figures in other ACK comics. Yet interestingly, it is revealed that Yusuf Lien was

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never used to sketch the stories of Mughal kings most of which were done by other Hindu illustrators, who worked on the given brief and were politically inclined towards Pai and the ACK ideology. This a rgument further suggests that like any market-driven exercise, Pai used the individual skills of the artists leaving them little autonomy or authorial control to visualise their imagination.

What surfaces from The Classic Popular are important questions on the cultural conditions leading to the current polarised present of south Asia. Further, it u rges us to locate ACK in the context of waning ideas of Nehruvian socialism and the radical questioning of the foundations of the state during the Naxalite movement. The late 1960s leading to the emergency saw the basic foundations of d emocracy and the Indian nation state questioned. Possibly one of the reasons leading to reactionary nationalism, where the comic form instead of bringing forth the alternative forwarded the values of

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the mainstream and a problematic idea of the secular. The non-conformism of the 1960s towards the state machinery is s ilenced instead creating a historical distance from the present by l ocating the stories in an “ideal” past.

Chandra’s analysis leads one to imagine the possibilities that could have come out of ACK instead of the Hinduised nation that it attempts to build. As the longest running comic book, ACK still inhabits a symbolic space in popular imagination, where the stories like nostalgic old film tunes are now available through Vodafone with advertisements emphasising on the contemporary appeal of the stories.

In such a moment Chandra’s book urges the reader into a steady admittance of the way nostalgia left attended often leads the collective consciousness to create “classics” out of popular forms, where h istory is scripted out of communal and caste stereotypes.

Email: rupleena.bose@gmail.com

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Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
may 23, 2009 vol xliv no 21

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