Monday, February 28, 2011

Uncle Pai ki Amar Katha

An integral part of my childhood-as that of nearly every Indian child of my generation- died last week.

Anant Pai, or Uncle Pai as we all knew him, shaped our knowledge of Indian mythology, classics, and history. An accessible 2.50 to 5.00 Rupees per comic when I read them, the Amar Chitra Katha series created a passion for reading in a whole generation of school children. The stories, set as they were in an Indian landscape, were much more easily adaptable for playacting than the decidedly alien Enid Blytons we otherwise read. We would trade them, read them, and play at them during the long summer holidays.

These comics are also where I learnt my history and my mythology. The personality and colour infused comics were much more attractive than the dry textbooks where we were supposed to memorize dates. The comics gave us a sense of the events, of the people behind them. Instead of the focus on a handful of largely male 'Heroes Of The Freedom Struggle' as our texts had, the Amar Chitra Kathas showcased the smaller struggles, the people in the supporting cast, stories that might otherwise be forgotten.

And its the same for the fiction. I grew up knowing the bare bones of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, of course. What I loved about the Amar Chitra Kathas is their focus on the little known figures in those stories.  Vali,  Abhimanyu, Prabhavati, Hidimbaa. They made accessible stories that would otherwise have never entered people's lives. The comics brought to english-only readers like myself versions of the great tamil classics ( Kannagi, Manonmani ) and the lesser-known sanskrit classics (Nala-Damayanti, Urvashi).

Possibly no single source has done more to shape the way we view our mythological figures than these comics have. Yes, it was Raja Ravi Verma who first gave them form..but how often does a nine-year old child in a little coastal town have access to Ravi Verma's paintings? The comics brought them to her doorstep..

This sounds like an advertisement for Amar Chitra Kathas; I guess I got a little carried away when I was thinking of the books I'd read. They were not all perfect. The illustrations, attractive though they were, are not historically accurate. My sis decided not to let them be a part of my nieces babyhood library because of they tend to ooze adultery, violence, deceit, jealousy, and lust. In the series' defense, its because Indian mythology, like the Greek, is an adults-only soap opera. What is a little less difficult to defend is their depiction of demons as dark and curly-haired, of villainous women as obese, of 'good' women as cloyingly submissive. And the history is a little simplistic.

But they are attractively illustrated, written, and presented little books. They never claimed to be archaelogical journals. They gave me much happiness during my childhood. I owe my interest in reading, in history, and in classical literature to the seed they had sown. I would still pick them up in a flash.
Thank you, Uncle Pai.

The illustration is from the Amar Chitra Katha website.


Anonymous said...

This sounds very much like the "Classic Comics" series that I cut my teeth on as a kid. My mom bought them for us to read whenever we went on road trips. "War and Peace", "Crime and Punishment", "Jane Eyre", none of which I would have ever read at that age, were condensed down into comic form and were some of my favorite reading.

And Greek mythology---sooo much more interesting than the "god" I learned about in Sunday School! ;-)

Thank you for bringing back those memories and for sharing yours.


nadi said...

years ago, a girl from a small town received a reply to one of her letters to him. It was typed, but he had signed it. wasn't I thrilled!

yes, the Amar Chitra Katha were lovely.

they were not part of my daughter's life. She was born in 1993, a time where maybe the decision to 'keep all gods out' is understandable.
But yes, she missed out on the richness of our myths, and i feel sorry about that.
But I hope she will find them someday.
Thank you so much for writing about Uncle Pai.