05 Apr 2019 18:47 IST

The colourful story of Amar Chitra Katha

The Future Group owned publisher continues to delight children with stories rooted in the Indian ethos

Indian mythology has always been a rich source of delightful children’s stories, though these tales were largely published in the vernacular. As for children’s writing, most youngsters preferred to read Enid Blyton mysteries, and books on Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, as those were the staple from the 1950s, and had little if any knowledge of Indian fables.

 

The story goes that in February 1967, when Anant Pai was watching a quiz aired on Doordarshan, he was shocked and disturbed that the participating children could answer questions on Greek mythology easily but were flummoxed when it came to a simple question from the Ramayana: “What is the name of Rama’s mother?” Apparently, his nephews and nieces would write stories with British characters and settings, which showed that they were reading, or listening to, only these stories. This reportedly prompted him to start writing Amar Chitra Katha (Immortal Illustrated Stories) comics (published by India Book House) that would teach children about their own folklore, tradition, mythology and culture using simple language and eye-catching illustrations.

The first comic from Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) was Krishna, written by Anant Pai himself in 1969 and illustrated by Ram Waeerkar.

It is said that 10,000 copies of the first edition of Krishna were printed and it took about two years to sell them. The title went on to sell half a million copies.

Hand-drawn, attention to detail

Other titles followed: Shakuntala, Savitri, Nala Damayanti, Harishchandra. Because of financial constraints, these were printed using only three colours — yellow, blue and green. Full colour panels came later. Each panel had to be hand-lettered using rulers to get the spacing just right. Everything including design and layout was done by hand but the results were perfect. With the introduction of computers and the digital drawing board, however, artists were able to work much faster by creating templates. The format of each comic remained the same — a 30-page tale told compellingly, with a wealth of detail and footnotes added to explain certain terms, especially relating to customs and rituals. The comics were affordable, starting at 75 paise and then going up to ₹2.50.

 

Detailed research was conducted for every story reproduced in comic form, with Anant Pai and his team poring over ancient texts to get the storyline right while his illustrators studied temple sculptures and calendar art to depict the characters’ figures, clothing and settings perfectly. Many of these titles saw several reprints.

The aim was to bring out a new comic every month. These mythological tales from the epics were followed by stories of historical figures such as Rana Pratap and Mirabai and later, by adaptations of classics that included Ananda Math by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and the lives of such famous historical figures as Jawaharlal Nehru, Louis Pasteur and Hieun Tsang. In the stories on modern-day heroes, a more personal style was used to tell young readers about their early years, likes and dislikes and the milieu they grew up in.

Business challenges

Amar Chitra Katha had by then increased the frequency of new titles to one every fortnight. The company lost money during the initial years of publication, mostly due to the prejudice parents had against comics, in general. But sales soon picked up. By 1986, 50 million comics had been sold, rising to 78 million in 1993. One reason for this was the innovative strategy of offering ACK comics through the mail on annual subscriptions.

Despite this steady growth, there were blips in ACK’s progress: in the 2000s, for about four-six years, it failed to publish a single new title, surviving only on reprints! This drought was broken with a story on Mother Teresa. Changes in ACK’s ownership in 2007 and the death of Anant Pai in 2011 were other major upheavals it had to contend with. At present, ACK Media Pvt. Ltd. is owned by the Future Group.

ACK publishes comics in English as well as many regional languages such as Hindi, Kannada, Bengali, Marathi, Assamese, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu. Some titles were even translated into French, Spanish, Swahili and German. Apart from ‘single’ comics, ACK titles are available in hard-cover sets, and occasional bumper issues. It has branched into books on adventure, business management, personal growth, fun and inspirational activities.

ACK comics are stocked by almost all major book retailers, bookstores and vendors and are some of the largest selling children’s publications in India. An online store created in 2007 offers all the titles worldwide.

Digital presence

Amar Chitra Katha has been active on the digital platform. The easy-to-use ACK Comics app can be downloaded on Windows, iOS and Android platforms. Amazon has made it possible for children to listen to the stories using simple voice commands to Alexa.

ACK is said to have about 450 comics in 35+ languages, which have sold more than 100 million copies to date. Of these 450 titles, stories from the Mahabharata account for 43 titles and those from Ramayana for 36. The variety of subjects on offer has only increased over the years, as the creators reach out to all corners of India for stories and biographies.

 

While ACK comics won parents’ appreciation by always depicting the victory of good over evil, critics have carped at the stereotyped character portrayal: women were fair and buxom; gods and upper-caste men were tall, well-built and fair; but asuras, bad men and servants were short, dark, ugly and fat. Occasionally. the dialogue in the speech-bubbles was downright derogatory. ACK has responded positively to the criticism and made a conscious effort to change some of its character depictions; it has even discontinued certain titles.

Children can apply for the Amar Chitra Katha scholarship that is available in more than 70 cities. A learning centre called ACK Alive, offering story-telling sessions, art classes, calligraphy, and vedic sciences was just launched in Hyderabad. ACK makes its presence felt at events like the World Book Fair, Comic Con, Bookaroo, and Dehradun Festival with stalls that attract people from all generations. The publisher has come a long way from the time when parents disapproved of their children reading comics. Now, during quizzes and other contests, parents compete with children to answer questions!

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