As with a first kiss, one never forgets the first rejection letter. Mine came as a handwritten yellow postcard with small closely packed letters in black ink. I was eleven years old and had made two story submissions to the popular comic series Tinkle published by Anant Pai. It was the first time I had fancied myself a writer destined for the public eye, and as much as the rejection stung, I was dazzled that no other than Uncle Pai (as Anant Pai was popularly known) had taken the trouble to write an entire letter addressed to me.
It was one of the kindest letters I have ever received. Uncle Pai wrote that even though it pained him to write the rejection, “It will pain me more, however, if you stop writing […] just because of one rejection letter.” The first issue of Tinkle had appeared in 1980 when I was six and my mother had made sure I acquired every single issue as soon as it came to the bookstore, a collection we kept up for years.
More than a decade before my encounter with Tinkle, in 1967, Anant Pai started working on comics based on Indian mythology under the Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) label. It was unlike anything seen in Indian bookstores at that time, and represented a bold publishing decision that would significantly shape and impact the reading aesthetic of several generations of children in India.
For an early title, Pai scripted and edited the story of Krishna’s birth and childhood from the Bhagavat Puran with illustrations by Ram Waeerkar. Coloured manually with a palette of 26 colours, Krishna also set in place the template of how the devas, asuras and mortals would be depicted in all the ACK comics the followed.
The iconic cover image of Krishna depicts a young boy in a distinct shade of blue, a bright halo around his head, his hand dipped in a forbidden pot of curd, his sharply turned eyes (looking out of frame to the top right corner) reflecting the confident stealth of his mischief. The issue was printed in February 1970, and this year the blue god, as introduced to us by Pai, turns fifty.
In ACK’s biographical comic book about Anant Pai and the making of the series (Anant Pai, 2010), we have a metanarrative around the mythology of the man who made an exceptional success of writing/drawing mythology. Anant Pai lost both his parents in early childhood and was raised by his grandparents in Karkala, a town tucked in the Western Ghats in Karnataka. He moved to Mumbai for his college education and is depicted (in the ACK biography) as a hardworking, determined young man.
Trained in chemical engineering, and motivated in social work by Vinoba Bhave, Pai eventually took to publishing with altruistic zeal, specifically driven by his belief that an invaluable and indigenous narrative repository would be lost and forgotten unless documented. A chance viewing of a television quiz show where contestants were able to answer questions from Greek mythology but not elementary questions on Indian mythology is said to be the spark that convinced Pai to employ the comic genre to repackage the Indian epics for children. Thus came more than 400 titles with sales of over 100 million copies (according to ACK) across the world.
This success story is not without question marks. ACK titles are replete with several biases and blind spots in the choice of content as well as visual treatment. Scholars such as Deepa Srinivas have studied ACK titles for “the fashioning of a nationalist, brahminised yet modern masculinity as the idea for emulation by middle-class children.” These overt and covert prejudices are evident in the themes as well as choice of body types, skin colouring, facial features and moralistic tone of the series.
Such blind spots and normativised slants are in no way defensible; however, what is undeniable is that despite struggles with sales in its early days, ACK quickly became the mainstay of the storytelling repertoire for children in India and Krishna marked one such moment. It might be worth considering the narrative imperatives of the first issue. How is the blue god’s story being told to us? What made it so attractive to so many children, including me?
The comic starts media res and is unconcerned with explaining context to characters or action. The first frame, a rectangle that spans the width of the margins, shows a couple inside a horse-drawn chariot, waving farewell to an older man wearing a crown. Tucked into the box is the storytelling voice, simple and direct: “Vasudeva, a nobleman, had married Princess Devaki of Mathura. He was taking his bride home.”
Therein lies an important anchoring for several ACK titles – parentage and family lineage. The next frame that follows, nearly the same dimension, is an over-the-shoulder view of a mustachioed man in a large crown holding the reins of two white horses in motion and trampling over people. “It’s Kamsa! Run!” says the speech bubble of one of the fleeing citizens. And right away we have the antagonist, the fearsome Kamsa, whose death on the last pages of the comic will be the resolution we must seek from the beginning.
The effectiveness of Krishna’s story (and indeed all the ACK titles) lies in skilful condensation of several complex events to pithy impactful images and text, sans any meanderings or slackness in plotline. The narrative voice is barebones precise, always propelling the action forward. Krishna has all the features of an action-adventure series.
There are challenges/crisis posed and resolutions made possible by courage and prowess. Whether the slaying of Putana, the taming of Kalia, the lifting of Govardhan, we are never unnerved by the dangers or worried for Krishna – he resolves the challenge almost as soon as it is posed to him, no small reassurance for a young reader.
The comic is quick to showcase the theatricality of some of these adventures, often with a touch of humour, as with the elephant that seizes Krishna when he comes to Mathura to take up Kamsa’s challenge of the bow sacrifice. Krishna’s slaying of the elephant is amplified and extended into a whole page with six frames that show the elephant lifted perpendicular by the trunk and sent flying through the air, a moment of distress and violence turned into an entertaining act.
It is this cushioning, the ability to tell a riveting story often about violence and death without distressing a young reader, the insistence of the narrative voice on a unwavering moral code (internally validated by the storyline), that perhaps remains the reason for the unfading popularity of the series. The last frame of Krishna has the same characters as the first frame – his biological parents and the imprisoned King Ugrasena. The added attractions this time is the blue god holding a crown that is being restored and celebratory courtesans with raised arms heralding the moment. “This was only the beginning,” says the narrative voice.
It was indeed the beginning, not just of the rest of Krishna’s adventures as found in pre-modern texts or the oral traditions, but for a certain storytelling aesthetic that ACK would apply to several genres beside the epics, including historicals, biographies, and fables.
While there is no denying that the blue god has continued to age well, ACK has largely stayed frozen within a thematic and stylistic template that one would not be amiss to call “vintage”. Modes of reading and entertainment have changed radically over these five decades and narrative traditions (whether of epic or comic) will have to consider being more reflexive and inventive to stay relevant and engaging to story-hungry young readers. However, what ACK has done unfailingly for decades is to keep at the pulse of storytelling, embedding the thrill of the action comic in the carnivalesque comfort of the familiar and/or the traditional.
The ACK titles collected in my childhood, despite being worn out by repeat readings and numerous relocations, are now in the enthusiastic safekeeping of the next generation, still thumbed, still enjoyed. The rejection letter I had received from Anant Pai ended with a line that made a strong impression on me at age eleven, and continues to serve me well as a writer – “Even to fix a nail in a wall,” wrote Uncle Pai, “you have to hit on the hammer a few times.”