Comic Myths

Modern Mythmaking 16 Comments

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday March 06, 2011


Uncle Pai passed away a few days ago. He is the man who brought mythology to a whole generation of Indians through ‘immortal picture books’ or Amar Chitra Katha (ACK). I remember waiting for that monthly dose, admiring the art, relishing the story and imagining myself in those mythic worlds. Those moments came into my life because of this one man,and for that I, and many more, will be eternally grateful. Had it not been for him, would I have immersed myself into mythology, I wonder?

In 1967, in a quiz contest, the children could answer questions from Greek and Roman mythology but they did not know the name of Ram’s mother in the epic Ramayana. This led to the creation of ACK.

Today, things are not so bad, but I keep hearing this need to make mythology ‘relevant’ for the modern child. Today, parents tell me that they buy ACK for their children, but the children prefer television. The American and Japanese comics have overrun the child’s imagination. ACK has tried going on television but the televised version does not have the same magic. The context has changed!

When ACK came into the lives of children, the only thing on television were the weekly black & white shows: Chayageet, Krishi-darshan, Marathi movies on Saturday and Hindi movies on Sunday. Everything was controlled by the Government. First it was Mumbai Doordarshan then it became National television. Today, the floodgates have opened. In the remotest village, thanks to internet and cable television, one can access stories from around the world. Despite selling over 90 million copies in 20 languages, ACK faces a huge challenge. But parents cannot expect to outsource value-education to ACK alone.

In attempt to make the story relevant, one gentleman called Gotham (Gautam?) in consultation, I am told, with Deepak Chopra (!) and Shekar Kapur (!!!) created a series of comics imagining a futuristic Ramayana where Ram has a six-pack, Hanuman looks like an ape, Dandaka looks like a dark Amazon jungle, and everyone looks like they have just attended a heavy metal concert. Somehow it does not feel like Ramayana, at all.

The greatest challenge, however, is not external. It is internal – mythology itself. Most people assume mythology is a parable, a story with a moral ending; it is not. Mythology is assumed to be prescriptive and instructive; it are not. Mythological tales are supposed to be reflective; they gently shape your view of life. ACK focussed on the narrative alone. The reflection was missing. No one wonders why a god has four hands or why a goddess kills a buffalo. The 70s generation accepted the stories without question. Today’s generation does not. They want to know why and more importantly – so what? Parents, who focussed on education to get themselves jobs, are at their wits end. How do they answer when they had never ever even considered the question?

We must never forget the visual impact of ACK. Even today, we imagine demons to be dark, heroes to be fair, Ram is clean shaven, heroines have no fat. The comics perpetrated Raja Ravi Verma’s calendar art imagery and in doing so overshadowed traditional imagery found in ancient temple walls and medieval miniature paintings. Truth, I realize in hindsight, has a lot more to do with cosmetics than we are willing to admit.

  • shilpa

    You haven’t answered how to make mythology reflective?? look forward to hear that from you, as I have two young kids and would like to make these stories relevant for them..

    • Devdutt

      But not prescribing but wondering about possible reasons

      • Rashmi

        Wondering possible reasons gives rise to development of imagination and the feeling that anything and everything is possible in this world…..

        ACK was and still is an integral part of my life. It has its own magic sphere coupled with interesting illustrations and script. I have beautiful childhood memories thanks to ACK and Tinkle.

  • Shailesh Desai

    Indeed the 70s kids grewup with Uncle Pai’s prescription of mythology thru ACK.
    my efforts to ‘train’ my kids failed once i put them into ‘Enlgish’ boarding schools in the hills.
    today they find my excitement over Dr. Devdutt Pattnaik’s re-invention of mythology difficult to digest.
    what’s the way out?

  • aarthi raghavan

    Hi Devdutt,
    I am just 15 yrs. old. But, unlike you say, Western Mythology has never interested me. I have always loved Hindu Mythology and especially ACK. You would never find me watching some Japanese cartoon, while my sister likes to watch it. Some people even say they are better than Hindu Mythology. But I have always thought the contrary. May be I am fanatic I don’t know. But I have always loved Hindu Mythology and ACK.

    • Devdutt

      Wisdom lies in figuring out why you like one and not the other…

  • Sumedha

    You are bang on! ACK really fulfilled my need to know Indian stories, history & mythology as a child. They created for me a fascinating world full of magic, mystic, heroism, romanticism and the impossible. I still buy them for the kids but yes, their content needs more relevance today!

    Devdutt, I’m confident you can do this! I’m a creative director & an artist, and I would be happy to support you in this endevour.


  • Chinmay

    When (and why?) did we stop seeing the reflective nature of Hindu mythology?
    Sometimes I discuss your writing with my mother and she always refers to your stories as “a perspective” and you as “modern”. It is quite hilarious, because while she doesn’t really like what you write, she cannot deny it either.
    I am curious as to how people began to see their mythology as something so cut-and-dried when it is so clearly not so. It’s easy to blame foreign rule and things like that but seeing my mother (who reads a lot of religious books) I feel is more than one reason why this happened.

    • Devdutt

      There is nothing but perspective…..that is why Hindu philosophy is called ‘darshan’ – point of view…..anyone who claims to express anything but ‘a point of view’ has not quite got it, saffron robes notwithstanding

  • ashim

    ACK did inspire me when I was young! I purchaased many of them and bound them together into separate volumes. My children love to read them. They also like superman and batman, but these comic heroes have no mental development value that our own mythology had. The recent tv comic shows on hanuman are a catastrophe for they are neither eastern or western, but a hotchpotch of confusion arising from confused thinking. Parents may read the ACK to their siblings and invoke interest in them. I did and am pleased with the resultant interest.

  • Darshan

    straight to the point. good one.
    I have just recently started reading you website regurarly. Mythology or rather Hindu Mythology has been taught to us since we were kids, it is in our rituals day to day, seasonal, or rather all. in our house we practice reading of Rayaman once in a year and in the month of Shravan. also on Mahashivratri we read the Shivlila amrut, (we have quite and old copy possibly my great grandfather or his father bought it). till date we have just being reading it or hearing it, from now on I am going to make a point to understand it, thank you very much.

  • Darshan

    Also I have wondered… Imagine you are in the time of RAM living the actual eposied we read ro hear. What stories would the grannies be telling the young in that time?

    or in Mahabarata what were the stories that the young pandavas as children hear or rather any kid of that time hear?

  • Sree Nair

    Uncle Pai through the Amar Chitra Katha touched the lives of millions of children in India ..who are now grown up and realize his efforts ..but When uncle Pai died ..I browsed the newspapers .. saw small news and here and there some small articles..stories thats it .. but felt sad ..our Governments, Sahitya Akademies, cultural organisations did not give him due recognition and respect.

    I think ACK still has a great opportunity. The current younger generation are very Internet savvy / Facebook Savvy. So produce the stories in a layout ( presentation style – ppf doc ) that is suitable as facebook view book – Children will share it and all will read enthusiastically.

    May be you can think of it !!

  • Rajashree

    Children today have a glut of mindless entertainment much like the adults which has contributed to the demise of AKC in terms of popularity.
    Quite frankly the clunky scripts of TV animated series like Hanuman along with the flat animations are not a patch on the sophisticated animations of Disney and Pixar. Disney was able to capture the imagination of millions of kids exploiting very simple fables like Cinderella. For an urban generation growing up with access to this sophistry, it is obvious that mythology has gone the way of the grandmother glued to Ekta Kapoor soap operas.
    It might be the Kalyug but all is not lost yet. What is needed is someone with the imagination and verve to present mythology in a way that truly appeals to this generation. There is a wealth of stories here but the key lies in the handling. Shekhar Kapoor and not Deepak Chopra don’t even qualify. We need an Indian Walt Disney…

  • Lovely article! I have a few questions though!

    Comics are just an idea put into action. But doesn’t that apply to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata?

    Why is story telling which is mythological in nature always compared to what it resembles in the great epic? Why can’t we see it as a different take on the whole story – as an idea of a human being?

    I can very well say that Krishna was a cunning statesman, Rama – only an ideal son, Arjuna – an amazing sportsman and Hanuman, a strong man with a good heart – and the authors used them as inspiration to conjure up the epics as we know them. Just an honest thought, not targeted to demean beliefs at all!

    On a second take at the whole thing, let us say we take a more scientific approach. Let’s say God is nothing but a man, who has transcended to a higher dimension. Variables in a higher dimensions can be manipulated to affect the ones in the lower ones, not vice- verse. At least, not always. Can death, be then just a transition to another dimension? Could Rama and Krishna be the same man, travelling through different dimensions, manipulating time and space as we know it and make the world a better place? Confirms a lot to what is said in the myths, doesn’t it?

    Or could this just be another figment of imagination? More “Comic Like in nature”, or could I then argue it ahead saying that just because we don’t know something is real, we call it imaginary?

    Admist everything that forms a representational style shines that very thought – the thought that was the idea. Who cares how it is represented? Should we? As long as Superman fights Lex Luthor, as long as Batman has it him to fight the Joker, inspite of having a growing darkness within him, as long as Rama fights Raavana and as long as Ravana yields to the highest ideal – we know that the notion of righteousness is still present, and that we still believe in ourselves to do the right thing. And nothing else matters.

  • Deana Birks

    Gotham Chopra is Deepak Chopra’s son. He’s named, apparently, after the city Batman protects. Which brings up the question: is the comic book superhero the mythology of today?