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.