Amar Chitra Katha: Unnecessary Paranoia Or Justifiable Anxiety?
Recent social media memes by Amar Chitra Katha are giving rise to suspicions over whether the publication, now under a host of new content makers, remains true to its Indic ethos or is turning surreptitiously leftist.
After Uncle Pai, in which direction would Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) move?
There has been a lot of heart-burn with the question. Spanning more than half a century ACK has reconnected the children of the educated Indian class with their roots – something the educational system has miserably failed to do. ACK is a genuine Indian phenomenon.
With the intensity of ideological wars being fought at every plane it would indeed be a miracle of sorts if ACK too is not dragged into the controversy. For example, Jawhar Sircar a former IAS officer who was culture secretary in the UPA government has a vitriolic hatred for ACK. In response to this writer's article on why Bharat Ratna should be given to Uncle Pai, the ex-bureaucrat tweeted:
‘Brahminical hatred for Dalits?’
ACK had brought to all of India some of the very revolutionary spiritual saints of India who stood against social stagnation and the diseases of the social and individual mind such as untouchability.
A recent unnecessary controversy with an artist hired by ACK and also some of the pictorial memes that ACK published in social media have created a totally unwanted controversy over ACK.
The left wing has always seen ACK with aversion and irritation. Now, the Indic side is beginning to view ACK with suspicion and many conspiracy theories, too, have been spread about ACK being bought by a group which has not so much love lost for Indian culture and spirituality.
Also, given the super-efficient way in which Hinduphobic radical elements have been capturing institutions that have been started with patriotism and have become a brand-name for trustworthiness, the fears cannot be ruled out as completely paranoid.
A classic example is how The Hindu, a newspaper that started as genuinely patriotic is today being seen not only as propagandist but has even earned the nickname ‘Mount Road Mao’.
Now, going back to the time of Uncle Pai, he had the advantage of not living in the age of social media. Remember that he brought out a special bumper issue on Jesus Christ.
Had he lived in the age of social media, he would have been charged as having sold himself out to missionaries. ACK also has a comic on ‘Babur’ and inside the introduction, one read that ‘Babur was not only a good soldier but also a just ruler.’
When, as a 10 years old boy, I read it, it did not matter much, but with my worldview changing when I returned back to ACK, those words were disturbing.
‘Just’ a man who wrote couplets about making towers out of the heads of the non-believers? Had there been social media back then, ‘Uncle Pai’ would have been taken to task.
But in the larger scheme of things, Uncle Pai was right to have those ACK comics also. He embraced all aspects of Indian culture. If one looks at the net result of what he has achieved, then, one can understand what he did was right.
It is the right approach to Indian history. Imagine the national history of India, with all the streams of national life — spiritual, political, cultural, scientific, artistic — as a great flowing river. A mighty river that flows has a direction.
But it shall also have eddies. Uncle Pai was a great storyteller of India’s national life through the medium of comics. He understood the importance of being a complete storyteller of national history.
For a nation like India, which has celebrated diversity at all levels, such a task is no easy job. Yet, Uncle Pai did a commendable job. He dedicated his life for it and created an institution.
He brought out to those outside Maharashtra in a graphic way the way Veer Savarkar toiled for freedom. He brought out to those outside Anbdhra Pradesh the great scientific achievements of Yella Prada Subbha Rao.
He brought out to those outside Tamil Nadu the wisdom of Avvaiyar, the poetess of the Sangam age. He brought out to those outside Punjab the sacrifice of Guru Tegh Bahadur and Guru Gobind Singh.
He was an institution of magnificence and phenomenon supra-human. Imagine him living with such a fire for serving the generations and imagine him living in the age of social media and imagine him being attacked by ‘us’ for having brought out ‘Jesus Christ’ and ‘Babur’!
How can we be sure we are not doing the same now?
That said, let us look beyond these controversies and anxieties and the social media memes and see what ACK has done recently.
One of the major achievements of ACK in the post-Uncle Pai phase is, its bringing out of six volumes of the Valmiki Ramayana.
Recently, a professor who specialises in translation translated Trivarga as the three upper castes.
She was actually giving a rendering of Ramayana and stated that by Trivarga, it meant that Dasaratha was taking care of the three upper castes. Earlier, she boasted that her rendering of the Ramayana would not be ACK like.
True indeed, ACK does not do blunders. And ACK has come out with Valmiki’s Ramayana recently, which is a feast spiritual and cultural for children as well as adults and for Valmiki Ramayana scholars.
ACK has already brought out a comic book on Sri Rama and a special bumper issue on Ramayana. It has also brought out another special bound issue on Tulsidas' Ram Charit Manas.
However, bringing out a Valmiki Ramayana that is true to its content and intent is not an easy work. It is a worthy challenge those who inherit the legacy of Uncle Pai should take up.
And they have, and have come out with results that do justice to the sacred memory of Uncle Pai.
In Bala Kand (the first volume in the series), the panel showing the Ahalya incident is true to the epic. Though in our general psyche, the incident is embedded as if the feet of Sri Rama brought back to life Ahalya who was turned into a stone by her husband’s curse, here the panel shows Sri Rama and Lakshmana touching her feet — and this depiction is true to the spirit of the Valmiki rendition.
Further, the epic says that Satananda, the son of Ahalya and Gautama, was the family priest of Janaka — which shows that the usual stigma the society associates with a son based on the judgement of his mother’s behaviour was not there.
A robust humane value system that comes from the original epic is conveyed by ACK, which in turn is truthful to the original epic.
In Yudh Kand (Vol.6), in the panel before ‘Agni Pravesa’ or Sita entering the Agni after Sri Rama’s harsh words, there is a panel that shows Sita refusing Hanuman's permission to harm the Rakshasis who had tormented her throughout her captivity.
The panel shows Sita telling Hanuman the parable of a bear that showed compassion to a human despite his treachery:
Remember what the bear said to the tiger* — never return evil for evil. A noble person must show compassion towards sinners as well as saints, for there is none who never commits a sin.
The small star mark tells the young readers: Sita refers to a story in which a bear rescues a man from a tiger. The ungrateful man then throws the bear to the tiger. The bear saves itself. But when the tiger asks the bear to hand over the man who is unworthy of the bear’s kindness, the bear refuses.
With each ‘Kand’ made into a separate volume, each volume has relevant fact sheets. ‘What are the Gods and Goddesses of Hindu Pantheon’, ‘What did ancient Indians eat?’ etc.
Consider what has been said under ‘Kshatriya Dharma’ — a fact sheet presented in ‘Yuddha Kand’:
In ancient India, society was organised into four groups according to the type of work they did. The duties of the Kshatriya included protecting the kingdom and its people as well as conquering new areas.
They were the warriors, leaders and kings in society. Rama was a Kshatriya. Ravana too was a king and a warrior by profession, though his father was a Brahmin. The science of warfare was carefully studied and followed by the Kshatriyas or warriors. We can find information about warfare, weapons, military practices, mantras and rituals in the Dharma Shastras, the Atharva Veda and the Dharma Sutras.
At the end of every ‘Kand’, there is also a glossary of Sanskrit words. The delivery of all the six volumes is marked by crisp language, which is also simultaneously elegant and true to the source as much as possible. Illustrations are equally great, and despite the lure of computer graphics and graphics software, clearly, the human hand and heart have played a decisive role.
On the whole, the six volumes of Valmiki Ramayana are a great contribution to Indian culture and generations by ACK. They are a must in every house that comes in the ACK tradition.
They should also be sponsored by philanthropists to school libraries.
ACK brought out yet another colourful special volume. The book has panels filled with inspiring illustrations that befit the life of the paper-boy of Rameshwaram who dreamt the dream of the birds, became the missile man of India and ultimately the people’s President of India.
The special issue ‘A.P.J Abdul Kalam’ shows his life in detail: how little Kalam overcame discrimination at school through the good hearts of people from all communities, how when dejected, Swami Sivanananda gave him hope, how his colleague Sudhakar saved him from an explosion-accident risking his own life, the success of nuclear bomb tests, the Bhagirathic success of the missile tests despite initial failures, Kalam-Raju stents for heart patients, use of rocket technology to provide light weight but sturdy callipers for polio-affected children, him becoming President, his visit to Gujarat soon after the 2002 communal riots and so on, till he met his end while giving a lecture.
Another special issue ACK came up with is ‘Sardar Patel’.
From his childhood, where he showed remarkable capacity for bearing pain, caring for others, and to his young life where he could withstand severe personal tragedies with steely determination, to plunging into the Gandhian independence movement, to him becoming the unifier of modern India — the book brings out the challenges that Sardar faced.
The second world war had started and Congress was split vertically on the issue of supporting the British war efforts.
Rajaji was for supporting the war efforts of the British in exchange for them quitting India.
Gandhi would not accept that stand. But Patel, despite his love for the Mahatma, supported Rajaji’s stand. The book brings this out. Personal loyalty and friendship even for that of the Mahatma would not allow Patel to do something that went against what he considered as national interest.
The book also shows how Patel stopped the home ministry from going to the Muslim League during the interim government and how Patel, after Independence, put his foot down when it came to Kashmir despite Mountbatten dragging his feet.
The book ends with the panel on the ‘Statue of Unity’.
So, to blame ACK for having 'deviated from the path charted out by Uncle Pai' based on a few memes on social media is neither correct nor healthy. It is nevertheless true that ACK social media handles could have been careful.
Controversial quotes as memes is not Uncle Pai's way either. Perhaps, there are leftist elements which handle the web pages and social media handles of ACK.
For example, there is a page in the official ACK website on the historical jails associated with the Indian freedom struggle.
Aga Khan palace shows Kasturba Gandhi. Mandalay prison shows Subhash Chandra Bose including ACK comic panels. Sabarmati Central Jail shows Sardar Patel. Ahmednagar Fort shows Nehru. The Central Jail Mianwali shows Bhagat Singh. Hilji Detention Camp shows Netaji. Yerwada Central Jail shows Mahatma Gandhi. Then at last comes Kaala Pani — at Andaman and Nicobar.
Not only it does not show Veer Savarkar, (I read the text twice and then downloaded it), it does not even mention Veer Savarkar — this despite the fact that ACK has published 'Veer Savarkar in Andamans' with detailed illustrations of the punishments given there.
One has to say had Uncle Pai been alive, he would have been horrified. Every one knows the titles Uncle Pai personally loved. The present content makers of ACK may be leftist — perhaps, they may not agree with Veer Savarkar’s worldviews, but they cannot belittle a great phenomenon like ACK with their petty ideological prejudices.
If it is the real ACK, then Kaala Pani should show Veer Savarkar tied to the oil mills. Such erasing of a part of our heritage is like defacing a sacred monument of exquisite art. One hopes that this omission is more a careless mistake on the part of the content writers and illustrators (hard to believe) rather than because of ideological prejudices.
Hope those in charge take necessary measures.
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