In 1967, Anant Pai and his wife, who were visiting New Delhi, were at a bookstore in the city. The TV at the store was playing a quiz featuring some students from St Stephen’s College and Pai was disappointed when the participants couldn’t name the mother of Hindu god Ram. His disappointment only increased when one of them answered a toughie about a Greek god. And that was the moment Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) was born.
Some 100 million copies of Amar Chitra Katha comics have been sold to date.
On Thursday, Pai, 81, “Uncle Pai” to many, died in Mumbai after a heart attack, less than a week after receiving a lifetime achievement award from the organizers of India’s first comic book convention, Comic Con India.
Pai, a chemical engineer, joined Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd, the parent company of English daily The Times of India, in 1961 as a junior executive in the books division. It was there that he played a vital role in conceiving Indrajal Comics, the cult imprint that launched the superhero Bahadur.
In the late 1950s, Bennett Coleman had acquired a set of expensive sheet-fed presses that remained largely idle expect for sporadic calendar-printing orders Indrajal Comics was conceived as a way of keeping these presses occupied, and Pai’s bosses wished to reprint the popular Superman and Batman comics of the time.
Pai wasn’t convinced. He did a “largely unscientific” survey and thought that the location-neutral Phantom comics would work better with an Indian audience. He also suggested reserving half of a 32-page issue for original, locally produced comic strips. “Even here, Pai was big on Rs.infotainment’,” Sharma says. “The pages were filled with nuggets of general knowledge, quizzes, and strips that explained scientific phenomenon.”“Pai thought it was a shame that the youth of the time had little knowledge of Indian stories and tales,” says Sharma. He mulled over the idea of using comic books to teach what he deemed “Indian values and themes”, and took the idea to H.G. Mirchandani, then the publishing director at publishing firm India Book House (IBH).
Pai was hired as the editor of this new series, which he called “Amar Chitra Katha”. The idea was simple. “Bharat ke bachche agar sapne dekhein to Bharat ke sapne dekhein (If the children of India dream, let them dream of India),” he told Sharma in a 2009 interview.
Oddly, the first ten issues of ACK weren’t Indian at all—they were Hindi translations of fairy tales such as Cinderella and Red Riding Hood. Issue 11 marked the first significant shift in direction. It told the tale of Krishna, and Pai wrote it himself, adapting the story from multiple mythological texts. It was also the first ACK comic in English.
Sales were initially slow, with an estimated 20,000 copies sold in the first three years, but Pai stuck to the formula Krishna established. By the mid 1970s, ACK was India’s most popular comic series. The original Krishna has since been reprinted more than 60 times. For the next four decades, Pai remained editor of the imprint, directing the production of each issue and frequently intervening to modify and write the scripts for them.
“There’s a fascinating story about how Tinkle got its name,” says Sharma. “It came out of Pai’s exasperation at the sheer number of meetings he had to attend to decide on the perfect name.” The executives at these interminable meetings frequently excused themselves to answer supposedly important phone calls, which they referred to as “tinkles”.
ACK, whose fans include former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, published over 600 issues till 1991. It resumed in 2007 after the takeover of IBH by ACK Media. And Pai stayed on as “chief storyteller” .
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