Amar Chitra Katha comics form a part of professor Karline McLain’s exploration of visual culture in modern India.

In many households, other comics were seen as a waste of time and discarded, but ACK was preserved carefully

In a bazaar in Mumbai’s Santa Cruz, a rather attractive American professor of religion is combing the wares of those familiar footpath book sellers for old issues of Amar Chitra Katha. As strange and curious as this may seem, it is why she is here in India: to study these comics that most of us cherish, but haven’t given a second thought to.

And then, suddenly, she makes a discovery: a tattered copy of the Krishna comic book. Karline McLain notices that this version differs from the one in circulation. Here, the miracles are absent: Krishna is not holding aloft that mountain. She wonders if, even before the first print run of this famous title no. 11 from the ACK stable in 1969, there had been another smaller print run that had completely disappeared. But why? Had she stumbled on the true first edition of the Krishna comic book?

At the ACK studio

Teaching at Bucknell University, McLain was already deeply engaged in exploring visual culture in modern India, with an emphasis on representations of popular devotional art in the region. Baazar art: calendars and posters of gods and goddesses that often, to our peril, we dismiss as kitsch. Fascinated by ACK, she packed her bags for Mumbai in 2001, feeling driven to take her research deeper. She spent the year at the ACK studio in Mumbai interviewing its illustrators, writers, subscription members, students, and parents. Her just published book India’s Immortal Comic Books: Gods, Kings, and Other Heroes (Indiana University Press) is fun to read and a rewarding work of scholarship on the origins, history and influence of Amar Chitra Katha.

I’ve always wanted to know more about ACK, which for me, as for so many others, is rooted in childhood nostalgia. I asked Karline what first drew her to these comics and she said the most interesting thing: “The moment that stands out to me is this: I had already studied a number of the ACK issues. But then I was spending some time in Udaipur, Rajasthan studying Hindi literature, this would have been in 1999, and I kept running across the comics in English and in Hindi everywhere I went, and was able to see first hand how kids responded to them. One day I was buying a stack of the comics in Hindi (for more language practice), and there was a boy standing with his mouth open in awe that I was buying so many at once. So I gave him a couple of issues, and he was thrilled — he just sat right down in the dusty lane to read them on the spot.”

After a few months at the ACK studio she had become more than familiar with all the ACK comics. And thus when she found the miracle-less Krishna copy she took it to Anant Pai and asked him to explain the mystery of this unorthodox edition.

His background as a chemical engineer, he told her, had made it uncomfortable for him to keep the miracles as part of the mythology. So they did a first print run of the Krishna story without too many spectacular miracles. But he soon changed his mind when he realised it was exactly that aspect of ACK that readers were so charged by, and reprinted the comic with the miracles intact.

Though the origins of ACK are well known, Karline provides so many sparkling insider details we didn’t know before. This, and the reprints of the original cover art of ACK’s classic titles (Rama, Jataka Tales, Birbal, The Gita, Shakuntala, Pandava Princess, Savitri, Mirabai, Akbar, Tulsidas, Tansen) in the book, makes India’s Immortal Comic Books invaluable. Once Pai had convinced H.G. Mirchandani of IBH to publish comics with stories from Indian mythology, he set about looking for illustrators. He found them in Bombay’s advertising companies: Yusuf Bangalorewala, Pratap Mulick and Ram Waeerkar.

Preserved carefully

What McLain repeatedly heard from ACK readers is that the comic books seemed to almost radiate a spiritual force. In many households, other comics were seen as a waste of time and discarded, but ACK was preserved carefully. Grandmothers covered them with those brown wrappers used to cover school textbooks to keep them clean. Nieces and nephews inherited bound volumes from uncles and aunts. Some even confessed to seeing the images of the gods and goddesses as pictured in the comics when they closed their eyes to worship.

She celebrates the comic for its force and power and for how it can charm and entertain but is careful to interpret its influence also as defining and constructing an upper caste Hindu identity. One young reader she interviewed was furious at the suggestion that the comics could have had a religious agenda, while another made it crystal clear that he felt it was “damm Hindutva propaganda to brainwash children”. The villains in many of the comics, when they were not British officers, were Mughal generals.

McLain’s interest in the project is to look at these comics as “a unique opportunity for the study of the definition and negotiation of a modern middle class Indian identity… They also draw upon Indian visual and literary culture. In mixing mythology and history they create a national canon of heroes — where Bose and Rama are side by side.”

She observes that they go some way in defining an Indian in post-colonial times, and so have a power and significance that other comic books from other cultures don’t possess.

Her new interest, Karline told me, is the Vivalok Comics founded by Rukmini Sekhar. ‘Her “Godavari Tales” comic book presents a local version of the Ramayana epic as it is retold among village women in the Godavari River valley today. In this version there is no happily-ever-after ending as in the ACK “Valmiki’s Ramayana” comic; instead, the women focus on Sita’s banishment and question why Rama might do such a thing, thereby drawing out the moral ambiguities of the epic”.