In 2009, I visited Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) and Tinkle founder Anant Pai in his Mumbai home, armed with a camera and copies of old ACK comics. We shot over 2 hours of footage, covering 40 years of Indian comics history with Pai. The interview was part of a documentary, Chitrakatha, that I’m hoping to release this year.
Pai died last week at the age of 81, a week after being honoured with a lifetime achievement award at India’s first Comic Con in New Delhi. In the 2009 footage, he talks about the inspiration for his iconic characters, the difficulties of comic book production and the persistence of a school principal in Guwahati.
Edited excerpts from the interview, translated from Hindi:
On the origins of Indrajal comics
You’ll be surprised to know that Indrajal Comics was started just as a way of keeping a few Times of India printing machines busy. My boss, P.K. Roy, called me one day and said, “We can get the rights to print Superman here. Should we?” I did a small survey, some 60 people responded, and I found that their favourite comic book hero was Phantom. Why? Because it was already being printed here in a few newspapers and magazines. So we got the rights to Phantom and Indrajal Comics was started.
But I did not believe that we should force-feed popular content from the West to children here, so I requested Mr Roy to reserve 16 pages of the 32-page issue for original content. Imported comics are all fine, but if we want art to hold up a mirror to our own society, then these comics must be drawn and written in India by Indians.
On his early creations
As part of this, I created a series called Around the World with Kunju Pillay. The protagonist, Kunju Pillay, takes off on an adventurous world tour, while explaining factoids and imparting general knowledge along the way. But writing this was difficult. Researching all the countries in the world, in those days, was next to impossible. We’d originally planned for him to take a circuitous route through West Asia and finally reach Egypt, but we couldn’t find enough material for this. So we changed the plot—Kunju’s journey develops a snag, and he ends up straight in Egypt, a country we had plenty of material for. I even took drafts of the Kunju Pillay story to all the foreign consulates, hoping they’d be willing to help us with information. Making comics was hard work.
On the difficulties of making comics
We had trouble getting full-time illustrators and artists. So we relied on art college students and ad agency interns to help us out. I used to take my scripts to them, and watch as they drew.
On naming Amar Chitra Katha
When we were searching for a name, we got a lot of ideas from people we met. I was having lunch with B.R. Bhagwat, who co-wrote the Mahabharata ACK series, and I was telling him I couldn’t decide on a name. Bhagwat told me, “What’s so difficult about a name? Just call it ‘Classics Illustrated’!” And just like that, the name Amar Chitra Katha came into my head.
We called it Amar Chitra Katha also because the “picture story” is an ancient form of storytelling. Some of the earliest stories from the prehistoric era were recorded in pictures—tales of exciting hunts and discovery. I believe that we can instil good values in children through stories, show them a good path. If these stories are illustrated, then there’s nothing better. That was our thought.
The name became so popular that we had to come out with an advertisement that told children how to differentiate between original Amar Chitra Katha and duplicate chitrakathas.
On Tinkle and its characters
In 1978, I was in Delhi to release an ACK title on the life of Bengal revolutionary Bagha Jatin. The guest of honour at the launch was education minister Prakash Chandra Chunder. He told me that all the talk of universal education was not true. Many children didn’t even reach primary school, and a large majority of those who did were not engaged enough. So I was thinking of ways to make education more entertaining, getting students interested, when I remembered Ramu and Shamu, characters I’d created for Rang Rekha features (a comics syndication agency I founded in 1969).
In it, I used to poke fun at India’s education system, but I felt that we could now use characters and comics like this to educate. That’s how Tinkle was born.
My wife used to feed the crows from the kitchen window, and she even had a favourite crow among the ones that fought for the food. That’s where I got the idea for Kaalia the crow.
On being called “Uncle Pai”
Children called me “Uncle Pai”, and that became the name I was known by throughout the country. I was in Guwahati one time, and I passed a Kendriya Vidyalaya in Maligaon. I thought I’d just roam around the school. The principal, however, stopped me, arranged for a stage and microphone, and said, “Unless you meet and interact with the children, I’m not letting you go.”
Delhi used to have a book fair once a year, and I used to stay at the sports club right in front of the fair grounds. I was waiting there once to cross the road when a lawyer, with his family, passed by. The second he saw me, he lifted his seven-year old son, pointed at me and said, “Ambar, dekho ye hain tumhare Uncle Pai (Ambar, look, your Uncle Pai).”
Alok Sharma is a Mumbai-based film-maker.