It all began, once upon a time, in Bangalore.... Like the mysteries hidden in the womb of many a mythological tale dramatised by the Amar Chitra Katha (ACK), there are things the reader does not know about the genesis of this popular comic series. The oft-told story of how it was founded begins with ‘Uncle Pai’, or Anant Pai—whose recent death generated a spate of stories about the ACK phenomenon—in Mumbai in 1967. But it was in fact the restlessness and passion of a Bangalore book salesman called G.K. Ananthram that led to the first Amar Chitra Katha comics being produced in 1965—in Kannada, not English.
Ananthram, who then worked at the Bangalore office of the India Book House (IBH), had tired of selling imported English books, including Agatha Christie and ‘Wild West’ writers like Louis L’Amour, and thought it was about time Indian children were exposed, in popular writings, to their own history and mythology. Deeply influenced by the ongoing Kannada literary renaissance (a decade after the Karnataka state had come into being), he also wanted to see children reading more books in the local language. Whenever his boss G.L. Mirchandani, also the owner of IBH, came to Bangalore from Mumbai, Ananthram “pestered” him, as he now humorously recalls, to let him publish books in Kannada. Finally, he managed to get the big man to give him Rs 10,000 for his new baby—which turned out, after a few twists and turns, to be a popular comic series, christened Amar Chitra Katha by Ananthram himself.
Today, at 78, the man still has vivid memories of how it all happened: “Mirchandani was a tall, large-hearted gentleman. He trusted people easily. Since I kept nagging him about Kannada books, I presume he sanctioned money to silence me.” Seed capital in hand, Ananthram toyed with various possibilities, including a series on royal dynasties, and then, because he was “restless and wanted a quick start”, hit upon the idea of getting English comics translated into Kannada. “I could have translated them myself,” he says, “but from a marketing point of view I wanted a big name. I approached the legendary writer K. Shivaram Karanth, and he readily obliged.”
It’s quite clear, from Ananthram’s recounting of his role in the ACK story, that he was keen to celebrate and reconstruct a glorified past. It is an impulse one might distrust today, but there was both a historical context and space for it in the ’60s, with almost no accessible reading material on history and culture for the masses. Indeed, Ananthram recalls an incident which was a trigger for him. Once, while travelling on an important Bangalore road that had just been renamed Nrupatunga Road, after a 9th century Rashtrakuta monarch, he overheard a boy ask his companion: “Who is this fellow Nrupaathuungaa?” The boy, Ananthram recalls, couldn’t even get the pronunciation right. “His face still comes before me. I thought we should do something to rid the ignorance of our youngsters about our past.”
To Anathram’s satisfaction, the venture was a great commercial success, and it was this success story that led him to write up a proposal for his head office in Mumbai suggesting a mythological comic series in English to take forward the Amar Chitra Katha project. Mirchandani pursued the idea diligently, and the rest is history. “They brought in Anant Pai, who was handling Indrajaal comics for the Times of India,” says Ananthram. “And he built a wonderful team and a great brand.” But while generously giving Pai his due, he does stress—for the record—that the idea and proposal for ACK were generated back in Bangalore.
“I see myself as a midwife in the birth of the comic series,” says Ananthram, who today runs the Omthara Kala Kuteera on a 20-acre plot in Basavenhalli in Ramanagara district, close
to Bangalore. A multi-million-rupee sculptural narrative to depict India’s religious, mythological and historical traditions is slowly taking shape here. “Indian culture is a mosaic and I want it captured here in stone for posterity,” explains the man who, 46 years after he conceived the comic series, still seems to be still living out the ACK dream in his richly illustrated home. All around him, the graphic vision contained in the comic strips has taken generous shape in an abundance of stone, wood and bronze sculptures.
Your story on Amar Chitra Katha’s origins (A Pandit Had A Dream..., Mar 21) reminded me that Uncle Pai’s death went largely unnoticed. And this is a man who made Indian epics and mythology as exciting as the Lord of the Rings.
I have written about Ananth pai, in kannada wikipedia. But this story of Amarachitrakatha prior to Pai is really fascinating. But Ananthram might not be having the skills of sketching and writing in picture story form. But his contributions are to be recorded.
The link :
Ananth Pai, the man who introduced fantasies, fascination and knowledge in my childhood, long long before the pizza franchisees and Cartoon Network arrived with their concept of cheese-gobbling couch potatoes.
We will never forget him...
I would like to talk or have letter correspondence with Anantharamu, who has got some right ideas.
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