Sunday, May 15

Immortal Storyteller

I did not know much of this story until February this year. In fact it came to light with its hero's sad demise that month. For a lot of my contemporaries this was not too late though. It merely added to folklore, much like the eternal creations this protagonist had put to paper; a story that must be told. But I get ahead of myself - lets start with an anecdote.

The year was 1967. A 37 year old gentleman, visiting Delhi with his wife, chanced upon a quiz show on Doordarshan (the solitary channel on air, beamed to all of seven cities then!) while at a bookstore. As fate would have it, as he watched, the participants (from St Stephen’s College) came up woefully short to a question as to the name of Lord Ram's mother. Disappointed at this low awareness of Indian culture, he was even more abashed to see the students readily answer a succeeding query on Greek mythology. Anant Pai resolved, Chanakya-like, he would do something to fix this gap - and Amar Chitra Katha was born. The rest, as they say, is history.

It is not as if ACK was Uncle Pai's first foray into children's minds. An earlier attempt at kiddie fare, over a decade before that fateful Delhi evening, titled 'Manav', had sadly failed. In fact in the intervening period he had been with The Times of India group. There he had played a key role in bringing to life the similarly iconic Indarajal comics (more on them some other day). Equally, even after that serendipitous quiz show moment and before ACK's ultimate resounding success, many publishers of the age had cold-shouldered his venture. India Book House finally gave the concept a home, kicking off a partnership that gave young India its most well read (100 million plus copies at last count) comic-book series. A telling facet of Pai's personality could be found a few years later too, when he was on the verge of another super-popular series. Finding himself stuck in multiple futile launch meetings to decide its name, with corporate yuppies and their numerous interruptions to attend ostensibly critical phone-calls, he decided to name the mag itself 'Tinkle'!

Apart from being rich in hyperbole, not to forget marked commercial success, Uncle Pai's life remains memorable for the indelible influence his creations had on succeeding generations of young India. Yet, it is also the story of a legacy borne out of deep personal conviction. Whether it was retelling our rich mythological heritage and history at ACK, Krishna through JP; or dishing out infotainment in Tinkle, Kaalia the crow or Kapish the monkey, Shikari Shambu or Suppandi; Uncle Pai's signature was all-pervasive. Back at Bennett Coleman too he had argued for the culturally neutral (hence amenable to a pseudo-Indian setting) Phantom and Bahadur. At ACK, after ten issues depicting Cinderella and Red Riding Hood variety of fairytales, Pai personally penned Krishna, downplaying divine miracle in favour of pure raconteur value.

As it turned out, after an indifferent start, the ACK framework stuck on, ultimately spawning a pantheon of comic-book writing in India. I can think of few folks in generations either side of mine who were untouched by his creations. They were tucked in, happy bedside reads; hastily finished in school-buses as the stop drew near, or hungrily devoured post lunch before one rushed out for a spot of evening games; or an introduction to barter system as we traded and re-traded the comics. Yet, without exception, we discovered a highlight of pre-teen existence. If ignorance of history condemns us to repeat it, or missing legends past restricts us from finding that odd hero or heroine in our present, Uncle Pai found us a fix, for good.

Oblivious to his worldly achievements and continuing to be driven by lofty ideals ("Bharat ke bachche agar sapne dekhein to Bharat ke sapne dekhein"), Uncle Pai soldiered on for over four decades. His death in Feb, aged 81, was days after being felicitated for lifetime achievement by Comic Con India, the nation's inaugural comic-book convention. I dare say that given his contribution, the award needed him more than he the recognition. He was working on 'Glimpses of Glory' for the last few years, to capture forty game-changing moments from our history. His characteristic humility would have stopped him, but he should well have included his own. RIP sir.


Anonymous said...

Welcome back sonny boy! This was another one of yours that brought back some woh-kagaz-ki-kashti emotions. And you are so right, so few of us would know how 'Uncle Pai' -- the signature is a tinkle straight to the heart -- had a story of his own to tell. Awesome going :-)


PS: Was there something to the 'Stevens' stress and the quiz show, or is it just me ;-)

Anonymous said...

Sir Jee! What’s up with you man?! … an assortment of a rare sort.

Apart from your lexical marvels, it’s the deep seeded (yet not so easily apparent) affection and emotion of your writing that makes me one of the several admirers of this resonant Blog :-)

One each for all those ‘Many’, who made our Childhood fraught with mischief, dreams and drama … Jee Sir! this is fine thinking :-)

Sridhar said...

Good to see that someone took a lead to write in honor of someone who made a substantial impact on our lives.

While I did have my share of 'Kathas', reading them did make exciting times.

Good thoughts Amit and good piece too..