The effusive tributes that have followed the passing away of Anant Pai, the Karkala-born creator of Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) and Tinkle, shows the hold that the comics and the magazine have had over four decades despite the media explosion after the advent of satellite television in the 1990s.
The life of amgal “Uncle Pai”—as generations of children addressed the former Times of India executive who was also behind the Indrajal series that brought Phantom and Mandrake into our consciousness—was not without life’s cruel irony: both his parents were dead before he was two.
And the man who gave life to such immortal characters as Suppandi, Shikhari Shambhu, Kalia the Crow and Tantri the Mantri, remained childless.
He was trained to be a chemical engineer but spent only three months working as one: “One month, plus two months’ notice.” Yet, he was the “parental scholar” to millions of children, young and old. In 50 years of married life, Uncle Pai and his wife Lalitha Pai stayed apart from each other on just one single day.
“For those of us who remember a time when the blackberry was just a fruit and Shaktimaan the ultimate superhero, the death of our beloved Uncle Pai has led to melancholy mixed with nostalgia. A traditionalist to the core, he believed that strong cultural roots and solid understanding of one’s heritage was the key to success.”
“One day, in February 1967, I was in Delhi,” he told me when we met several years ago. “There, at the junction of Gurudwara Road and Azma Khan Road was a shop called Maharaja Lal & Sons. It was selling televisions sets. At that time, Delhi had television but Mumbai didn’t. A quiz show was in progress. None of the contestants could answer a simple question like, “Who is the mother of Lord Rama?” I felt bad about that but I tried to explain it to myself. They were not interested in mythology, not interested in the past. They were looking to the future. But then the next question was about a god from Mount Olympus and all of them knew the answer. I realised that these young people had been alienated from their own culture. And I realised that comics might be a way of bringing them back.”
His nephew Prakash Pai in Mid-Day:
“When we met him on one Sunday morning, he simply asked us a few questions about Indian mythology. We simply had no answers to his questions, though we knew everything about Archie comics. That was when he told us that he would start a movement to enable us to know about our own heritage.”
“With apologies to my teachers, I must say that whatever bit of Indian history I know, it’s thanks essentially to the Amar Chitra Katha series of comic books.
“I first met him as a rookie journalist in the late 1980s. Pai was looking for writers for Partha, a magazine he had started, and I was happy to moonlight. He didn’t pay big monies, but the Rs 200-300 a piece was enough for a few good meals.
“Meeting Pai for me meant keeping aside a few hours. Or perhaps more. He would regale me with stories about governments – from Prime Ministers like Atal Behari Vajpayee recognising his work or some State government according Tinkle special status in schools. Those were days when Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana had the nation glued to the telly, and I would often ask him why he didn’t do Amar Chitra Katha for TV. He was very keen, but preferred the animated form to costume drama. When I once suggested that I would love to be associated with the TV avatar of ACK, he asked me to take the lead and present a proposal which I did and he took me to Padmini Mirchandani at India Book House.”
“It was always my ardent desire to meet him and, one afternoon nearly five years ago, I called Pai to break the ice. The first thing I remember was his enthusiasm and warmth while greeting another aficionado of comics…. I confessed to him that The Phantom was still my top favourite to which Pai reminded me gently that he was actually part of the think-tank that brought Indrajal Comics to India. Apparently, surveys showed that The Phantom would click with the masses since it was being featured in the comic strips of The Illustrated Weekly of India and there would be a readymade connection. It did not, therefore, make sense to think of Batman or Superman as the first local offering. The first issue was The Phantom’s Belt way back in 1964,” Pai told me with authority. I gasped at his memory and told him that I had been trying to get a copy of this comic for years.”
“He believed the best way to communicate an idea or value to a child is through stories. He taught me everything I know. He wanted comics to become a medium accepted in schools.”
Report in The Times of India:
“Most publishers were sceptical [of Amar Chitra Katha] but Pai persisted and the series finally began with the launch of the first title, Krishna. He lent it the auspicious Indian touch by titling it number 11 instead of one.”
“In the 1980s, Anant Pai, universal uncle for an entire generation or two, caused a scramble among siblings on afternoons when an Amar Chitra Katha or Tinkle was slipped under the door by the magazinewalla.
“He helped mothers bribe children into finishing their homework with ‘bumper issues’ on the 10 avatars of Vishnu or Birbal‘s tales. He shaped the stereotypes of Rakshasas and Rajput princesses in the minds of many. And if it weren’t for him, we would have known precious little about the Panchatantra or the Jataka Tales.”
“As for Tinkle, it was a magazine not only for the children, but also by them. It was launched by a 12-year-old girl, Elaine D’Lime, who had won a nationwide contest organised by Pai, and to this day, it continues to be influenced by its young readers. In fact, many of its readers eventually grew up to join the staff of the magazine, such as senior illustrator Savio Mascarenhas, who has been with the magazine for 16 years.”
“Way back in 1986, I wrote a question in neat cursive, using a pencil: “What causes hiccups?” I wrote my age, address and the name of my school, and made sure I stuck enough glue to the Re 1 stamp on the envelope. I remember walking with my mother to the post box to mail my letter to Uncle Pai, to get my question printed in Tinkle, copies of which were my most prized possessions. The question would be printed in the “Tinkle tells you why” section. I was nervous, and I am sure I prayed every night for Uncle Pai to read my letter…. My question never got printed, but I got an envelope, saying thank you for sending it across. I didn’t mind. I had a letter from Uncle Pai and it meant the world to me. It always will.”
“I noticed the seriousness with which Pai treated letters pouring in from children — on postcards, inland letters and envelops. He was famous as ‘Uncle Pai’ and we got letters from all corners of the country; the smallest of towns and talukas. Since he could not reply to all individually, there were printed letters in handwriting font with his signature. I was quite impressed when I first saw those letters and helped in the chore of mailing them.”
“A tear and a prayer for the demise of the legendary Anant Pai. He is as much a part of my childhood as my education at school. RIP, Uncle Pai.”
“Sad to hear about Uncle Pai. Grew up on a steady diet of Amar Chitra Katha comics from Kashmir Bookshop & my yearly subscription of Tinkle.”
Photograph: courtesy The Hindu
Also read: A letter to Uncle Pai