Like every Vyas before him, Anant Pai shone the copper so a new generation could see itself reflected in mythology
Myths are so intimately bound to the culture, time, and place that unless the symbols, the metaphors, are kept alive by constant recreation through the arts, the life just slips away from them.
Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth
I’ve always been hopelessly attracted to people with projects. The kind of people who set themselves epic tasks of their own volition. The kind of tasks that, between start and finish, will alter the very mettle of your being.
Anant Pai took on his own epic project in 1967. For 40 years, he ran a tight, authoritarian ship with a team of carefully selected artists and writers; combing through a bottomless trove of Indian lore, pulling up stories — some timeless, some obscure — giving asphyxiated tales a kiss of life in comic book form. The format that Pai chose was concise. Plotlines were linear; loose ends always tied themselves up by the last page; and, in a boggling display of simplistic storytelling, the cast was acutely polarised (Deva v/s Asura, Indian v/s Invader). Characters spoke in oddly complete sentences; the artwork was an amalgam of 1940s Hollywood jawlines, Ajanta fresco languor, Chola bronze voluptuousness, and Lee Falk action. The situation is arguably better now, but back when Amar Chitra Katha’s (ACK) first title came out, comics were seen as the lowbrow refuge of intellectual featherweights and boys in knickers.
Why does a man choose to take on a juggernaut? Nandini Chandra, author of The Classic Popular, suggests that Pai saw his work primarily as a nation-building exercise. It is true that Pai saw himself primarily as an educator, and shared the good teacher’s commitment to speaking the language of the time; one wonders about the personal quest that oft underlies audacious undertakings. What archetypal journey did this Goud Saraswat boy from Karakala, South Kanara, who lost his parents at the age of two, embark on when he decided to make the epics and Upanishadas accessible to the masses?
A stickler for rigour, Pai insisted that a slender 32-page book have as many months of research behind it. We speak of a pre-Google era, of a project that ran on a meagre budget, of writers and illustrators that had ad agency day jobs and looked at this work as a prestige project, a labour of love. Pai ended up editing 439 ACK titles; and two generations of Indians that can tell Vasavadatta from Ratnavali, and Nahusha from Ghatotkacha, will most likely have Anant Pai to thank. As someone who has spent the better part of two years trying to grasp the psychological and philosophical import of the Amrit Manthan, I can attest to how the knowing brevity of the script of Churning of the Ocean makes it a source of wonder, even after so many years, and readings on so many levels. And in the hands of an artist extraordinaire like Yusuf Lien, the underdog medium, poor printing technology and all, even transcended to the realm of the sublime — Mirabai being case in point.
Had I been old enough to trust a simple question in 2007, I would’ve asked Pai why he took on what he did. (I asked Bibek Debroy, the economist who has set himself the task of translating the Mahabharat in 10 volumes, the same question earlier this year; and was enthralled to find that the answer is often as simple as the question itself: Some of us do these things because that is what we are meant to do). Instead, we ended up having a conversation replete with stock anecdotes that surface in each retelling of the mythology of Anant Pai’s life: Story about the quiz contest where children knew more about Greek mythology than about Indian mythology, firming Pai’s resolve to shake the Western stronghold over Indian imagination; story about Pai’s early days of personally vending ACK titles at petrol pump kiosks; the years of celebrity: Atal Bihari Vajpayee comparing his appeal to Chacha Nehru’s, Mikhail Gorbachev calling on the phone to crosscheck the meaning of a Sanskrit quote.
Pai’s rationale for choosing the ‘ninth art’ to transmit classical wisdom had more to do with a canny understanding of the market, than with any overwhelming love for the comic book medium. Unbeknownst even to himself, he did something quite visionary: He led the sacred cow out of elitist seclusion and into the proletarian open. Retrospective lenses can be cruel, though, and the ACK phenomenon hasn’t aged well in this hypoallergenic time.
Allegations lobbed at ACK in the past decade include those of sexism, racism, Brahminical proselytising, the complete absence of grey scale. While I do shudder at the colour coding (salmon-brown for devas and consonant factions; tonally darker grey-brown for asuras and dissonant factions) and the way Mughal eyebrows are arch more deviously than those of their subjects; I know that anyone who balks at a deep-cleavaged Draupadi has clearly not been around the unabridged mother text that lovingly dwells on narrow waist and tapering thighs! ACK’s most glaring ‘failings’ seem to stem from old school naïveté and a ham-handed visual style guide rather than from any supremacy agenda on Pai’s part. It is the same naïveté that had Pai assign the only Dalit illustrator in ACK’s stable to illustrate a book about Chokha Mela; the same clumsy style guide that grumbled when Ram Waeerker’s drawings looked too frantic, or P.B. Kavadi’s, too static!
The passage of time blunted ACK’s edge. Pai acknowledged during our conversation in 2007, that comics had been dealt a deathblow by the arrival of television in the 1980s and never recovered. Suddenly ACK are the books nostalgic parents buy, hoping their children may someday read them; but the children would rather read Captain Underpants or Sandman, thank you. Given enough chronological distance from one’s location, everything from Little Women to Noddy, is a potential repeat offender on counts of political incorrectness.
What is uncontestable is that Pai’s epic project — for its prescience, width, scope — is unrivalled outside academic settings. Like every Vyas before him, Anant Pai shone the copper so a new generation could see itself reflected in mythology. Joseph Campbell once said that things are changing too fast today, to remain mythologised for long. The task of retelling stories will always be incomplete, new storytellers must come to the fore. There is much copper to be shined.
He that hath ears to hear, let him hear – Matthew 11:15
Amruta Patil is a writer and painter. Author of Kari (2008), she is currently working on a graphic novel based on the Mahabharat. You can view her work at