Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Communal Vs Secular Comics: Amar Chitra Katha & other children's comic strips in India


You may laugh at the mere mention of 'communal comics'. But cartoons and comics are to be taken seriously as they play an important role in shaping the minds of children.

I was reading Tehelka's last issue where Nisha Susan did a review of Delhi-based academician Nandini Chandra's book 'The Classic popular: Amar Chitra Katha', when I thought of writing a post. And that's not the only book on this subject*.

In her book Chandra writes that Uncle Pai remains an avuncular man with a sincere interest in education but the ideological underpinnings of ACK bear much closer scrutiny. In her book Chandra writes that the comics conflated the Hindu with the national ...and that the comics combine relatively innoncuous text with far more troubling visuals like the bearded Muslim and the dark-skinned persons in the majority of 600-odd titles...

Now my own thoughts on this:

Firstly, I did read a few Amar Chitra Katha comics in my childhood. And I have absolutely no problem with a publisher only printing comics on Hindu culture, as I grew up as much on Khilauna (Urdu) and Champak, as much as Nandan, which focused on Hindu mythology.

I loved Nandan and I owe a lot to these magazine. It was Nandan that introduced me to the fascinating Hindu mythology. Nandan chiefly borrowed from Hinduism and avoided Islam but there was nothing that would unsettle a Muslim kid let alone offend his sensibilities.

Similarly, Chandamama, which I loved, was also a magazine that focused on Hindu mythology and the stories of Hindu gods abound. And it was brilliant. On the pages of Nandan and Chandamama, I discovered the world of Rishis, Vidyadhars, Kapaliks, Asuras et al.

Naturally it is wrong to expect that every thing in India would be straight out of Manmohan Desai's Bollywood idealism where in every story you would also find a Muslim and Sikh or Christian.

Even if there is no Muslim character or stories focusing on Islamic festivals, you can't fault the comics or the kids' magazines but what is certainly wrong is depicting a community in wrong light and doing that cleverly.

Of course, I remember that as a kid I did feel a sense of loss ['not exactly belonging the way'] when there were special issues on Diwali and Holi in all children's magazine and not even a story on Id, let alone a congratulatory message 'PaathakoN ko shubhkaamna.

There are a few exceptions, a couple of stories on Ramzan and Id in my 12-years of files of Champak. But I am pretty okay with that. Apart from Champak, Nandan, Chanda Mama, there were Kutkut, Parag, Bal Bharti, Balak and a host of other magazines.

The rest of the Comic world was quite secular though. In the 80s, there was the terrific Ram-Rahim Double Secret Agent series and the Rajan Iqbal series in comics apart from Rajan-Iqbal pocket books. Pran's world of Chacha Chaudhary, Billu, Raman, Pinky and others apart from Ankur, were all secular.

Even in Lambu Motu and Fauladi Singh series, the artists like Jugal Kishore, ensured that whenever religion was mentioned, there was a display of all four symbols. Not everybody can realise how good you feel unless you belong to a minority, at these apparently small things.

But that's the reason I remember Jugal Kishore and the writer, Ashwini alias Ashu. These artists gave the feeling that you belonged. That you were not absolutely out. In the Western countries, an effort is made to ensure that comics don't give the impression that a particular race or religion is shown in poor light.

So when we used to get books and comics from the neighbourhood library where they were available from 25 paise to 50 paise (later Re 1), Diamond Comics was the first choice for me, followed by Manoj, Indrajal and then Prabhat, Tulsi and others.

After reading the above mentioned article, I thought and suddenly realised that I hardly ever rented an Amar Chitra Katha, which of course I read if I found it at a friend's place. Why?

The foremost reason was that I was well acquainted with Hindu mythology due to children's magazines and in the ACK only there was art, less of text.

Apart from them there were historical figures, which didn't interest me naturally at that age. But I do remember that a couple of times I felt that they didn't draw Muslim characters properly. Often, the jaws and the facial expressions of these characters and their aggressive posture gave a negative shade.

I clearly remember that Diamond Comics' famous comic 'Mama Bhanja aur Mughal Khandan' had the Mama telling the Bhatija the illustrated story of Mughals but there was objetivity and not a faint communal tinge.

It was of course history and whatever wrong kings like Aurangzeb did was depicted just like the feats of others. But no hints, no sly suggestions, no dark portrayals or generalization. So that was the difference.

No wonder, now I find, that out of 500-odd ACKs, there were hardly five or six on Muslims, that too because they felt their ideology was getting too obvious. So you have a Razia Sultana, an Akbar, Jehangir, Shahjehan and an usual choice Balban. May be a few others.

Even by RSS standards, there were many who can easily qualify and there are many Muslim heroes. At least, Rahim, Jaisi, Ashfaqullah Khan, Havildar Abdul Hamid etc. Even by normal standards the list can be quite long from Amir Khusro to Abul Kalam Azad and Abdul Ghaffar Khan or say a Ghalib, but none of them could ever make it to Amar Chitra Katha.

On a level, you feel it's better to ignore such things. But the subtly work! I found that there are other researchers who felt the same. Just like the TV serials--Ramayana and Mahabharata, that were in a way responsible for the impetus to the BJP's Ram Mandir movement, these comics also perhaps conditioned the minds of urban kids and teens who were living in Nehruvian era of 60s to usher them to a new commual era of 70s and 80s, where Muslim was suddenly the aggressive creature.

Now coming to another book. Media and the Transformation of Religion in South Asia*. The writers Lawrence A Babb and Susan Wadley say, "In the Makers of Modern India series, there are no Maulana Azad, Asaf Ali, Hakim Ajmal Khan or Dr Zakir Husain..."

But is that surprising that till very late there was no issue for Gandhi, but yes, one devoted to VD Savarkar. He further writes, "Anand Math is full of anti-Muslim sentiments where revolutionaries look forward to the day when they will break the mosque and raise the temple of Radha Madhav in its place and yet this novel is featured quite early in the series".

Was Sangh ideology at work, cleverly giving the message that the Muslims are the bad people?

"In Amar Chitra Katha (86) featuring the novel Anand Math, the heroic Hindu Bengali freedom fighters do battle with the evil British officers who command highly stylized but Muslim-looking troops!".....Strange isn't it!