India’s Immortal Comic Books: Gods, Kings and Other Heroes by Karline McLain

If cricket is like religion in India, then books have a pretty prominent place in the pantheon, as well. In a country where finding a good, American-style public library is about as easy as locating the Shankara stones in Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom, the hunger for literature is fed by thousands of dusty “lending libraries” across the subcontinent. For as little as ten rupees (25 cents), anyone can take advantage of these repositories of popular culture’s manifestoes and go home happy – with a novel, foreign magazine or even textbook.

Within the broad category of books, however, comics have a special place in India. Foreign titles like Tin Tin, Asterix and Archieare ubiquitous and are found in just about every nook and cranny. But, Indians have a special place in their hearts – and wallets – for indigenous comics written in English and several regional languages. And of the Indian comics, no company is as recognized as Amar Chitra Katha.

I spent my teenage years in India and I can honestly tell you that Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) isn’t viewed negatively the way most comics purveyors are. Founded by Anant Pai in 1967, the publishing house has tacit approval across the board. ACK’s comic books – mostly covering Indian historical figures and Hindu mythology – are widely accepted by families and the Indian establishment — educational institutions, politicians, etc. — as being legitimate and factual sources of information.

Which is why reading Bucknell University professor Karline McLain’s new book is so disturbing. Titled India’s Immortal Comic Books: Gods, Kings and Other Heroes¸ McLain shines a light on Anant Pai and his staff at ACK to really examine the motivations behind creating the comics. Was it just about educating children or were there other motivations?

McLain is no Howard Zinn, but like the famed author of A People’s History of the United States (1980), she does aim to create a public awareness of how history is told, albeit in India. In political science terminology, this process is called “framing” – how an event is framed greatly affects how it is perceived. From this perspective, McLain eruditely points out that Anant Pai’s goal has always been to “frame” Indian political, cultural and religious history from a stubbornly chauvinistic and Hindu nationalist perspective; thus, pushing his own agenda of “muscular Hinduism” (adapting the popular Christian movement).

Pai admits that his reasoning behind creating comic books was to ameliorate Indian school children’s knowledge of Indian history and Hindu mythology. But in conflating the two, he ventured into the territory of the Hindutva or Hindu nationalist movement, which has pushed for a religious agenda in India that seeks to exclude all non-Hindu religions as being foreign and revise Indian history so that it is a showcase for major Hindu figures who achieve greatness while vanquishing others of different faiths.

Nowhere is this more painfully obvious than in the comics themselves. In reality, McLain’s role has just been to provide the supplementary material to us to understand the organizational process behind the comics’ publications. As the popular phrase goes, “the proof is in the pudding”.

The ACK formula is rather simple. Once a historical figure is chosen, the artists and editors pore over books to learn as much background history as possible. This pertains to not only the persona’s life and times, but also his or her habits, style of dress, etc. But, what happens when there are multiple and often times, competing histories of an historical figure? Or when the figure in question is a Hindu god or goddess? Where does history begin and myth end?

To illustrate the complexities of the former, McClain deftly breaks down Pai’s thinking behind one of the most famous ACK issues, Shivaji (#23), about the life of the Indian folk hero Shivaji Bhonsle. Like many Indian historical figures, his life has achieved mythic status – so much so that an accurate biography of the man seems rather impossible. One ACK producer sheepishly even admits that the “gray areas” of Shivaji’s life were left out to create better hero imagery. Depending on whom you read, according to McLain, Shivaji can be interpreted as a Brahmin Marathi hero; an early Hindu nationalist; an anti-British figure who united India; or as a non-Brahmin who sought to lift the spirits of India’s lowest figures in society.

Pai decided to portray Shivaji as a Hindu nationalist who sought to unite India under a common religious banner. So when the time came to show the feud between Shivaji and the Muslim ruler Afzal Khan, it “is presented not as an epic struggle between two men, one a hero and the other a villain, but also as a communal one.” As Shivaji stabs Khan, the king yells, “Ya Allah (Oh God)!” and falls to the ground. He is then decapitated by one of Shivaji’s men. Shivaji and his army then ride to glory and are universally hailed for bringing down the other ruler.

This Hindu-Muslim animosity is really played up by Pai and the Amar Chitra Katha staff throughout other issues. For every victorious and just Hindu king, there was a Muslim foil – Rana Pratap vs. Akbar; Rana Singh vs. Babar; or Amar Singh Rathore vs. Shah Jahan. And even when the issue’s focus was a Muslim figure – as did happen on an infinitesimal number of occasions – McLain points out the astonishing feature that Anant Pai still pushed his Hindu nationalist agenda by employing a “divide and conquer” strategy to these books. If it wasn’t Hindu hero versus Muslim villain, then it would be Muslim hero versus Muslim villain. Writes McLain,

“Although the belief that the majority of Indian Muslims were forcibly converted to Islam by foreign Muslim rulers – known as the ‘religion by the sword’ theory – has been debunked by many scholars over the past several decades, the idea lives on in the popular reprints of many of these comic book issues, as in other popular media.”

In such a methodic manner, McLain breaks down many of ACK’s most famous issues to analyze how the event or figure is portrayed and how that might differ from popular history. For example, it is almost perfectly accepted by scholars and the public that Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse did assassinate Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi because of his (Gandhi’s) support of an independent Muslim state. And yet there is no mention of Godse’s ideology in the ACK issue on Gandhi. If anything, looking at the specific book’s individual frames, it looks like the gun is firing itself. It is even surrounded by a halo!

In his work on the Indian Diaspora in Michigan, Arthur Helweg has written that there are “five components of ethnicity” – homeland, culture, language, history and mythology. They work together to create the foundations for expatriate communities. Amar Chitra Katha’s comic books have become part of the foundation for many of the Indian expatriate communities. McLain shares many emails from readers across the world who favorably speak about being raised on ACK’s comic books and how they continue to pass the legacy on to future generations.

If Amar Chitra Katha provided a platform for Indian historical revisionism and religious nationalism in India, then the effects are even more pejorative when we see how the comics have accompanied the Indian Diaspora; providing an unwitting vehicle for historical revisionism worldwide. From this perspective, ACK has achieved a level of distortion that the modern Hindutva political machine can only strain to grasp.

These comics may have empowered Hindu youth, but they emasculated Muslim ones. Thus, the India sold by Anant Pai and his company became inscribed in the minds of children as a land that was originally meant for only one people and one particular religious group. And that is the greatest crime of all.

RATING 7 / 10