India’s own Disney, Ananth Pai, the legendary creator of Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle comics is no more. He passed away on February 24. Here we reproduce a profile of Ananth Pai based on an interview with him, done by our contributor Eswar Sundaresan and published in the March 2003 issue of Mangalore Today.
Close Encounter with Pai mam
The name ‘Uncle Pai’ conjures up immortal images of Indian mythology, values and culture as depicted in ‘Amar Chitra Katha’ and ‘Tinkle’. Eswar Sundaresan discovers the man whom millions of children have come to love.
Photo: Manju Neereshwallya
It is said, we learn by association. And we learn to associate. The Indian child learns to make two associations early on in life. The laws of gravity and related confusions quickly get tagged with the name ‘Newton’. Similarly, the name ‘Uncle Pai’ conjures up immortal images of Indian mythology, values and culture as depicted in ‘Amar Chitra Katha’ and ‘Tinkle’. These delectable comic series have been the source of wholesome entertainment for children of all ages - from 3 to 90!
Can any other joy come close to spending a leisurely afternoon immersed in an ACK? Of course not. Such is the pleasure Ananth Pai gives us that one just can’t get too old for it!
So when we heard that Uncle Pai was in town (to receive an honour from the Vishwa Saraswat Sammelan Anniversary Committee), we knew that this was one interview we weren’t going to miss. So Mahesh and I punctually presented ourselves at his hotel at 10 a.m. I had formed an image of the great man. He would be bald (of course!). He would wear round rimless glasses, be clean-shaven and have the twinklest eyes of all.
But Ananth Pai a.k.a ‘Uncle Pai’ decided to completely vanquish the mythological image I had created for him. He decided to present himself as a septuagenarian with more tufts on his head than men half his age. The gait was a tad clumsy, yet so endearing. And the glasses, he uses only as much as Holmes would his convex lens. As for the twinkle in the eye, he had that. But he also had in them depth - depth that could only be the outcome of great wisdom, great compassion and great love for what he was doing.
While it is not possible to distill the essence of genius in a couple of hours, we were determined to collect at least a couple of droplets before we bid adieu. We began at the beginning. This is how the story unfolded -
Ananth Pai was born on 17th Sept 1929 at Karkala. At the age of two, he lost his father to typhoid. Almost immediately, unable to bear her grief, his mother committed suicide. For the child who would make it his mission in life to love and educate all children, such a start was both fateful and ironic. Although his grandfather and uncles poured their love and affection on him, the lad often pined for parents of his own. That he could retain his composure and positive outlook inspite of an orphaned childhood speaks volumes about the character of the man the young boy would grow up to be.
One first observed Pai’s special spark when he was nine. Having come across the Bhagavad Gita, he devoured it with uncommon passion. The young boy was inspired by the message the Gita had to give and was in fact moved to tears. The association he made with Indian culture that day was to stay with him forever.
When Pai was 14, his grandfather passed away and this event led Pai to Bombay. He left Karkala having secured top honours in his 9th std. But the transition to the big city was anything but easy. “A vernacular background and a rigid education system prevented an easy entry into schools and colleges,” he recalls, “But my perseverance got me an admission in Wilson College after matriculation.”
Being meek and diminutive, Pai invited ridicule from his classmates. But ridicule turned into respect and admiration when Pai confronted his moral science teacher. The latter challenged Pai’s principles by equating Hindu dharma with stone worship. Pai flashed up and replied: “Rituals and dharma are not one and the same. Dharma is what you should follow to be happy.” The teacher was speechless - Pai had made his point. And for someone so young, he had shown exceptional clarity of thought. This was the first year of Indian Independence.
Four years later, in ’52, Pai had graduated from the prestigious UDCT College as a chemical engineer (the institution would honour Pai with a distinguished alumnus award in 1999). In this duration, the only sign Pai showed of literary ambitions was in penning a Kannada detective novel!!
After graduation, Pai put in cursory stint in the profession he was trained for before he decided to give it up for the pursual of his dreams.
Pai became editor/publisher of ‘Maanav’, an English monthly that was “dedicated to physical, mental and spiritual health”. Pai was just 22 then. The inexperience showed - at the end of 42 editions, Pai had built a minor fan following but no financial backbone. He decided to close shop and did small jobs before Times of India came along.
At that time, TOI was looking to launch a comic book series. After preliminary research, Pai zoomed in on ‘Phantom’ as the most popular character. Thus was born Indrajal Comics, which Pai edited and ran for TOI for 4 years starting ’63.
However, in ’67, Pai was visiting Delhi when he came across a TV program (TV telecast was something Bombay couldn’t boast of at that time). It was a quiz show for children. Pai observed that none of the children could answer the simple question “Who was the mother of Rama?” whereas they easily replied to questions on Greek mythology.
That decided it. Indian children were unaware of their own heritage and Pai was determined to change that. He tendered his resignation at TOI, a high-paying and cushioned job, despite advice to the contrary from well-wishers.
He entered into an agreement with India Book House (IBH) which meant that he got only vehicle expenses to the tune of Rs. 2000 per annum. More importantly, Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) was born. Pai worked diligently on his ambition but balanced the act with the practical considerations of running a household which also consisted of his wife Lalitha, of Sindhi origin. Till 3 pm, he worked in IBH and later in the evening, he did odd jobs for sustenance. As the first year came to an end, the losses for IBH amounted to Rs. 28,000 and Lalitha had sacrificed her jewellery to stoke the kitchen fire.
But Pai again showed his perseverance. Since his debut ‘Krishna’ sold less than 20,000 copies, he decided to expand his market by personally becoming a salesman for his wares. With his willingness to do anything (he even hammered nails to create a display point for a reluctant restaurant owner), the momentum soon picked up.
So much so that a Reader’s Digest study in ’88 put overall sales figures for ACK to 70 million copies. Krishna has gone through 80 reprints till date. The prints were now coming out in 10-12 languages including Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Assamese, Malayalam and even Dutch and Swahili.
Pai’s work also crossed the national borders through the vast Indian diaspora. Pai soon started getting fan mail from school teachers in the US telling him how enriching the experience of reading ACK was.
The themes, too, expanded to include historical characters, regional heroes and folk tales. Following his secular beliefs, Pai covered Akbar, Christ and Guru Tegh Bahadur just like he did Hanuman.
As a result, children across the length and breadth of the country (and the world) were being exposed to the diverse culture and peoples that would otherwise have been alien to them. One could probably never fully measure how much Pai has helped all of us be secular, but one can surely guess.
As ACK reached astounding levels of success, Pai needed a new canvas to start a new adventure. So in ’80, Pai started ‘Tinkle’ “to make education fun”. This time, the focus was on a highly interactive medium - Tinkle invited contributions and feedback from all children. Within no time, ‘Shikari Shambu’, ‘Kalia’, ‘Suppandi’ and ‘Naseeruddin Hodja’ had befriended every child.
But each child reared an even more lasting bond with ‘Uncle Pai’. At the age of 51, Pai, with no children of his own, became ‘Uncle’ to millions. If at all a fitting tribute could be paid to so distinguished a man, it had to be this - an equal reciprocation of love from the children for whom he built a whole new world of knowledge, entertainment and wonderment.
Using a medium as simple as a comic, Pai has forever changed basic definitions. Definitions of terms such as education, values and culture. His legacy now resides in the minds of every person touched by his work. Each one of those has grown up to be a little saner, a little more composed.
It might take a few more ‘Uncle Pai’s before we become fully human and emulate his child-like manner. But one Ananth Pai is a pretty good start. We are getting there. Yeah, we are getting there!