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Updated: Nov 30, 2020

In this paper I revisit, after a considerable interval, my work on Amar Chitra Katha (ACK)[1] and its role in teaching history. I recall the start of my research in the early 1990s and its rather straightforward intent— looking at ACK and its readership, its impact on Indian children. But something changed during those years—it was the period of anti and pro-Mandal agitations, and my not-so-complicated thesis got steered into choppy waters. Those years, especially within academia, were marked by intense debates around the idea of merit and its presumed neutrality . Suddenly, the ‘universal’, unmarked subject of the liberal humanist and nationalist discourses was open to interrogation, no longer assured of its stable status. As pro-merit (largely upper-caste and middle-class) agitators adopted street-sweeping or shoe-shining to protest the Mandal Commission’s recommendations for enhanced reservations, they inadvertently revealed the hidden class/caste affiliations of the secular self.[2] At that historical moment, especially within university spaces, one was pushed to engage with the overt and covert workings of caste in institutions and disciplines, in textbooks and in classrooms.


ccccSituated in the newly emergent subject of cultural studies in India, my framework was significantly influenced by Italian Marxist philosopher Gramsci’s profound impact on that discipline. Gramsci regarded culture not as a site of people’s self-affirmation nor of their repression but as a dynamic space where the battle for consent was continuously waged. Through the Gramscian lens, the dominant class appears neither uniformly repressive nor ideologically manipulative. A lot of work goes into maintaining dominance, or, as Gramsci termed it, hegemony. According to him, the dominant class is of an uneven nature and must transcend some of its corporatist interests so as to be able to articulate the interests of subordinate groups by means of continuously waged ideological struggle. For dominant groups to claim moral and political leadership and forge strategic alliances with subordinate groups, they must represent/re-envision their goals and politics by connecting with the beliefs, fears and emotions of the larger people. In this process, they may have to give up some of their interests but without disrupting their ‘core values’. Each hegemonic cultural text makes certain moves and addresses certain problems but retains something as basic, core, authentic and hence, incontestable.[3] However, for Gramsci, the management of subaltern groups is never total because there are opposing pressures and alternative articulations of cultural practices in civil society. So for a cultural text to be powerful, it must continuously respond to and re-articulate contemporary concerns and discontents.


ccccToday, I re-look at Amar Chitra Katha more than 25 years since those troubled times which abruptly and drastically turned upside down an innocuous children’s comic series for me. I do so for this very critical conference to which I have been kindly invited, with a large involvement of teachers of history in schools. But there is another important reason. I teach in the University of Hyderabad. Today, perhaps the name of this university is ineluctably linked with that of Rohith Vemula, owing to the nationwide student unrest that followed the tragic suicide of the young Dalit research scholar[4]. Many of us, students and faculty, were once again forced to confront the idea of merit and the many contradictions and privileges underpinning it. Here was a young man, articulate, brilliant, aspiring to be a writer of science like Carl Sagan but finally coming to the decision that only through death could he travel from ‘shadows to the stars’. Once again, we are forced to ask questions such as: Who can claim merit? Who is the ideal citizen? Who has the confidence of belonging? What is national and who is anti-national?’


So perhaps this is an apt time to revisit the small history of merit and citizenship that I had traced through my analysis of the ACK phenomenon.


I am going to make two main claims: that ACK’s history is presentist, that is, its history and mythology have a contemporary frame of reference. And that in order to make this past effective within the present, it radically breaks from any singular or purist notion of history.


ccccAmar Chitra Katha, a picture story series started by Anant Pai in the early 1970s, came into existence at a historical conjuncture when the contradictions and inequalities of the post-Independence Nehruvian state became increasingly visible, and culminated in large-scale protests and agitations by socially and economically marginalized groups—women, workers, tribals and peasants. Concurrently, there was a different set of challenges from the right, blaming the Nehruvian ideology of socialism and secularism for the moral collapse of the nation and seeking, instead, a spiritual revolution. Aligned with the position of the right was the emergence of a competitive middle class that favoured crucial partnerships with foreign capital, thus demanding a masculinization of the self in place of ‘special rights’ conferred by the state.


ccccSignificantly, through the fashioning of a nationalist, brahminized yet modern masculinity as the ideal for emulation by middle-class children, ACK inserts itself right into this discourse.


ccccConsciously countering the influence of the West on the youth, ACK seeks to revive the ‘authentic’ traditions of India through a re-telling of history and mythology. Colorfully illustrated in a chitra katha (picture story) format, it can claim to have moulded the ideas of nation and citizenship for generations of children growing up in the 1970s and 80s. It has contributed to many of our contemporary articulations of merit, hard work and self-respect, and through its narratives of great men and women, it has provided ideals for middle-class children to aspire to in order to grow up as adequate citizens of the nation.


I would like to first address the role that ACK assumes within the project of constructing the culturally rooted, modern Indian citizen. Its creator Anant Pai’s attempt to refashion history—which he presents as a series of vignettes of the heroism and charisma of great men and (a few) women—into an effective pedagogic tool stands in distinct contrast to radical historiographical initiatives, such as the Subaltern Studies that emerged in the early 80s, as critiques of the the elitist basis of both colonial and nationalist historiography.[5] One may well characterize ACK, with its accent on the moral rejuvenation of the youth by reconnecting them with their traditions, as a powerful initiative of ‘regressive modernisation’, borrowing from Stuart Hall, in his incisive analysis of the Conservative discourse of the Thatcherite era. This discourse, better known as Thatcherism, repeatedly invoked the lost glories of imperialism and the loss of the colonies to legitimize its aspiration for a masculinized, white middle-class identity.[6]


ccccCultural theorists have drawn attention to the shaping of extraordinary personas/subjectivities in films and literature in the 70s. By way of illustration, let us look at the reappearance of the Hindu widow, valorized in Swadeshi writing, in literary writing. In M. K. Indira’s award-winning novel Phaniyamma (1976), the protagonist is an upper-caste widow who observes traditional rituals in their strictest austerity and yet demonstrates the humane face of tradition when she breaks caste taboo by assisting a lower-caste woman in childbirth.[7] A critique of Nehruvian secularism is embedded in such representations, throwing into sharp relief the latter’s disengagement from ‘Indian values’. Notably, Pai imagines ACK as the substitute for the storytelling grandmother who kept children connected to their ‘routes’ but was fast disappearing with the disintegration of joint families.


ccccThe reinstallation of a valorized, authentic Indian past in ACK needs to be located within the larger social and political context of the time. The right’s ideological labour in the 70s was directed at a ‘moral regeneration of the society’, thus, shifting the focus from those struggles from the margins that called for a radical socioeconomic reconstruction. However, it would be reductive to completely bracket ACK within the ideology of Hindu nationalism or right-wing politics, for it often ingeniously pulls the idea of the Hindu nation and secularism into a harmonious articulation—and that is perhaps more disturbing. Within its worldview, everyone who shares the core values of the nation is qualified for its membership, irrespective of caste or community. When the Muslim is excluded/ Othered from the idea of the nation, it is because he does not share ‘our’ norms and values. The epitome of the recalcitrant Muslim/alien invader in ACK is Ala-ud-din Khilji, a threat to the purity of the nation, a threat which is mapped onto the body of the upper-caste Hindu woman—the pure and noble Padmini.


ccccACK draws on several of the foundational premises of Hindutva—the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s organicist articulation of the nation as family; or the Jana Sangh’s re-imagining of Hinduization as Indianization, connoting the cultural oneness of India. Balraj Madhok, an ideologue of the Jana Sangh, in his immensely popular Indianisation (1970), emphasized the cultural singularity of India which for him was synonymous with Hindu culture, founded on a Vedic philosophy. Madhok had also appealed for changes in school textbooks which, he felt, distorted facts by avoiding references to India’s traditional (and Hindu) heroes and heroines in the name of secularism.


ccccACK was launched a few years following the founding of the VHP in 1964. Its narratives clearly address the cultural anxieties experienced in the rank and file of the VHP, specifically the need for ‘modern gurus’ to bring back to the folds of Hindusim the Westernized middle class—or, in the words of its ideologue, Swami Chinmayananda, ‘the modern educated illiterates’. The historical and mythological protagonists of ACK are thus shaped as teachers/leaders for the present, signalling a harmony with the vision of the VHP.


ccccI believe it is critical to see ACK not as an isolated phenomenon but linked to and participating in the the larger political/ideological struggles to revision the past in order to build a national/bharatiya identity. Pai firmly believed that history was more than ‘dates and facts’, and that classroom history was ineffective precisely because it restricted itself to a dry, empiricist idea of the subject. In a determined move away from this mode, he fashioned ACK’s history narratives in the storytelling format, with illustrations becoming central to the project. Combining the Western comic style with pre-novelistic visual storytelling traditions of India—the chitrakatha, scroll painting and fresco—it attempted to create figures that were historical yet contemporary, sacred yet secular.


ccccThe figure of an ordinary child with extraordinary potential has been a motif in ACK since the publication of its first issue, Krishna, in 1969. While the child Krishna displays divine powers, he is also portrayed as an ordinary boy, and the illustrations prove crucial to achieving this effect. When Krishna is dancing on the hood of the deadly snake Kaliya, a crowd of onlookers from the village watches him with their backs to us. But two of them turn to face the rest and one says, ‘What a boy!’ His expression is of indulgent bemusement and his tone is personalized. As art theorist Anuradha Kapur has pointed out:


What happens when the story is about gods and heroes from epics? The personalized tone of voice and causality of the narrative ‘secularizes’ the event and makes the action plausible in human terms. Thus gods and heroes appear understandable to us, close to us, like us (Kapur 1993: 96–7)


ccccThe Krishna of ACK is, on the one hand, an ideal: on the other, he invites identification from the child reader/viewer by producing a sense of familiarity, and the belief that one can be like Krishna through emulation.


ccccIn another critical move, ACK blurs the boundary between history and popular culture. Shrewdly assessing the popularity of the Superman and Phantom comics in the Indian market in the late 60s and 70s, Pai understood that he needed to pitch his history in that very domain for it to be read by a large number of children. And that it had to be attractive enough to find a footing in the thriving market for comics. Yet we know that the comic, since its inception, especially since the 50s, has been viewed with suspicion by parents and educators the world over. Which leads us to the question: How did Pai adapt this medium as a vehicle for fulfilling the lofty aim of teaching ‘Indian themes and values’ to children? Perhaps his own response is illuminating:


In all fairness, it must be admitted that some comics could do damage to the impressionable minds of children. If there are bad comics, let us oppose them, as we oppose bad books or bad movies, but let us not frown on comics as a medium of education. Should we stop using a tool as useful as a comic, just because it can cause harm? A matchbox is useful—a must for every house. Do we stop using it because it can cause a fire? (Pai 1978)


ccccBut ACK is not just a comic—it combines the comic format with the lavish visual traditions of the katha and chitrakatha and scrolls, narrative modes that spoke of the grand conquests and adventures of kings and princes.


ccccOne might well ask, ‘How can something so extravagant pass for History—popular or otherwise?’ I have argued elsewhere[8] that, despite its grandeur and mythologized history, ACK remains rooted in contemporary frames of reference. The hero might be Krishna or Shivaji or Jayaprakash Narayan, but he is always emblematic of what an individual can become if only he strives to realize his fullest potential. I hope to relate this recurring trope in ACK to a competitive middle-class ethic through the discussion that follows.


ccccOne can detect a continuity between the nationalist historiography and ACK. The nationalist historian used myths and legends alongside ‘facts’ and fashioned history into a dynamic tool of politics that could challenge the proclaimed superiority of the colonizer. The nineteenth-century nationalist historian borrowed freely from the spectacular and sensational elements of pre-novelistic narrative forms in India, making it difficult to sift history (in its modern, positivist sense) from myth and legend. These pre-novelistic forms, such as dastan, kissa or tilism, usually dealt with adventure, chivalry and magic, and revolved around the achievements of a hero of extraordinary valour.


ccccPai emphasizes the instructive rather than the informative potential of history—a strategy that resonates with the idea of history fashioned by the famed Bengali writer of historical fiction from the nineteenth Century, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. Pai sets up the magic, colour and inventiveness of history-as-story against the ‘meaningless jumble of dates and names of persons and places’ (1978). As Sudipta Kaviraj has pointed out, the writing of nationalist history followed two different trajectories: the real and the imaginary. The former was marked by factual research; and the latter by a fictive imagination turning to historical subjects (111). Significantly, at a point when James Mill disqualified ‘oriental fables’ from the domain of rational history, many proponents of rationalism such as Bankim Chandra and Romesh Chandra Dutt decided to write both ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ histories. The indigenous historian inserted Puranic myths, legends and romances into the historical discourse. Following the example of Bankim Chandra (and the prominent trend of nationalist history in the nineteenth century), the boundaries of community in the ‘fictional’ history of ACK are fluid enough to mark an ‘ideal’ national community. Within this frame, an active allegiance to the memory of Padmini’s ‘sacrifice’ or Shivaji’s ‘vanquishment’ of Muslim rulers or the valour of Rana Pratap becomes the touchstone for the patriotism of every Indian, whatever region, caste or community s/he may belong to. A Rajput identity very often emerges as the pan-Indian identity and the history of Rajasthan stands for the ‘glorious past’ of India. To cite from the introduction to Rana Pratap: ‘In essence Rana Pratap’s name is synonymous to the highest order of the revolutionary patriotic spirit of India.’ (Pai 1986)


II


I would now like to address how ACK locates its stories from the past with a contemporary frame of reference.


ccccNarrating the triumph of the individual over the most trying circumstances, the ACK narratives serve as an elaborate practical guide for modern middle-class children in a competitive, modernizing world. It is difficult to miss the crucial link between ACK and Pai’s prescriptions for the development of ‘personality’—a term resonant with the modern connotations of leadership and communication skills.


ccccPai had founded the Partha Institute of Personality Development in the 1980s. Personality, in a globalizing, corporate context, connotes attributes such as conduct, appearance, enterprise and the drive to succeed. Pai sets up an interesting traffic between history and personality development. History is envisioned as a pedagogic tool to teach children how to not fail, and how to be confident citizens in a world ruled by the ethic of competitive individualism.


ccccEmerging on the eve of the 70s, ACK has its finger on the pulse of the palpable discontent brewing among the younger generation, increasingly faced with unemployment and failure and disillusioned with nationalist idols. Pai speaks of the time when he witnessed ‘educated youngsters of Bombay resorting to violence’. He writes, ‘I then met and talked to many youngsters and realised that though today’s education imparts a lot of information to young minds, it does not prepare them to face life’ (1992: viii).


ccccPartha Institute of Personality Development was advertised in various issues of ACK, addressing parents in the following manner: ‘The world is becoming increasingly competitive . . . Is your child prepared for