• Indrajal and Amar Chitra Katha
• Indian Superheroes
• Other writers and characters
In India, modern comics travelled along a slightly different path than their Western counterparts. While political cartoons closely followed the appearance of their European versions, in the 19th century (for example, the Urdu magazine Oudh Punch was based on the British publication Punch, and featured political cartoons similar to the original), modern comic magazines came into wider circulation later than their European, American, or even Japanese and Chinese counterparts. And when they did, a lot of them seemed imitations of their Western counterparts, as they chose to follow existing models rather than develop their own style. As Murthy (2009) says: In Indian comics, one can see an aesthetic struggle to adapt and adopt a Western form to tell Indian stories…There is no tradition to follow.
However, while there may be no longstanding tradition of comic books in India, the sequential pictorial narrative has long been a part of Indian culture, from temple murals to textile designs (as we have seen in the previous section). But, in keeping with the larger oral tradition of the country, a lot of these visual narratives were used as aids for oral narratives (like the Phad-bachanas, explained in the previous section); written text was hardly used. Sequential art in India never really got to a point where text was used together with images on a large-scale (with rare exceptions), and as oral narratives began to die out, visual narratives also became marginalized. Thus, when comics appeared in India, in the mid-20th century, they had no native precedent to fall back on, and were essentially reprints of comics from abroad. This was true of both strips published in newspapers and magazines and full-length stories that appeared in dedicated comic magazines. Indrajal Comics, published between 1964 and 1990 by Bennett, Coleman and Co., brought to India American characters such as ‘The Phantom’, ‘Mandrake’, ‘Flash Gordon’ and ‘Rip Kirby’. But the truly indigenous Indian publications only appeared later.
Indian comics were truly born when Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) was launched by India Book House, in 1967, with the intention of making mythological and religious texts, as well as stories about historical events and figures, more accessible to children. Anant Pai, the editor of the ACK series, narrates how the idea for the series was born (Singh, 2009): In June 1967, I was in Delhi, watching a TV quiz on Doordarshan. I was saddened by the fact that none of the participants knew what was the name of Lord Ram’s mother. But, they all knew who the Greek god of Mount Olympus was! Thus, when the home-grown Indian comic magazine did make an appearance, it was as an educational and instructional medium, and was seen to be serving the interests of children. Since the content was considered instructional, and was related to mythology and history, it managed to avoid any discomfort of the sort that plagued American comics in the 1960s (where the mainstream stuck with a clean, superhero image to cater to the Comics Code Authotiry, and more realistic, darker writing and art was forced underground).
Amar Chitra Katha gave the Indian comic magazine respectability, and made the genre acceptable in the eyes of the reading public. In fact, the series was so successful that its publisher, India Book House, later launched the children’s magazine Tinkle, in the 1980s, which used the comics format to present subjects like science and history, and also to add entertainment value, all in a bid to strengthen the bond that comics had with education.
Meanwhile, the success of ACK had spawned other initiatives. Other publishing houses such as Diamond Comics, Jaico, Raj Comics and Dreamland Comics launched their own comic series with Indian characters such as Nagaraj, Mahabali Shaka, Chacha Chaudhary, and Fauladi Singh. A lot of these were superhero-style characters loosely based on familiar figures like Superman. None of them had an overtly educational objective as in the case of ACK or Tinkle; however, they were also able to achieve reasonable success with the Indian superhero characters. Artists like Aabid Surti and Toms created their own characters (Toms even published his own strip eventually) and thus rose to fame through their work.
However, as in the West, for a long time in India, comic magazines were considered ‘children’s books’ and hence their content was limited to ‘educational’ topics, and their audience was limited to young readers who, while encouraged to read comics as children, were expected to grow out of the medium and turn to more ‘serious’ literature as they grew up. While comics for slightly older readers were available in Indian bookstores, most of these were popular American or European comics with characters like Archie, Superman, Batman, Tintin and Asterix. Indian comics with Indian characters remained hard to find. Although publishing houses like Diamond Comics did have comics based on Indian characters, a lot of these were confined to the ‘pulp’ variety, and did not often meet the same level of acceptance as children’s comics like ACK or Tinkle or American comics like Superman or Batman. It was with the advent of the first Indian graphic novels around the early 2000s that the situation changed somewhat, and indigenous products were finally available (and accepted) for an adult audience.