Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The Unending Pie

The Unending Pie

(A tribute to Anant Pai)
Shub Atpug

I always wanted to meet Uncle Pai.
He was the Unending  Pie .

In the impressible minds of fertile aptitude, ‘Endless Pie’ reigned supreme - a pie of every child’s fantasy and imagination, that speck in a child’s mind, whose work of sheer creativity on traditional folk-tales and mythologies amalgamated with real life, like conjoined Siamese twins. Millions of children were fed on the charm of his characters in the comics, with a distinct moral take-away to top it with a beauty. Generations of youngsters have been stirred
in their souls, making fruitful forays into what great lives of history are meant and reflected in the perceptive minds of current times. I could wish I was as wise as Birbal, as magnanimous as Akbar the Great, as sagely as Agastya, as naïve as Suppandi. The demons were black and the Devas were handsome. O what miracle was Ghatothkach’s leaping out of the flames! Raja Harishchandra’s story instilled in children the virtues of truthfulness, even as Shivaji rendered them wings to conquer, the touchy scruples of Panchatantra which would have a
weighty message woven the most simple way in that a 6 year old could easily comprehend. There would be Kalia the crow, the wisdom of Hiuen Tsang, a Greek tale of valour here and an Arabian tale of humour there. The caricatures were lively and lovely, and appeared to speak through, with the eyes of a famished teenager gobbling up text, wanting more. Their parents, in their thirties or forties, would check out their kids once in a while – to see what’s it that they have been reading since long (surprised by the pin-drop silence), and sure enough, the parents would themselves get engrossed and captivated along with their young offsprings, as they sit down to read along! 

The 1st Annual Indian Comic Con was held on the 19th-20th February, 2011 at the venue Dilli Haat, New Delhi, which was a conclave for comic book creators, animators and publishers.  The lifetime achievement award was to be given to Anant Pai.  However, he could not attend as he had a foot fracture, resulting in a surgery. His award was received by his longtime editor Reena, on his behalf. On 24th February, 2011, just a few days later, Anant Pai succumbed to a heart attack, in a Mumbai hospital at the age of 81 years. While living, he was endless, a legend. Death was meant for him, as if to ratify his claims to immortality, which he so deserved, just like his comics.

My first interaction with him was in the year 1988, when I was a fifth-grader. I had written a story for ‘Tinkle’, a children’s digest produced by Uncle Pai. In those days, you had to make submissions through the post mailbox, and if your manuscript made though the grind and came out good, you would be notified by a return postal mail. My story about a king and a witty commoner was selected by Uncle Pai, and the amount awarded was rupees twenty. With that award money that time, I bought myself a cool-drinks (quite rare at that time) and a few more Amar Chitra Katha titles. Uncle Pai sent me a hand-written letter, with an
autographed picture of his. It had words of encouragement to ensure I keep writing. Tinkle was a monthly magazine that time, costing rupees four. Those were the God-sent words for me as a child, when the mind was young, the pen a fickle instrument for adventure, the amorphous ideas nascent and volatile. 

Anant Pai was born in 1929, in a place called Karkala in Karnataka, whence he lost his parents at the age of two. At the age of twelve years, he came to Mumbai, and studied the science subjects, getting dual degrees from the University of Mumbai. His first attempt to create a children’s magazine (Manav, 1954) failed and hence was followed by a career as a junior executive in the Times of India books division.

It so happened that Anant Pai was watching a TV program aired on Doordarshan in 1967, in which he noticed the participants could easily answer questions pertaining to Greek mythology, but failed answering as to who was Rama’s mother in the Indian epic mythology ‘Ramayana’! He left his job and started the Amar Chitra Katha the same year, with the help of G.L Mirchandani of India Book House. It was started as an educational comics series. He had approached other publishers too, but they had rejected his idea. The giant publishers that time, like Allied Publishers and Jaico had taken no interest. Anant Pai went all by himself to don the role of writer, editor and publisher all in one. A couple of years later, in 1969, he founded the Rang Rekha Features, the first comic and cartoon syndicate in India, and started the children’s magazine in 1980. He did not know at that time that Amar Chitra Katha would sell three million comic books a year, in English and more than 20 Indian languages. In the early days of the comic, Anant Pai would himself stand at the petrol pump kiosks to vend
his titles. 

Well, to put the statistics in perspective, here’s a comic series that has already sold about a hundred million copies since its inception!

The first title, Krishna, was published in 1970, but the idea didn't take off immediately. The publishers lost over Rs 50,000 in the first two years. "For three years he worked without getting a single paisa, but Anant was patient and didn't want to shut down his business. And from the fourth year, we flourished. Money was not very important for Anant. He was happy and satisfied with people learning our culture," said Lalitha, his wife, in an interview to a leading newspaper recently.

“Story-time with Uncle Pai” was a series of audio book versions of Amar Chitra Katha, where
he would be the narrator-storyteller. His voice was one of a grand-dad telling bedtime stories to the kids and teenagers of the present generation. No wonder Anant Pai has been acclaimed as the ‘Uncle’ with whom an entire generation of comic book lovers have been in love with and been brought upon. He had a role to play when Times of India came out with Indrajaal Comics in the 1960s. He carried over his learning and experience to the door-steps of his own venture.

Anant Pai’s expertise helped to conceptualize most of the mythologies for Amar Chitra Katha, with the art-work being done by his coterie of faithful art-designers like Ram Weerkar, Dilip Kadam, Pratap Mullick, Souren Roy, Jeffrey Fowler, Madhu Powle and Chandrakant D. Rane. What clicked for this entire group on, and glued them together till date, is a matter of conjecture. Also, its interesting there have been no court-cases or law-suits filed against the stories (or Anant Pai) on the ways they have been depicted – knowing mythologies are subservient to the malady of variable interpretations. We have a fair idea how the mob gets swayed by the depictions they construe as incorrect or blasphemous – and how pelting stones at the creators’ houses, burning effigies, hurting the family members and disrupting business becomes the order of the day. All this fanatic allurements have origin in a greater or lesser degree of a political clout meant to target a distinctive religious sect for the purpose of votes. In a country where educationists fight over the profiles of freedom-fighters and their place in history books, it is indeed surprising how Amar Chitra Katha could manage a smooth-sail without a ripple of a roar.

The punch in the lines, the scripts, the illustrations were all a labour of love – those times when there was no google or Wikipedia to get ready-made hard-boiled eggs without boiling, when each story or fable had to be
meticulously worked for and worked upon,  researched, and when his team-members had day-jobs as ad agency illustrators to take care of! 
I do not think Anant Pai ever saw himself as a nation-building educationist who can bring about a change. Rather, I would use the word ‘educator’ for him, one who invented comics as a medium to delve into the past without the ordeal of getting bored, and for which reason generations of readers have become his fans. Myths and mythologies would be mined from the bottomless Oceans of the scriptures, plots would be sincere with a pint of contemporary overtures, and all loose ends of the characters’ voices would be tied up eventually as the story progressed. Remember, Anant Pai took up this immense task of his own volition, where a man sets his own target in life! It were those ages when comics was seen as a shitty sediment of the un-intellectual milieu, meant for shallow stories taking up refuge in the dungeons of idiotic narratives, and which invariably had parents barking at their kids to castigate and trash ‘those comic books’ if they ever wanted to do anything in life! 

Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle changed it all. Now there were parents who would promise their children titles of the comics if they stood first in class or got a 100 percent marks in their Mathematics examination. A sea change! As much for the charm, as for the languor. The Anu’s Club section in the monthly magazine ‘Tinkle’ was the story of a group of children hanging out with Uncle Anu — a character based on Pai himself — learning about science
in a fun manner. Well, again, Mirabai sang not for herself, but for Lord Krishna. A man is born with a purpose in life. Some people do certain things because they were born to do certain things that way and die one day, immortalizing themselves and their work. While alive, and in death, they live beyond time. Anant Pie was one such.

While Anant Pai was trained to be a chemical engineer, he spent only three months working as one — "one month plus two months' notice". Now here’s an anecdote to savour. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a statesman and a poet himself, and an Indian (and world) leader of stature, once remarked how the appeal of Anant Pai was comparable to Chacha Nehru (Jawaharlal Nehru).
Obviously, it might have implied the appeal with regards to children. But an entire Nation knows today, it was much more than that! It has shaped up and molded the minds of youngsters who are the citizens and leaders of tomorrow. It is also said that Mikhail Gorbhachev, another world-statesman and leader once called him up on the phone to understand better the meaning of a quote in Sanskrit. His marriage with his wife was a love-marriage. They had met in the Hindi class in her school at Dadar and Anant wanted her to meet his parents. As Lalitha said in an interview to a leading newspaper: “
But I was only
15 then and told him to wait or else my parents would ask me to sit at home and not let me complete my education. I was a school-going girl whereas he was a college boy. Both of us lived in Wadala and we walked down to the school together. I asked him to meet me after five years for marriage. He was determined and came back after five years and asked me, 'Do you remember me?' I too liked him and my parents granted me permission to marry Anant.” 

It is quite strange that the Uncle of the millions of children across generations should not have a kid of his own. That too, knowing the decision was one that was consciously taken. "He was very busy with work all his life. To bring out one comic, he would read hundreds of books for research so that there was no error. Sometimes, I do feel that we should have had our own children, I do miss it... but it's okay, I have been very busy along with him. We were
invited by a lot of parents all the time, people were extremely fond of him” 
said his wife Lalitha at a recent interview.

Anant Pai has edited some 439 titles of Amar Chitra Katha alone and fed generations of Indians who now know the innumerable famous and obscure characters of Indian mythology. You flip through and browse an Amar Chitra Katha or a Tinkle comics at the Comics section of the bookstore on a Sunday post-siesta afternoon, there’s a one-in-a-zillion odds for you to quit reading the comics midway. I bet you would read it till the end, on your knees!  

No drab sessions in Indian history and mythology this, its Uncle Pai.

One who would write a postcard back to each child who wrote to

Unending Pie, The.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Dear Shub Atpug,
    For a lot of information on Uncle Pai