The title of Chandra’s book seems to assume no more credit than that of reviewing the production, distribution and consumption of Amar Chitra Katha during a period of 40 years, but it does much more than that. Secondary work on popular culture has often been discredited for merely encompassing such surveys because it is untheorized and eclectic, and supposedly unable to make connections between the literary text and the social context. Since there is hardly any cataloguing or database of writing for children in India, even a survey would be very useful.
The book, to begin with, is a foray into the market dynamics of a very popular comic book series within a cluster of middle class readers across a pan-Indian spectrum. It is a crucial entry point into the study of a significant subdivision within the culture industry within a specific period and milieu that incorporates publishers, writers, illustrators and readers.
In India, the pre-globalization ethos apropos the ostensibly sanitized world of books was inimical to and distrustful of issues about their marketability. Yet even ‘serious’ literature’ that is considered ‘art’ and not ‘commodity’ is not so impervious to markets, consumption patterns and economic profit as to warrant assessment only in terms of what Pierre Bordieu calls ‘symbolic’ profit. Chandra tries to reconfigure the available facts and figures about the writing, showcasing and circulation of ACKs, tracing the transition it has undergone from the residual nationalist euphoria and the state-endorsed socialist culture of the Nehruvian era to the post-liberalized economy since the late eighties. In recuperating significant trends and trajectories, however, she is silent on the impact of the repressive publishing policies of the Emergency, if any, on ACKs, although how the ideological propaganda of its right wing backlash affects its market occupies the corpus of her thesis. Education, and thereby reading matter for children, says Krishna Kumar, is vulnerable to political manouevres and games as well as the economic strategies of specific political climates. ACK, therefore, did not remain insulated against state institutions, political parties, the educational apparatus and varying financial and industrial interests.
Chandra investigates the publisher Anant Pai’s marketing strategies, including its production process and its distribution network. Two things that worked concurrently considerably altered the market value of ACK. From the 70s to the 90s, the attrition of Nehruvian socialist ideals and initiation of an alternate liberalized economy facilitated the repackaging of old issues for a more affluent market in the form of CDs, videos, radio programmes, TV serials and films. Although advertising tried to boost sales by advocating things like ‘read it to enhance your Sunday viewing’ of the serial Mahabharat on Doordarshan, the boom of the media resulted in discernible losses for the book version. Neither electronic entertainment nor appropriation by NRI enterprise that tried to virtually dispense with the comic book, however, eventually succeeded in substantially reducing its clientele of juvenile bibliophiles because ACK never sold well in any but the comic form. Constituents of the new media colluded in representing the power of the elite classes as both legitimate and natural. Concurrently, a more lucrative market comprising of NRI Hindu patrons replaced a diffuse secular market. This is where Chandra’s analysis of the ACK market intersects with her academic commitment to the subject. Although her mapping of the terrain of ACKs, at one level, proffers theoretically undemanding formulations for the common reader, it also initiates a more complex inquiry around its socio-economic matrix and its single-minded political programme to enable more in-depth research.
Chandra has scanned with an insightful lens the predominant ideological predilection and bias of ACK that caters largely to the majority of its male, middle class, Hindu, ‘educated’ upper caste readership. The common thread underlying each comic are the archetypes that are indices of unchanging biases apropos all institutionalized aspects of civic life—gender, class, caste, politics, religion, the family and education. Chandra’s analysis is uncompromisingly focused on exposing the reactionary ideology disseminated by ACKs, demonizing women, tribals, Muslims and servants. Although at times oversimplifying the ideological stance of the series, she is able to sustain the readers’ interest, itemizing and buttressing her argument by means of the greatest expressive resource in the book, the illustrations. Subsuming her reading of popular children’s literature within a serious engagement with critical theory facilitates a constructive relationship between the two. She infers almost unequivocally, from studying the illustrations, over a protracted period, of a number of illustrators like Ram Waerkar, Pratap Mullick, Souren Roy, Yusuf Lien and Dilip Kadam, that most of their work end up endorsing divides between classes, castes and genders. Of course, there are nuanced biases in favour of whichever caste, state or religion the illustrators belong to. The stories and legends are already there—a slight slant in the illustration can denigrate tribals, Muslims, servants etc. and sway the unformed minds of child readers to hate or live in fear of these collectivities. Typically, Asura and Danava are equated to present day tribals or shudras and Ravana is portrayed with mongoloid or negroid features where all the other characters are Dravidianized. Interestingly enough, despite seeming to lionize Kshatriyas and the Aryans, there is an underlying Southwestern bias in ACK because the mastermind behind them is Anant Pai, a Saraswat Gowda Brahman.
Chandra’s generalizations about the 64 women-centric ACKs that are often at variance with one another are that a) women in ACKs inhabit the depoliticized arena of myth, and are generally available for consumption in a world where polygamy is unquestioned, 2) women often have considerable visibility, voice and agency, 3) the vocabulary around women is uniformly and blatantly sexist, 4) the suffering victim and empowered agent are sometimes ingrained within the same woman character, 5) women are either deified, eroticized or brutalized, and 6) women, even bellicose queens, are primarily mothers and so on. The reason for these seemingly reductive and contradictory formulae is her elaboration of 5 types of representation of women in ACK—the mythological, the Classical romantic, folk heroines, freedom fighters and ‘othered’ heroines like she-demons and prostitutes.
Contravening the official version of history in the Constitution, ACK is suspicious of all Muslims because of its construal that they are outsiders who colonized medieval India. The comic on Rash Behari Bose, for instance, is irreverent about a villainous teacher who is represented as a Muslim without any factual basis. Further, courtesans in Muslim as opposed to Hindu royal courts are titillatingly underdressed, highlighting Hindu decorum versus Muslim licentiousness. All this reinforces a seamless narrative of a glorious Hindu past interrupted by the Muslim interregnum. AKC’s effort to consolidate a culturally monolithic Hindu India was largely due to the social pressures and exigencies of the domain of its dissemination.
Despite her confession, in an autobiographical afterword, of falling prey to the seductive charm of ACKs, Chandra explains that she still eluded getting co-opted into communalism or casteism. Her critique, in fact, is most scathing apropos ACK’s complicity with the RSS Hindutva brigade that patronized it post-1980s. Chandra challenges the consecration of ACK as a parallel body of historical knowledge. She contends that it has conflated history and myth, thus ironically ‘mythifying’ history and ‘historicising’ myth.
Nivedita Sen is Associate Professor, Department of English in Hans Raj College, University of Delhi and works on children’s literature.