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Amar Chitra Katha & The Politics of Race?

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on February 27, 2011 No Comment

The “father of Indian comics,” Anant Pai, creator of the fabled Amar Chitra Katha (अमर चित्र कथा) comic books that generations of Indian children were reared on, passed away last Thursday. In my dusty library in India, I had stacks and stacks of ACK comics. In fact, some of my most memorable childhood moments revolved around reading some of its classic texts like the Panchatantra, Ramayana, and the stories of Birbal. These comic books pretty much ruled the market when I was growing up: their popularity was bolstered by the fact that, for many of us, these were narratives we were already being socialized into at a young stage; plus, foreign comic books were harder to come by as had to be imported, and they were “priced out” for most people. Even today, one can not step into a book store in India without encountering the familiar ACK comic books; their popularity remains undiminished, reportedly selling 3 million copies annually (to date, more than 100 million books have been sold).

The comic series, like any wildly popular cultural phenomenon, is not without its detractors. Ms. Tara Gupta enumerated a few: some stories weave in fact with fantasy, and what we get ultimately is some kind of fuzzy in-betweenness; and another problem lies in

the pictorial depiction of characters. Women in the series are blessed with hourglass figures and are dressed in diaphanous clothing. Male characters have a north-Indian look. While this may not seem problematic on the surface, the pictures create certain images of heroes, villains and women in the minds of children and may perpetuate stereotypes.”

This an interesting comment on so many levels. Ms. Gupta seems to be saying that such stereotypical representations can influence children, but she’s simulatenously pushing stereotypes herself: why “blessed” with hourglass figures? What does a “north-Indian” look mean? Isn’t saying that just perpetuating a particular stereotype as well?

My friend Daisy‘s Twitter feed linked to a very provocative piece entitled Uncle Pai had his prejudices, which discusses-what else-Mr. Pai’s “prejudices,” manifested in the ACK series. Money quote from the piece written by Mr. Amberish K. Diwanji (Daily News & Analysis):

ACK comic books are casteist, racist, and not very subtly propagate Hindu superiority over other religions (particularly Islam) and Brahmin superiority over other castes.

And not just that, claims that ACK “should rank among the most politically incorrect comic books available today.” There are too many claims to dissect, but among the few that jump out:

[On “the racism” of ACK:] The Mahabharata records that Draupadi was a dark-skinned person; she is shown to be pale blue (why can’t she be shown dark-skinned like most of us Indians are anyway?). Krishna, a name that literally means black, is shown as dark blue, never dark brown or savla (the colour of most Indians).

So, Draupadi’s “blueness” means ACK is racist? I’m sorry, but that argument sounds, to put it mildly, a little unconvincing. It’s also interesting that in a piece calling someone else racist, he seems quite comfortable making broad race-based statements: most Indians are dark-skinned? Actually, Indians come in many different shades-we vary widely in shades even within my own Bengali family. And as for the second part of that statement, that Krishna is shown as dark blue? As my mother tells me, her prayers to Krishna always begins with an invocation starting “nilotpala dala syamam,” [“the Lord’s form is beautifully manifest with the hue of dark blue lotus petals”] which is supposed to indicate a dark blue hue. Mr. Diwanji might also do an image search, where Krishna will reveal himself in print-almost everywhere in blue (and I doubt one can make a case that those representations are inspired by ACK).

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Another attack is focused on the artistic representation of Adi Shankaracharya:

The comic of Adi Shankaracharya, who was a Namboodiripad Brahmin, shows Adi Shankaracharya as fair-skinned even as fellow Namboodiripads are shown as dark skinned. Adi Shankaracharya hailed from Kerala. How could he have had the skin tone of a Kashmiri? Similarly, Dr Ambedkar is always shown fairer compared to his followers.

It is hard to take a critic seriously when he is guilty of the same kind of “racism” that he accuses Pai of. So, people from Kerala are all supposed to be dark-skinned? And couldn’t have a “skin tone of a Kashmiri”? I have been to Kerala, and count some good folks from Kerala in my circle of acquaintances, and I think the kind of generalizations he makes are not merely ridiculous, but irresponsible. How ironic that he makes the claim that Pai is racist based on the “fact” that “all people from Kerala” are “dark-skinned,” and all Kashmiris are fair? And this section is followed by: “Such bipolar depictions only feed existing prejudices of the so-called upper caste as fair versus the so-called lower castes as dark; of fair north Indians versus darker south Indians (the irony is that Pai is a south Indian).” It would be funny if it wasn’t sad that the writer was feeding the same prejudices with his own words.

Mr. Diwanji brings up Tintin as another comic series that faced criticism for “fostering prejudices” (I have earlier noted this here). Enid Blytons books-which also influenced a generation of Indian readers, including my own-were no longer recommended, he reminds us, because of “her subtle racism.” Then, finally, he finds some redemptive value in a series he labels “casteist, racist, and not very subtly propagate Hindu superiority over other religions (particularly Islam) and Brahmin superiority over other castes”:

The comics of Pai, may his soul rest in peace, are worthy of not just being preserved, but of being reprinted for future generations. But there is no doubt that future editors have their work cut out in terms of doing away with the comics’ prejudices. Perhaps they could start with the first ACK comic, titled Krishna. Let’s just draw him black!

Let’s not. I like him blue.

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