A recent meeting with a person working for the Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) series of animated stories–once called comics and now often called graphic novels–elicited the happy news that these are still selling like hotcakes:1.5 million copies a year! With the market crowded with what is (very) loosely called historical fiction, it is heartening that this engaging source of history and lore for kids is still going strong.
A brief foray into Internet book sites revealedthatthemostpopulartitlesinACK are (in no particular order): Krishna, Meerabai,Shivaji,Valmiki’sRamayana, Ganesha, Shakuntala, Prithviraj Chauhan,RaniofJhansi,BirbaltheWise and The Brahmin and the Goat. In other words, a rather catholic mix of heroes, scholars and gods, indicating an almost equal interest in history and lore.
It is astonishing that given the sheer variety of fables, mythology and historical tales that India has accumulated in its multi-millennial journey, so many childrenheregrowupwithoutreadingabout mostofthem,whetherintheformofACK comicsorstraightforwardprintversions. Part of that can be explained by parental misgivings about the “message” being conveyed by these old fashioned stories.
Of course there are stereotypes in characterisation, but then western fairytales with their blonde princesses are also equally so and yet they are not shunned. By telling the bare bones of a story in an engaging manner these books actually kindle interest about bygone eras and possibly raise questions in young minds about the past–which should ideally be addressed by their parents and teachers.
Non-resident Indian parents who are worried about their progeny growing up not knowing about India are the most enthusiastic buyers of ACK compendiums. They are also probably better informed about India’s past than India’s present. But that apart, western systems encourage individual exploration, so after reading the ACK version of stories, kids there often add to their knowledge from other sources.
Sadly,anynascentinterestinthisgenre in India is asphyxiated by the pressures of a national school curriculum that is sadlyignorantaboutthepotentialofstoking curiosity about our nation’s past. In the mad pursuit of “science”, teachers deliberately or otherwise, have been downplaying the liberal arts–including history—leading to a deracinated generation prone to misconceptions.
All this has inevitably led to a profound disinterestborderingoncontemptforthe past and its contemporary associations. While looking back is not a good idea as a guiding principle, being ignorant of the paths already traversed – and the mistakes made by those treading them before us – not only condemns us to repeating history but also wasting a lot of time, energy and emotion to boot. Had morepeoplebeenencouragedtoreadACK comicsintheirchildhood,atleastinadditiontotheirbadlywritten–andoftenideologically distorted – history textbooks, many controversies may have never happened at all. Like the one over turning Gurgaon into Gurugram. Rajiv Gandhiprobablynever readACK’sEklavyaeither,otherwisehemay nothavenamedthenationalawardforsportscoachesafterhim.
TavleenSingh,atthelaunchofherbook India’s Broken Tryst earlier this week, was predictably asked about her take on the nationalism debate and perceived attempts to “saffronise” history. She very sensibly said that while she does not condone ultra-nationalism of the variety being espoused by a very vocal if miniscule lobby, she also wished that more people would read up on India’s ancient history.
This dubbing of anything related to India’s ancient past as “saffronisation” is a result of profound ignorance and resultant mistrust of history. Ironically, this lack of awareness in crucial circles alsogivesdistorters–of saffronandother hues–the licence to conveniently twist facts to suit their ends, without fear of being contradicted knowledgeably. ACK comics would be a good beginning.
In the mad pursuit of “science”, teachers have been downplaying the liberal arts–including history—leading to a deracinated generation