Silk Stalk­ings

The Economic Times - - Living Room - Reshmi Das­gupta

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

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