It must have been a tough uphill journey to bring Indian mythology and history to children with such accuracy. Tell us something about how this journey began, your sense of commitment to this cause and your expectations?
I must confess that when I embarked upon this venture, I had no anxiety and no high ambitions. It looked like a simple task which I was going to do- ‘simply create' comics for children through which my little readers would get to read stories from Indian mythology in a fun way. I did not know what it would take. But when the work began, I realized that the task was mammoth!
More than anything, just digging the surface opened a whole new world for me and I got completely engrossed. Yes, it was tough but intellectually satisfying. So, from ‘just a simple task' it became a mission- ‘a route to the roots.'
How did this idea of creating Amar Chitra Katha come to mind? Was it your own brainchild?
I have great reverence for India's heritage and culture and I am deeply rooted in it's rich tradition. Once while working for The Times of India, I had the opportunity to witness a quiz contest on Doordarshan. There I saw that the participants could answer questions on Greek mythology but could not tell the name of Lord Ram's mother. I was baffled and it is then that the seed was sown. Now my aim was to acquaint Indian children with their heritage.
Yes, this was totally my idea. But the name Amar Chitra Katha came up in a discussion with writer B R Bhagat.
Was it tough to sell this idea or were you fortunate to find someone easily, who believed in you?
It was very tough to find a publisher. I went to several publishers but didn't find any takers. Finally, Mr Mirchandani, the proprietor of IBH (India Book House) understood my mission and offered me a small contract in early 1967. I immediately resigned from The Times of India and grabbed the opportunity.
What kinds of challenges did you face in this pursuit?
Many. I can't even begin. Our main challenge was to strike a balance between scholarly research, educational values, honest depiction of the past, national integration and targeting and marketing.
What were the sources from which you researched these stories?
My team and I read the original versions and the Hindi translations of Indian scriptures and mythological texts issued by Gita Press, Gorakhpur- a leading religious books publisher founded in 1923.
Then I read the Vedas and original versions of Valmiki Ramayana, Tulsida's Ram- Charit Manas, Krittivas Ramayan- the Bengali Ramayana written by Krittivas and Kambaramayanam- the Tamil version of Ramayana written by the Tamil poet, Kambar.
How long did it take on an average, to research the stories and come up with a short yet precise version of any story?
In case of mythology there are many versions of the same story. Gradually, when I became aware of this reality, I realized I had a huge responsibility. Because of our growing knowledge in this we field, I found that we had become even more meticulous.
Historical stories, biographies and mythology took several months of research. For example, the Laxman Rekha episode is not there in either Valmiki Ramayan or Ram-charit Manas. This episode was the invention of Krittivas! We did a lot of reading and research to decide whether to include it in the Amar Chitra Katha version.
In the story of Vivekanand, his address to the Parliament of Religions was readily available, but when we got down to doing the illustration of the time when he rose from his seat to speak, we realized that we did not know who was sitting to his left or to his right. We could not have put illustrations of just random people there. Now began the challenging of finding out exactly who he was sitting beside at that time and in what order were they seated.
How did you put together a team for this ambitious project? This was by far, the first of its kind in India.
It wasn't easy. We didn't have many writers for children's book at that time. I invited scripts, but since the writers had never written for comics, their submissions were mediocre. So I rewrote most of the scripts myself. Kamla Chandrakant was the first one to join and she wrote a few scripts. Subbarao came next. Since I needed many many scripts, soon we built a network of freelance script writers who wrote under my guidance.
Getting illustrators was a tougher challenge, partly because at that time there was no training for illustrators and artists for comic strips available in india. I made trips to the advertising agencies and met several people but found that most of the few artists that were there specialized in graphic and commercial art. Later, I met Ram, who impressed me with his illustrations. Ram Waeerkar was a young and enthusiastic cartoonist whom I had dismissed on knowing that he was a cartoonist. But he remained steadfast and created a series of sketches so beautiful, that I immediately offered him the job.
Which was a first Amar Chitra Katha comic? Was it a runaway success as Amar Chitra Kathas have known to be?
“Krishna” was the first, to be published in 1969- 70. It was followed by Shakuntala. We had put in great effort in the first book and were quite disheartened that sales did not pick up at all. We sold less than 20,000 copies in the first three years of its publishing. But we continued putting in consistent efforts. Gradually sales went up in the late 1970s. “Krishna” was reprinted about 75 times in several languages and have sold over a million copies to date.
What initiated the idea of Tinkle magazine for children?
Dr Pradip Chunder, the then Minister of Education mentioned once that 65% of the children drop out of school before completing Grade 4. I thought it cannot be just a matter of affordability or low incomes. We surely have not been able to make education fun for children.
So, I conceived Tinkle. In Tinkle we expose children to facts of science and natural history in illustrated story form. I also solicit contributions from children.
“Tinkle” sounds like a slight name for serious themes like Science, Math or Natural History. Why not a name that would suggest what's inside?
'Aha! A good question. Tinkle rings a bell in the mind. Doesn't it?
That apart, the real story behind this is interesting. Every time I and my team would sit down to discuss the magazine or to think of a name for it, the phone would tinkle ! And so came the name. It had a good start in 1980 and is still the most popular children's magazine in India.
I have seen that children are really crazy about Tinkle. Aarit, (my 13 year old son) who has read most of the best children's literature in the world, is still hungry for Tinkle. What do you think is it's unique quality that tickles children and adults as well?
Children are tired of being ‘told' and ‘advised'. Tinkle magazine does not preach.
We depict a true complete child with all his weaknesses and brightness. We depict their lives, their feelings and their thoughts as real as can be. Children feel amused to see their own image in the characters of Tinkle and relate to them effortlessly. Moreover, I would invite children's scripts and ideas for it and would receive numerous letters from children every month with ideas, stories and dialogues too and we would include many of their works and thoughts in the magazine.
How does it feel to called the Father of Indian comics?
It was Debashish Mukherji who gave me this name in an article published in Bharat Jyoti- the Sunday Edition of Free Press Journal.
I felt humbled and honored at the same time. It was a compliment which I was pleased to receive.
They say, behind every successful man, there's a woman. You have had stupendous success. How true does this hold in your case?
I am what I am because of Lalitha. She has inspired me, led me, looked after me and has given me her unconditional support. She is the guiding light of my life.
What message does the father of Indian comics have for our children and their parents?
In life one can achieve a lot by recognizing oneself and feeing good about who one is and what he or she is capable of. Self esteem is the most important value in life. A child with self esteem learns to give, help and love. Develop self esteem in yourself and in others. Doing this will give peace and contentment to the mind. And of course, read more and more. Nothing builds a better person than a good reading time does.