The Atlantic Monthly, a respected journalistic institution in the United States, has just published an article on an equally well-regarded, if far more popular and beloved, media phenomenon in India, the Amar Chitra Katha comic series. The author of this essay recounts both his happy childhood memories reading some Amar Chitra Katha titles while growing up in America, and also his seemingly well-informed angst upon realizing that “…since its debut in 1967, ACK has also helped supply impressionable generations of middle-class children a vision of “immortal” Indian identity wedded to prejudiced norms … (and) constructed a legendary past for India by tying masculinity, Hinduism, fair skin, and high caste to authority, excellence, and virtue.”
This is not the first time this complaint has been made against the Amar Chitra Katha series, and I believe there are at least two academic books on the subject. While there is much that one might debate about the narratives and their depiction of “authority, excellence and virtue,” I will for the moment focus on the evidence, or lack thereof, for some of the very broad claims made by the author about the diversity of representations in the series.
To begin with, the author claims that the series “often erased non-Hindu subjects from India’s historic and religious fabric (and) … reinforced many of the most problematic tenets of Hindu nationalism … such as (the present government’s alleged) policies and rhetoric targeting religious minorities and lower castes.”
I will put aside the second part of this conspiracy theory for a moment (for one thing, the now-ruling Bharatiya Janata Party did not even exist in 1969 when the Amar Chitra Series began, and even its predecessors were a marginal political presence then, nor is the dominant message of the series “targeting religious minorities and lower castes” by any leap of the imagination). An easily verifiable issue here is whether the Amar Chitra Katha series, as a whole, really did “erase non-Hindu subjects” such as Muslim, Sikh, Jain, and Buddhist heroes and legends, and elevate “masculinity” by denying female agency, identity, and accomplishment.
A study of all the titles published in the Amar Chitra Katha series from 1969 to 2014 (not including compilations and special issues), reveals the facts quite plainly. There are a total of 455 titles listed (the series was a fortnightly for the first two decades, and far more intermittent since). Out of these 455 titles, at least 65 titles have the name of a woman in them (it should also be noted that 65 titles having female names in the title doesn’t imply that the rest have male names; many have names of places, folktales and so on). Some of them are historical figures (and out of these historical figures, many of whom are Hindu queens and warriors, at least four women are Sikh, and two are Muslim), and others are goddesses, saints, or fictional characters, but most often shown positively as role-models of courage and integrity). This picture is quite consistent with the picture we grew up with of Amar Chitra Katha as the first place where we discovered depictions of female warriors and rulers in the media (considering that our only other comic book alternative in 1970s and 1980s India was the Archie series with its male-approval-seeking Betty and male-adoration-obsessed Veronica). Rani of Jhansi, Rani Abbakka, and the saintly Avvaiyyaar were all far more inspiring and empowering than Riverdale patriarchy.
As for religious and “ethnic diversity,” at least 17 Amar Chitra Katha titles are devoted to Muslims (including a distinct title, conceived benignly and elegantly, for Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and Dara Shukoh and Aurangzeb). None of the Muslim heroes are demonized (though in many other history titles, Muslims are indeed the antagonists, as was the case sometimes in history). And quite to the contrary, some highly controversial Muslim rulers like Tipu Sultan are actually thoroughly white-washed and presented as benign secular figures with not a shred of supremacism or intolerance in their actions (read more on Tipu Sultan here).
There are also 15 titles devoted to Sikh gurus and heroes, and at least 10 titles that pertain to Buddhist, Jain, and Zoroastrian history and culture. In terms of regional diversity, I counted at least 17 titles pertaining to the East and Northeastern parts of India, and 37 titles pertaining to people, places, or characters from South India (often described as “Dravidian” in some academic circles in a genuflection to colonial-era academic rigor).
It is unfortunate that reality, which is quite easily verifiable, is subject to such extreme distortions and omissions simply to fit some preconceived theory about Hindu nationalism and the sinister time-travelling comic book conspiracy behind it to oppress women, Muslims, and certain caste communities. While there is indeed much that one can constructively criticize about any cultural text including the beloved Amar Chitra Katha (for one thing, as a Telugu speaker myself I never quite got over their insouciant use of “Raman” for our popular “Tenali Ramakrishna”), we cannot ignore the fact that the ACK titles were for many of us living in a pre-digital, pre-internet, and even pre-telephony world, our first introduction to the idea of India as a diverse, pluralistic, and interdependent nation. We admired, however fictional it might have been, the harmony and wit of Akbar’s court and his friendship with Birbal (seven titles I believe), and felt a deep resonance between the messages of Kabir, Mirabai, and others and our own modern, egalitarian sensibilities. We learned in Amar Chitra Katha most of all, that casteism was bad, and that the best of our saints had worked hard to change its prevalence (I count 13 titles that are directly about subaltern figures).
Finally, we should also note another dimension of diversity in the ACK series that current theories and paradigms fail to notice. There are at least 30 titles pertaining to the Jataka Tales and other traditional stories which focus on animals, birds, and nature tales. In an age overrun with the medieval superstition that nonhuman lives feel no pain and are put on earth for human exploitation by some all-knowing, intolerant, and (selected) human preferring God, we were fortunate to rediscover the deep respect our folklore and our god and goddess stories had for nature and animal life. I believe that there is much more that we can learn from observing Amar Chitra Katha objectively than what the Atlantic has just gone and done with itself. There really is an urgent need for an introspection on privilege, methods and journalistic standards when it comes to American writing on Indian culture these days. It hasn’t improved much at all despite the rise of second and even third generation South Asian Americans into its hallowed halls apparently.