Should we reinterpret classic Indian graphic novels or comic books?

01/07/2018 11:20 am ET
Versions of the Ganesha head in a popular tourist shopping district of New Delhi, India.
(c) Nandita Godbole, 2015
Versions of the Ganesha head in a popular tourist shopping district of New Delhi, India.

Last night we watched an interesting documentary on Sufism, Rumi, its place in Islam and the interpretations across regions and among religious clerics. This morning, I found an essay in The Atlantic, that critiqued a classic set of comics – ones that I grew up with, as did my husband, and we own several sets for our child. That essay made me angry.

In a nutshell, the author first professes his love for the comic series. He then proceeds to argue that ‘Amar Chitra Katha’ pushes Hindu ideologies more than others, and suggests that the creator of those sustained class and religious prejudices.

My take is: sometimes stories need to be treated as stories, and not villainized in the context of 'today', just because we see the world differently.

When writers critique older comics and storytelling methods, they forget: these were revolutionary on the scene of storytelling, graphic novels, and of communicating old classics that would otherwise remain hidden and inaccessible because of their complexity. The author of the essay talks about understanding Indian culture based in the US, surrounded by people who did not look like him. Fair. But, that also means that the author’s parents chose to do so, even if it was by making those books accessible.

In the 1970s, India had so many forms of literature coming in from other countries especially given its ties to the former Soviet Union, and the vestiges of British literature, that this comic series and others like it created a sense of pride in India’s own culture, history, and stories. Many books pushed the Christian agenda, alongside pride in British gentry, class distinctions, etc. Catholic schools were common (and I attended one myself) but never saw color or religious differences, because that was not the focus of our learning.

Children grow up to ideologies based on what is practiced at home, taught in their places of worship, and learn heavily from what their trusted grown-ups, mentors and teachers teach and practice, and not what the comic books portray.

For instance, the 'evil' people in Ramayana were from a region called 'Lanka', typically known for its dark-skinned residents, though not all are. The stereotypes reinforced are for geography and not moral character, at least in this case. It is a story about good and evil. That is all. If everyone looks the same in a story when a child cannot decipher or read yet, how are they to understand differences? It is the grown-ups who then reinforce it by practicing it, not the child who is merely trying to be entertained, read a story, or escape into a world governed by good and evil, fantasy, and triumph.

Children don’t see skin color until it is pointed out to them, by other children or by other adults.

Just because the ancient classics are not illustrated does not mean prejudices were absent then. You don't alter it because of what the new author thinks it should be or push your own ideology under someone else’s name.

Prejudices in the Indian media have long existed outside of the comic book culture. No one critiques the movies, song sequences, or the directors who make them, including the Mahabharat and Ramayan series that had a cult-like following in the 1990s. Then why pick on something that made classic stories accessible to children? If one hates the classics, I urge them to rewrite them under their own name, and not be armchair critics, and choose to create needless animosity.

I close with this idea. The ‘divine’ concepts of religion, one-ness or closeness to God of any religious denomination (or greater power), the concepts of purity of spirit and moral character, or even the love of ones’ fellow brethren do not exist in rituals, in interpretations, in religious texts, or in religious discourse and least of all in media. It exists in one’s heart and soul. The heart and soul are mirrors, they are the direct reflection of the power of good. It only takes a minute to find it, to allow the good to reflect onto others, shine the light, and share the love.

#religion #sunday #comic #amarchitrakatha #india

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