Uncle Pai – The Father of Indian Comics

In February 1967, a young writer from Delhi was watching a television quiz show on the Doordarshan channel. He was stunned to see that the kids participating could reel off names from Greek mythology, but were unable to answer the simple question “In the Ramayana, who was Rama’s mother?” This incident led him to the creation of the evergreen Amar Chitra Katha comic book series. The writer who developed the idea was none other than Anant Pai, also known as the father of Indian Comics.

Born in 1929 at Karkala taluk in the Indian state of Karnataka, Pai had always been passionate about publishing and comics. This led him to create a children’s magazine called Manav. But this was eventually a failed attempt and ended with Pai taking on a job as a junior executive at The Times Group. His entry into the publishing conglomerate could not have come at a better time. The Times Group soon launched Indrajal Comics, well known for its publishing of comic series like Mandrake and The Phantom. It was during this time that he chanced upon the Doordarshan quiz show. He immediately quit his job at The Times Group and started work on recreating and publishing stories from Indian epics as colorfully illustrated, kid-friendly stories. Thus was born the Amar Chitra Katha series. 

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Pai took his stories to various big and small publishing houses around the country, but was rejected each and every time. No publisher could see potential in the series and its concept. Pai finally managed to convince the late G. L. Mirchandani of India Book House to give him a chance and the series was launched. Though it resulted in losses in the initial years, it went on to become a publishing milestone for the Indian comic book landscape, selling millions copies of hundreds of titles. It is said that Pai persuaded a school in Delhi to run an unconventional experiment with the Amar Chitra Katha series in an attempt to showcase its potential. Under the experiment, one group of students was taught history using the Amar Chitra Katha series and another group was taught using traditional methods. Later, when both groups were tested for history knowledge, it was found that the students who had studied using Amar Chitra Katha had learned more than those who did not! Word soon began to spread about Pai’s experiment and demand for his books rose exponentially among schools and book houses.

In 1969, Pai founded India’s first comic and cartoon syndicate – Rang Rekha Features, which soon published the Tinkle series. This was another resounding success. The theme of the series was of children's anthology of short stories, jokes and educational articles in comic-book format. The characters included Pai’s own creations like Shikari Shambu, the cowardly hunter. The Tinkle series also earned him the title of Uncle Pai among his young readers. The series had a column dedicated to Q&A with Uncle Pai and the name stuck with him after that. He was naturally delighted at the honor since he always held a special place in his heart for children. In 1989, again through this syndicate, Pai attempted the launch of another series called the Chimpu Comics. This was a compilation of his own works like Ramu and Shamu, Kapish, Little Raji and Fact Fantasy. However, it failed to repeat the success of Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle and was eventually stopped.

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The legend left us on 24 February 2011, following a massive heart attack, leaving a huge void in the artistic scene. It was perhaps a mark of his craftsmanship that he received the Lifetime Achievement Award at India’s first comic convention in 2011, just six days before he died. Google's international and India search pages honored Pai with a comic-style doodle of him on 17 September 2011, his 82nd birth anniversary.

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