Whose immortal picture stories?: Amar Chitra Katha and the construction of Indian identities

McLain, Karline Marie
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Since it was first founded by Anant Pai in 1967, the Amar Chitra Katha comic book series has dominated the flourishing comic book market in India, selling over 440 titles and more than 86 million issues. Amar Chitra Katha means “immortal picture stories,” and as the name suggests, these comics feature India’s own immortal heroes – its mythological gods and historical leaders – as their protagonists. The first comics in the series were mythological in nature, recasting classical Sanskrit narratives of Hindu deities like Krishna, Ram, and Hanuman in the comic book format. Over the years, the series has expanded to include issues on a variety of other subjects: celebrated Hindu kings such as Shivaji and Rana Pratap; medieval bhakti poets like Tulsidas; modern Hindu sages like Swami Vivekananda; animal fables from the Pa§catantra; and colonial-era freedom fighters including Subhas Chandra Bose and Lokamanya Tilak. Through content analysis alone, it is easy to conclude that the Amar Chitra Katha comic book series conveys a hegemonic conception of “Indianness” to its readers, one that entails the marginalization of Muslims and other religious and cultural “outsiders” from the national past, the vii recasting of women in so-called “traditional” roles, and the privileging of middle-class Hindu culture. Yet the question “Whose immortal picture stories?” – whose stories do these comic books tell? – is not really this easy to answer. Hegemonic forms are always in flux: dominant ideologies do not just exist passively, but are instead actively created and recreated amidst ongoing debate. Comic books, as a form of public culture that reaches into the everyday lives of millions of middle-class Indian children, are a crucial site for ongoing debate about what it means to be Indian. In this study I examine not only how such hegemonic discourses of religion, gender, and nation have been created over time, but also the ways in which they are supported or contested in both the production and consumption of this genre of popular visual culture.