Quickfix Culture for Kids: Not the Best Diet

Sandhya Rao, Senior Editor, Tulika Publishers
in the September 2000 issue of Bookbird, USA

I know many parents who covet and collect copies of Amar Chitra Katha for their children. Then they bind them. Ad promotions project Amar Chitra Katha as a series "acquainting children with India’s cultural heritage, developing the habit of good reading and supplementing school education". With some 80 million copies sold of over 400 original titles published in over 30 languages in about 30 years and still batting, it is a marketing phenomenon. But although they use the comic book format, ACK lack the subtlety and sophistication of the genre because here the medium is simply the message. 

          The series is powered by the perception that Indian children know little or nothing of their own history and culture and steps in to fill what it believes is the breach. In a newspaper article about Indian comics, journalist Sadanand Menon comments: "Buddha and Chanakya, Mirabai and Vasantasena, Sai Baba and Ambedkar, Sadhu Vaswani and Bagha Jatin, tales from the Jataka and Kathasaritasagar are all fed into the mill, dessiccated, sterilised, mixed up, tossed around, boiled, strained, capsuled and popped out sweetened and perfumed and confected in glossy kitsch for local and foreign consumption of this candy-floss world-view." 

          1. Despite its success, the series invites serious criticism. For the most part, the text comprises banal writing, poor and often wrong use of language. 2, Unedited use of age-inappropriate vocabulary and ideas, plainly chauvinistic or downright insensitive dialogue, blandly rendered narrative, de-contextualised perspective . . . How will children understand words like ‘moksha’, ‘preceptor’ or even ‘emancipation’ or statements such as ‘His young son, Baji Rao, was imbued with the martial spirit’ or ‘Chaitanya not only stemmed the tide of conversion to Islam, but also provided a new life force to Hindu religion’? Jasma of Jasma of the Odes says of her husband, "Oh god! My husband is a cripple! He’s ugly too! Alas! What have I done to deserve this?" How does a child react to this, or to "You dunce of a hunchback. Are you thick-lipped too?"? Draupadi is described as "the total woman; complex and yet feminine" . . . unintelligible to a child but loaded we know! 

          The drawings are downright crude and in poor taste; even diehard ACK fans will have to admit this. To give just one example: in an Akbar-Birbal classic teaching that mothers think their own babies are the most beautiful, there is a picture of a big-made, dark, thick-lipped, naked baby to show that the child is from a lower caste, is poor, is ugly and not desirable. With seemingly little effort towards historical / social / political detail much less mood, the implications are all too obvious; such examples abound. 

Stereotypical, gender biased and full of preconceived notions: these would well describe this series that reveals a definite upper class attitude that cannot be condoned. The light and shade, the multilayered philosophical and other connotations of India’s rich classical heritage, the magic and the variety are all honed down to a series of flat retellings devoid of nuances. As for humour, they haven’t heard the word! 

          In the world of the Amar Chitra Kathas, physical beauty is paramount, anything else is ugly therefore wicked. Ideas of revenge, killing the enemy, waging war, acquiring one’s desires by fair means or foul . . . all these surely merit more careful contextualising so that children will at least begin to approximate their real meaning. And what can you say about the retelling of the famous Sanskrit plays, delighting in poetry and sensuality? Can they be retold? Are they for children at all? 

          The worst blow, however, is that Amar Chitra Kathas make the readers, young and old, feel they know it all, they ‘have’ culture. But without going to original texts or at least more worthy sources, all we are left with are narrow domestic walls. Culture comes from substance not shadow.