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Uncle Pai: India’s Beloved Story-Teller

Uncle Pai: India’s Beloved Story-Teller

In 1967, Anant Pai was taking a stroll on the streets of Delhi when something happened that would change the course of his life. A crowd had assembled outside a music store to watch a quiz contest for students on television being aired on Doordarshan. Much to his shock and dismay, Pai noticed that while a contestant was able to easily answer a question on Greek mythology, he could not name the mother of Lord Ram. Something had to be done to rescue India’s children from cultural ignorance!

By then, Pai had worked with the books divisions of The Times of India and then headed their comics division in Bombay. So when he had his epiphany on the streets of Delhi, he already had six years’ experience in publishing. Pai resigned from The Times of India and embarked on a journey that would touch the lives of millions of children across India.

In 1967, Pai launched Amar Chitra Katha (ACK), India’s most successful comic book series. These comics retold traditional Indian tales from mythology, history, legend and folk culture. It wasn’t long before ACK developed a cult following. For children in India, ACK was almost a religion.

But who was Anant Pai and how did he transform into ‘Uncle Pai’? In his biography, Uncle Pai: The Man Behind The Iconic Amar Chitra Katha (2021), Rajessh M Iyer brings to life India’s most beloved story-teller and his incredible journey.

In an edited excerpt from the book, find out how Pai’s other iconic comic-book series, Tinkle, a magazine for children, took shape.

Photo of Anant Pai

While Pai was working on trying to better the product and increase his interactions with readers across the country, the publishers had other ideas. They thought of scaling up the operation. An ambitious proposal was to come out with one title every week, up from once every fortnight. From an external perspective, it seemed like a modest and achievable target. But the ground realities sang a different tune. The proposal not only meant involving another team, but there was also the fear of dilution of content. This, to come when ACK was gaining critical appreciation, could be an erroneous move, if not akin to committing hara-kiri.

Pai rejected it. His team had its hands full and he wouldn’t ever compromise on quality just for the sake of quantity. He knew that the maximum they could stretch was a few additional titles, which they did try later in 1981 when they published twenty-seven titles.

By then, Pai’s decision also denoted the irrevocable last word. There was no opposition, though the management felt that since they had access to such a large readership, they should think about something to give to the young readers other than just two ACK titles a month. Thus was born the idea of a periodical.

It was Subba Rao who was not only one of the senior-most members in the editorial team but also one whose words Pai considered seriously, who came up with this idea again. He was the one who had earlier mooted this idea, albeit not forcefully.

. . .

The editorial team had, over the months, developed a prototype for the magazine. Unlike the format of a singular story or multiple stories based on a single character that Amar Chitra Katha followed, the idea behind the magazine was to include stories based on multiple characters with trivia, puzzles, and contests thrown in. Even when they had discussed the project earlier, they had accepted that it ought to be a magazine meant predominantly for children, though not restricted to them. College-going youths and even elders in the family should be able to enjoy it. It was too huge a promise.

Though the idea was stowed away and kept on the back burner, Rao kept bringing it up with both Pai and the management. Since both of them interacted every day, Pai soon started seeing merit in the project. Before long, Pai accepted the offer and declared they could proceed further, provided the editorial team assumed complete responsibility that this new venture wouldn’t affect the functioning of the work already on their desks.

Pai was amused at the all-round excitement and ready acceptance of his condition. Since the editorial team—comprising chiefly of Subba Rao, Kamala Chandrakant, and Luis Fernandes—had been working on the project, they had outlines, stories, and sample illustrations ready. Pai offered his suggestions and with only a few cuts and additions, the first issue was ready to roll. But what the finished product did not possess so far was a name.

Cover of the Tinkle Magazine | Wikimedia Commons

Christening Of Tinkle

The name became a bit of an issue. Each one in the team came up with names, but Pai rejected all of them. Even he wasn’t able to whip up one. He insisted on a “musical name”, a brief that frankly wasn’t of much help. One day, while they were discussing editorial matters, Rao was constantly getting disturbed by their editorial assistant telling him that someone was inquiring after him over the phone. A little irritated, Rao instructed the assistant to tell the person to give him a tinkle later in the day.

The moment he uttered those words, both Rao and Pai looked at each other with amusement in their eyes. Rao asked Pai, ‘How about calling the magazine Tinkle?’ Pai was grinning and nodding. The name possessed a certain magic, Pai agreed. Almost the entire editorial and creative team was elated and willingly accepted the name. They were also surprised by Pai’s response. This was rare for someone who loved to mull over matters and take time before deciding.

What worked for Pai was that the name did contain a musical ring to it, something he desired. A round of applause later, the name was finalised. That day, in the year 1980, as the editorial group gleefully celebrated, they did not know that the simple-sounding name would soon become a rage, just like Amar Chitra Katha had in the last few years. 

. . .

Suppandi

Within a year of its launch, Tinkle was getting flooded with stories from children who were eager to contribute. It became a massive task for the editorial team to sift through these stories. In ACK, the selection of stories depended on a different factor: that they be stories of known historical characters. With Tinkle, the creative strategy shift was almost tectonic.

With hundreds of stories to sort from, for each issue, there cropped up many different opinions, though a few stories caught everyone’s fancy. Like the story sent by P Vardarajan from Trichy in Tamil Nadu. It was a set of three stories spun around a character called Suppandi, which was derived from Tamil folklore.

The story instantly enticed those who went through the letters. Subba Rao was extremely impressed and identified an infinite potential in not just the story, but in the character itself. The young simpleton was affable and both Rao and Pai realised that it possessed the potential to develop it into a notable character in the days to come.

Ram Waeerkar was urged to create the visuals, and the master did not take long to come up with a wonderstruck boy with a prominently extended nose, a broad smile, three tufts of hair slanting sideways, and eyes that spoke volumes about his possible goofiness.

Both Rao and Pai were now sure that their initial thought had been spot on. This character looked ideal for a long haul. That’s how Suppandi was born in 1983, one of the most iconic and loveable characters in children’s publishing in India.

Shikari Shambu

Shikari Shambu

Another iconic character was ideated and created around the same time. It was Shikari Shambu. There’s a set of fantastic stories concerning its creation. When Tinkle was launched, there was another magazine for children that was equally famous: Target. One of the prominent characters in Target was Detective Moochwala.

Despite being their rival, Tinkle’s editorial team admired Moochwala, especially for his sharp,  downward-pointing moustache. Creative teams in Tinkle and ACK felt it was stunningly catchy. Pai had, in fact, in one of his meetings, mentioned designing a character with a prominent moustache.

One day, Subba Rao came to the office excited. He had, on the previous night, seen an episode of the popular TV series I Love Lucy. He was thrilled by the misadventure of one of the characters and felt they could develop something on those lines.

Luis Fernandes was working on the first story and had named the character Shambu. It was Subba Rao who suggested adding “Shikari” since, like Moochwala, it clearly defined what Shambu did. But this drew a major objection from both Pai and Kamala. Defining a character as a hunter and making him hunt seemed like committing hara-kiri, especially coming from the house of ACK and Tinkle, which prided itself on educating while entertaining.

After umpteen deliberations, it was decided to stick to the prefix Shikari, but with a clear set of dos and don’ts. Shambu would not slay any animal, which later came to such a situation that they stopped illustrating Shambu carrying a gun. Vasant Halbe, the artist, created the iconic look of Shikari Shambu, with a hunter’s hat, a distinct moustache, and eyes which no one could see. Like Suppandi, Shambu was born in 1983 and would continue to rule young hearts in the decades to come.

Book Cover and author Rajessh M Iyer

Excerpted with permission from Uncle Pai: The Man Behind The Iconic Amar Chitra Katha (2021) written by Rajessh M Iyer and published by Fingerprint! Publishing. You can buy the book here.

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