Anant ‘Uncle’ Pai popularised Indian culture through comics (Obituary, With Image)

By Quaid Najmi, IANS
Thursday, February 24, 2011

MUMBAI - Anant V. Pai, a chemical engineer who taught Indian culture, tradition and ethos through Amar Chitra Katha comics to millions of his countrymen, passed away here Thursday evening.

Popularly known as ‘Uncle Pai’, he is survived by his wife Lalitha and elder sister Sumati Prabhu. A younger sister, Savita Prabhu died a few years ago, Pai’s nephew Suhas Prabhu said.

“As per his wishes, his funeral will be a private affair and shall be completed at Shivaji Park Electric Crematorium tonight (Thursday) itself,” a grieving Prabhu told IANS.

Born Sep 17, 1929 in a modest family of Venkataraya Pai and Susheela in Karkala, Dakshin Kanara district of Karnataka, the young Anant completed his primary education in the only school in the village.

Orphaned at the age of two and looked after by other senior family members, Anant shifted to Mumbai when he was 12 for pursuing his secondary school and higher education.

A bright student, he went on to become a chemical engineer from the prestigious University Institute of Chemical Technology, formerly UDCT, University of Mumbai.

Prabhu said that from his early school days, Pai was deeply interested in the Vedas, Puranas and other ancient Indian literature, besides religious, cultural studies and languages.

At a relatively young age, Pai mastered Sanskrit and the ancient Indian languages of Pali and Ardhimagadhi, which are no longer spoken commonly and have been virtually relegated to the ancient language departments of a few universities in the country.

“He had a great flair for telling stories, especially to children. I remember, as a child, how he would mesmerise me with great stories of our ancient heroes, gods and goddesses and others, bringing them alive before me,” a tearful Prabhu recalled.

With his deep knowledge of the ancient Indian scriptures, Pai had shlokas and verses ready at any time and would recite an appropriate one for any occasion.

In the 1950s, he joined The Times of India group as an executive in its publications division where he handled the Indrajal Comics with several popular titles like Phantom and Mandrake The Magician.

It was in early 1967 that Pai was shocked when in a Doordarshan quiz show, the participants could not reply to a question, “Who was Ram’s mother in Ramayana?”

This inspired him to chuck his job and start a publication in comics format dedicated to Indian mythology, ancient culture, folk tales and contemporary history.

After several rejections to his proposal, he finally partnered with India Book House’s G.L. Mirchandani to launch the Amar Chitra Katha (translated as Immortal Pictorial Tales) in 1967.

Around that time, Prabhu said that he experimented as a writer and published a Hindi novel “Beech Ki Kadi” as he was proficient in over a dozen languages, including Urdu.

For Amar Chitra Katha, Anant Pai donned several hats as the editor, graphics master, writer, publisher, educator, historian and presented the first original Indian brand of comics featuring all that was native to the sub-continent’s culture and traditions.

It proved to be an instant hit among the masses and soon went into translations in over 20 languages, with millions of Indians growing up and devouring his words of wisdom.

Till date, it has published around 440 titles and sold nearly 100 million copies, including “Krishna,” its top-selling title which went into several re-prints and independently sold several million copies. Its current annual sales are in the range of around three million copies.

Two years after creating publishing history with Amar Chitra Katha, Pai launched the Rang Rekha Features, the country’s first comics and cartoons syndicate and followed it up with Tinkle children’s magazine in 1980.

His interactive style through Tinkle and the legendary status he had achieved through Amar Chitra Katha earned him the title of ‘Uncle Pai’ by which he remained famous.

As reading habits started dwindling, he readily accepted modern forms of media and scripted and produced two video movies “Ekam Sat” and “The Secret of Success” in Hindi and English.

He also brought out an audio series on Amar Chitra Katha comics entitled “Storytime With Uncle Pai”, besides several general interest and self-help books.

Keeping a strict 3 a.m.-9 p.m. regimen, Pai was an avid reader, a teetotaller and strict disciplinarian who relaxed by listening to Rabindra sangeet.

Around five years ago, when this writer met him and commented on his youthful agility and zest for life, Pai smiled and said: “I am still a child, hungry for knowledge of my country’s ancient culture. Only my body grows old, but my mind is forever young, just like my immortal stories.”

Some years ago when the BBC made a documentary on Pai, he was asked who comprised his first audience in story-telling — he pointed at (Suhas) Prabhu.

“I was the first person to whom he told all his stories before telling them to the whole world… I feel honoured and humbled by this,” Prabhu said.

Widely travelled around the world and in the remotest corners of India, Pai was bestowed honours and awards everywhere.

Five years ago, Pai handed over the work of Amar Chitra Katha to a professional team of ACK Media, but continued to serve there as a consultant, working on his stories, drawings and paintings of his comics till the very end, Prabhu said.

will not be displayed