Shanti, Shanti, Shanti

Last Thursday, comic book enthusiasts of all ages gathered on the second floor of Cobb for a talk held by Bulbul Tiwari as part of the South Asia Outreach Program. She began with a condensed biography of Anant Pai, creator of the Amar Chitra Katha comics. An engineer and scientist by training, he originally had the idea in 1967 while watching an Indian quiz show where young contestants could easily answer questions about Greek mythology, but were stumped when asked who Rama’s mother was.

The Amar Chitra Katha take their inspiration for visual style from “Tarzan” and “Phantom,” the most popular comic books in India of the ’50s and ’60s, but the details are entirely from Hindu scripture. Like the realism of the illustrations, Pai paid intense attention to the details of every comic. When the illustrators drew a chariot with four wheels, Pai had them redraw the entire panel since historically chariots had only had two wheels. In the same vein of making the narratives feel as credible as possible, Pai often attempted to minimize the “miracle aspect” of the accounts. He always credited this oddity (religious comics which played down the religious aspects) to his scientific background. The comics became incredibly widespread in India among middle-class students in English schools, and soon they inspired a TV series. The show’s popularity outstripped the comic’s–book sales fell.

Bulbul focused on a scene of “The Mahabharata,” where a girl named Draupadi is being stripped naked, and she prays to Krishna to rescue her. Krishna then creates an endless supply of cloth for her Sari, so that the man disrobing her soon has collected a mound of cloth as tall as he is. The five-minute TV scene, originally illustrated as just one panel of a comic, was so popular that it inspired a new Sari line called the “Draupadi Collection.” Bulbul explained that the scene’s popularity among women was due in part to its portrayal of a successful woman who overcame her attackers.

The talk ended with a short question and answer section served along with some hot chai and cookies. Then everyone got down to the task at hand: reading and discussing the forty comics laid out on the table.