Many people all over India are fans of the famous Amar Chitra Katha series of illustrated lives. I am proud to have been the scriptwriter for one of its most successful publications: the illustrated life of Christ. Let me tell you the story.
The series was founded by a devout Hindu editor, Anant Pai. Impressed by the popularity of comic books like Spiderman, he realised that a comic series on religious and political figures from India’s past would help to inculcate respect for traditional Indian values. So he founded Amar Chitra Katha [= in Hindi ‘Immortal Stories in Pictures’] with the financial backing of Sindhi capitalist H.G.Mirchandani.
In 1969 the first booklet appeared: Krishna. By 1989, 400 titles had appeared in English, Hindi and other major Indian languages which had sold more than 70 million copies.
I learned about the series from the Catholic Indian artist Francis Freitas who had got to know Anant Pai when both of them were working for the Times of India. I met Freitas at the ‘All-India Seminar on the Church in India Today’ held in Bangalore, 15-25 May 1969. In this huge gathering 500 delegates from all 90 Catholic dioceses in India had come together to discuss how the Second Vatican Council should be implemented in the country.
I will let Freitas take over the story, as he recounted it in a letter to the Director of Amruthavani in 1988:
“My congratulations and from the bottom of my heart thanks to Jesus Christ! The August issue (Indian edition) of Readers Digest states that the sales of the ‘Jesus Christ’ comic have been more than 300,000.
This stupendous success can be attributed to Fr. Wijngaards’ foresight . . .
For several years I had been endeavouring to produce a comic on Jesus Christ without success. Everywhere I went, the idea was ridiculed.
At the workshop on communication at the All India Seminar in Bangalore one of the delegates sarcastically repeated the words Jesus Christ in ‘comics’ (!) . He dragged the words in such a way as to suggest that the idea was preposterous.
It was at this Seminar that I had the good fortune of meeting Fr. Wijngaards.
My efforts to produce a comic on Jesus Christ failed for several years. Eventually the late Mons. Eustac D’Lima, secretary to Cardinal Gracias, eventually succeeded in obtaining Rs. 20,000/- for my project. This figure was far too inadequate and I was sorely disappointed. At this juncture Fr. Wijngaards happened to call over at my residence. I explained the project and the paucity of the funds allotted to me.
Without a moment’s hesitation Fr. Wijngaards replied: ‘You go ahead. I will back you up to any extent’! This was a blank cheque to me, and I enthusiastically took the plunge without anticipating the numerous hurdles I would have to overcome’.”[i]
Freitas explained to me how comics work. Action is shown through pictures. Short narrative lines can supplement this. Text can be added as ‘dialogue bubbles’ that come from the actors’ heads: they can be either ‘talk bubbles’ or ‘thought bubbles’.
I agreed to write the script for the booklet. He would make sure that the story line and illustrations would not conform to some of the mistaken notions of Christ commonly found in Hindu books. But under what name should I write the script?
“It is not good in this context if the author of the script is recognised as a foreigner”, I said to Freitas.
“You are right”, he replied. “Yes. Perhaps you should translate your name into an Indian language.”
So that is why I did. In Telugu Catholic Gospel translations, ‘John’ was rendered as ‘Aruliah’. ‘Wijngaards’ [= ‘vineyard’ in Dutch] becomes ‘Drakshathota’ in Telugu. That is why I adopted the pseudonym Drâkshathôta Aruliah.
I also managed to get a grant for Freitas so that he could develop the project.
Hurdles and success
With my script in hand Freitas began to implement the project. I will give Freitas the word to narrate the problems he encountered.
“It was at this stage that I put forward to Mr. Mirchandani the suggestion of producing a Jesus Christ Comic. Mr. Mirchandani was most interested. As I have said before, Mirchandani belongs to a Sindhi community that had acquired a notoriety for grabbing money at all costs!
Mr. Mirchandani was fully aware that Catholic schools represent a powerful section of educationists in India. Pai on the other hand was not too enthusiastic, for he felt that Jesus Christ did not quite conform to the Hindu mythological figures he had lined up for the series of comics he was planning. He also felt that this title might militate against his Hindu proposed titles. He also believed that a Catholic title of this importance would make it appear that INDIA BOOK HOUSE was promoting the Catholic religion.
Pai insisted on scrutinising every page of the publication. I insisted that certain facts had to be stated categorically. I explained that this was necessary from the Catholic view point. There were heated arguments at every stage and the final judge was Mr. Murchandani who was anxious to please me, while at the same time he could not antagonise Mr. Pai. After some time, Pai even engaged a lady as a sub-editor.
She was determined to stand by Mr. Pai since she had been engaged by him. I had to insist on my version of these statements.
Pai contented that if the lady accepts a particular version, I had no reason to object. You will understand how difficult it was for me to carry on preparing the manuscript under these circumstances.”[ii]
But Freitas succeeded to get the illustrations for the manuscript done. When doubts arose on a possible misinterpretation of a picture, he was assisted by a local priest, Fr Alex Carvalho, who could judge the matter from a theological point of view and who also had a feeling for art.
The English 96-page edition of the Jesus Christ comic was launched in 1975 in the Taj Mahal Hotel by Archbishop (later Cardinal) Simon Pimenta of Mumbai. Soon editions followed in nine major Indian languages: Marathi for Maharashtra State, Malayalam for Kerala, Gujarathi for Gujarat, Hindi for Uttar Pradesh and other States, Kannada for Karnataka and Mangalore, Tamil for Tamilnadu, Oriya for Orissa, Telugu for Andhra Pradesh and Konkani for Goa. Every edition carried a foreword by Cardinal L.T. Picachy, President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.
During one of my visits to Africa, I introduced the comic to Fr Hans Smeets who had been a classmate of mine while I was studying theology in London. He ran a large printing press in Uganda. As a result of our meeting and subsequent negotiations with India Book House, a Luganda edition appeared in 1983.
In 1988 India Book House reported that 300,000 copies of the comic had been sold – which was almost a record for any single title.
[i] Letter by Francis Freitas (16A St Francis Avenue, Santa Cruz, Bombay), 22nd of August 1988, p.1.
[ii] Letter by Francis Freitas (16A St Francis Avenue, Santa Cruz, Bombay), 22nd of August 1988, pp.2-3.