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His Master’s Voice

October 21, 2013

Amar Chitra Katha comics have been a favourite for children through the decades

By Susheel Menon

Saturday evenings were exciting days. My sister and I used to receive our weekly dole of Rs 2.50, in 1981 that is. Then ensued a mad rush to the corner bookstall of ‘P- Block’, Connaught Place for the latest issue of Amar Chitra Katha. Remember them?

This was followed by another dash back home, not for the privacy and comfort of one’s room or the old armchair but for grandfather’s lap. What I remember today of those stories is not so much the twists and turns of the mythological plots or the quality of the prose, but the timbre of my grandfather’s voice as he brought each character alive in my imagination. His voice would dip to a low bass when he spoke of Lord Rama, boom menacingly when he became Ravana and adopt a mellifluous tone when he spoke of the hapless, imprisoned Seeta.

My sister and I would sit at his feet, rapt in attention, devouring each detail as his words wove a web of drama, mystique and splendor around us. At the end, there would be a little sigh of sadness as real life intruded harshly into our reverie. Until the wait for next Saturday’s pocket money, of course.

Reading Amar Chitra Katha

Amar Chitra Katha comics have been a favourite for children through the decades

My daughter is a lucky girl, because her father has learnt how to tell a good tale, at the feet of the master no less.

Are oral traditions dying out? I think not. Unless we let them. Everyday we hear about the electronic media taking over our lives, and I see my daughter at the vortex of this debate. She has grown up in a home where the computer is a common fixture, and yet revels in the company of books. I remember the time when I read her her first Amar Chitra Katha.

Enid Blytons and Carolyn Keenes are all very fun and make for light-hearted reading but they are reflections of other cultures, other mores. It is crucial for our children and future generations to be keyed into our own cultural heritage as well as being global cyber-savvy citizens. Oral traditions are the key to the treasure chest of our literary and cultural heritage.

In North America, there is a profusion of workshops, seminars and events to showcase their Native American oral traditions and celebrate their roots. It is an idea worth looking into. The mass media can do its part in promoting oral traditions from various regions, and put them on the map by letting people in other regions appreciate their worth.

Publishing houses can make Indian myths, legends and folk tales more exciting with good illustrators and up-to-snuff packaging. The Internet, rather than being seen as an end to our oral traditions, can be used as a tool to popularize them with new web sites dedicated to heritage and literature. It’s time to dust away the cobwebs and showcase our traditions for what they are, inspiring and eternal.

Today, the world is driven by the necessity to achieve the most in the least amount of time. Speed is the new mantra, and I-net is its presiding deity. But false gods cannot ever replace heritage and history. In the old age, sacred texts were passed down from tutor to disciple, generation to generation; treasured, revered and guarded, the fundamental of our oral traditions.

This is no longer the case. But this is not cause for undue concern. Indeed, oral tradition has metamorphosed into various forms to keep with the times and become accessible to more and more.

On the one hand we have folk artists who have achieved international renown for oral rendition of our epics; on the other we have drama, ballet, music and so many other forms of art that are all drawn from our oral traditions. These events mark the popular celebration of all that we hold dear; where strangers become united in their appreciation of what is so uniquely ours.

So, we see today oral traditions live on in other “avatars”, not the least bit overwhelmed by the new tech-savvy world. The I-net has not yet been able to storm this traditional bastion – and we shouldn’t let it.

This opinion was first published in Meghdutam.com (between 1999 to 2003).

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