‘Uncle Pai – A Biography’ delves into legacy of the iconic comic creator Anant Pai

Amar Chitra Katha (ACK), the most influential comic book publication was founded in 1967 by the man who is often referred to as India’s Master storyteller, Anant Pai. ACK worked effectively to impart knowledge about religious legends and epics, historical figures and biographies, folktales and cultural stories. Pai holds a legacy of three decades of storytelling, created over six hundred comic books, an extremely successful children’s monthly magazine Tinkle, and has a fan base of millions of readers in India spanning at least four generations.

Pai, who is also popularly known as Uncle Pai, is one of the pioneers of Indian comics who started his career as a junior executive at Times of India and faced many ups and downs in his careers but never differed from his vision and mission, and his creations touched countless lives across many generations. To honour the legacy and contribution of the iconic creator, a media professional and story teller Rajessh Iyer penned Pai’s biography titled Uncle Pai- A Biography, a 344 pages long book which encompasses the lifetime of Pai.

Iyer has been a part of many media houses, notable being Magna Publications, Macmillan India, and Amar Chitra Katha, in various capacities like chief editor, creative head, and CEO. He is the author of two books for children: Nanha Natkhat: Tales of Little Krishna and Valiant Warriors. He has also authored five novels: the Amazon India #1 bestseller, Evading the Shadows, Hari and Friends—A Holi Adventure, Spinner of the Twisted Tale, Karmic Souls and Mind Whisperer.

Uncle Pai- A Biography book was published by FINGERPRINT, one of India’s largest distributors of books and whose publishing cell has published some of India’s finest coffee-table books over the years. 

Animation Xpress got in touch with Iyer to know more about the book and his experience and challenges he faced while creating this epic and inspiring book.

Earlier in 2012, ACK Media released an Amar Chitra Katha title on Anant Pai, which was penned by Gayathri Chandrasekaran, assistant editor of Tinkle, and illustrated by Dilip Kadam. On asking what inspired Iyer to come up with Pai’s biography and how the latest book is different from previous edition, Iyer said, “The one by ACK is a 32 page comic book while the latest book is long-form of 344 pages, a detailed biography of the man who created the iconic Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle. The fact that a singular comic book is not enough to encompass such a life perhaps propelled us to probe further and come up with the book.”

Iyer took two and half years to come up with this book. He started his research in 2019 and finalized the print draft in mid 2021.

Commenting on the latest Pai biography, ACK editor Reena Puri said, “Anant Pai’s biography was a long-needed one. Amar Chitra Katha did a graphic biography in 2012 but a more detailed one that captured all the little incidents that made the man, was greatly required. Uncle Pai – A Biography, by Rajesh Iyer, fills that gap.”

She further added, “Anant Pai was a giant in the world of comics and publishing. The author has researched his subject in great depth and done fair justice to Uncle Pai’s story. Having known and worked with Mr Pai for over two decades, and then inherited his legacy, I can safely say that his personality and his understanding of children have been very well depicted.”

Expounding the research process behind creating this epic biography, Iyer added, “To begin with, I must mention the shock at the lack of material about a man who at least three generations of children in India idolised. What made the task doubly difficult was that very few of his close colleagues, friends and relatives live to tell the tale. However, his nephews and other close relatives opened up vistas that gave me a peep into the life of the great man. Also, I was pleasantly surprised that those few of his close colleagues who are still around recounted anecdotes that helped shed light on the man. But even before my literary agent gave the idea of the book and I dived into research, I must thank Late Mrs. Lalita Pai, who’d meet me every time she’d come to the office of Amar Chitra Katha, where I worked. Even though the biography was nowhere in my mind, the anecdotes she recounted found their way into the book and perhaps inadvertently laid the founding stone for the structure.”

Narrating his latest book, Iyer said, “Well, it is an exhaustive journey of his creations, namely Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle. From how he thought of comic books and what were his influences to finally creating these iconic brands. It’s a journey that’s important to millions who grew up reading his creations. Since it’s filled with little known anecdotes (at least not known beyond the close editorial circle), I’m sure his fans would love to know more about their favourite comic books.”

Sharing the most touching moment while writing the biography, an excited Iyer added, “The most touching moment was when I drew a strange similarity with his vision and realised that events in his life have uncanny resemblance to one’s own. It’s both goosebumps-inducing and also heartening. It gave goosebumps since you wonder if two completely different lives have such a common trajectory. It’s heartening to know since it reassures you that despite all the pitfalls you’re on the right path. I guess the lives of all great men do that: be a torchbearer. Mr. Pai’s biography was like that to me. I’m sure in the years to come; many readers will share this sentiment.”

Iyer also shared how Pai’s struggles inspired him. He said, “The steadfast self-belief is beyond doubt the main inspiration. Every writer goes through low patches and self-doubt creeps up ever so consistently. Even though they say self-doubt is good for any creative person, but while you’re going through that bleak patch it’s extremely troublesome. It is only self-belief that makes you come up from the dark dungeons doubts pull you into. Seeing Pai’s struggle and how he battles them time and again gives us the much-needed impetus.”

On asking whether Iyer had personally worked with Pai, Iyer grieved and said, “Sadly, I have never met him. That made me wonder initially if I’m the right person to write his biography. However, as I researched, I realized how much of a boon that seemingly disadvantaged state actually is. It helped me analyze every event with a certain degree of detachment that a true biography requires.”

Listing the key people name who helped Iyer throughout creating this book, Iyer named, “My literary agent Suhail Mathur, editor Pooja Dadwal, publisher Shikha Sabharwal, and Pai’s close relatives, especially Dr Suhas Prabhu, Jagannath Prabhu and Prakash Pai, among others, Pai’s old friend Prabhu, Pai’s colleagues of yore, Subba Rao, Luis Fernandes, Kamala Chandrakant, Reena Puri and Savio Mascarenhas. There are many others who helped shape this book. My apologies for not being able to name all of them here, though I’m eternally grateful to them all.”

Discussing the challenges faced while penning this book, Iyer added, “The biggest challenge, as I mentioned earlier, was not having many close ones to talk to. On top of it, the non-cooperation of some who had access to his diaries and other similar material. Those would have enhanced the book manifold. However, you live with it and work around it.”

On asking about the responses the book received from the readers, Iyer expounded, “Extremely encouraging, though let me add that it’s still early days. We have miles to go, as the poet Robert Frost said. There has been coverage in the press even outside India, and we hope to see a sharp upsurge in the months to come. We intend to connect with three generations of Indians who grew up on Mr. Pai’s creations and almost all of them are well-settled across the globe. There’s no reason we cannot reach them and them not responding to it. After all, whoever read Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle while growing up, must possess a copy of Pai’s biography and read it to relive their childhood. We see the book in every educated middle class home in India and among the NRIs. Like another poet Browning said, ‘The best is yet to be.’”

Praising Iyer’s book , Tinkle former editor-in-chief Rajani Thindiath said, “ I have had the privilege to work with Mr Pai and have heard many stories about his life from him and with those who had worked with him. And yet Rajesh’s book came as a revelation to me. He has researched intensely to capture never-before known details of the journey of how Mr Pai became Uncle Pai. Reading the book increased my awe and respect for Uncle Pai’s passion and persistence in his quest to fulfil a dream that he never gave up on.”

 Iyer concludes by revealing his future plans. He shared, “Regarding Pai, I’m starting a campaign to get official recognition due to him. I have written to the Prime Minister requesting him to consider honouring Pai posthumously with Bhrarat Ratna. Still early days, but I’m already in talks with a few people in the administration who can help in this. We’ll be creating an online campaign. There had been a few online campaigns in the past, though none of them were collective, cohesive efforts. We’re trying to rally as many people as possible in this. The book should play a pivotal role in this. Once it starts gaining momentum, viz a viz both sales and press coverage, we will start connecting with people as well as authorities. It’s high time that the country acknowledged Pai’s immense contribution.”