Marketing Mythology on India’s Cartoon Network

Curator's Note

At 11am on Sunday, March 28, 2010, Cartoon Network India aired the first episode of its new series, Amar Chitra Katha or “Immortal Picture Stories” (henceforth ACK). Twenty-six half-hour episodes and two feature-length films are planned. The cartoon adapts the popular comic book series of the same name for television by developing an aesthetic sensibility responsive to both media. The animated series quotes extensively from the comic book, both in the framing of shots/panels and in the drawings of its characters. Two-dimensional heroes spring to life, with rotating paper-doll joints. This aesthetic, (developed by Mumbai’s award-winning animation studio Animagic) is, it seems fair to say, considerably more sophisticated than that of the source material it so sleekly incorporates.

In this clip, after a title sequence that enumerates major ACK characters, we see segments from the story of Kumbhakarna, part of the Hindu epic the Ramayana. Losing his final battle with Rama, demon-king Ravana decides to enlist the help of his giant brother, Kumbhakarna, by awakening him from an enchanted nap. The clip shows Kumbhakarna receiving a boon from the god Brahma (“I just want to sleep all of the time”) and then cuts to the demons’ Lilliputian efforts to rouse him. I especially enjoy how the pan across Kumbhakarna’s stomach showcases 2D comic book elements. The following stories, all in English, feature the exploits of Arjun (of Mahabharata fame) and the beneficence of the seventeenth century king Shivaji (sometime poster monarch for the Hindu right).

The Cartoon Network ACK, like some other recent media, tries to bring Hindu mythology within the fold of “secular” cultural production. Whether it blurs the line among religion, national culture, and global entertainment, or whether it simply rearticulates the relations among these domains, remains an open question. But it does inevitably reposition the legacy of the ACK. Founded in 1967, the ACK was designed to educate India’s middle class Anglophone children in the postcolonial nation’s cultural heritage. Combining Hindu and nationalist tales, these pedagogic comics proved immensely successful over the following decades.

The animated ACK series, slated along Tom, Jerry, and Samurai Jack, brings this phenomenon into the niche culture of cable television. A joint product of ACK Media (the comic’s recently revamped parent company) and Turner International India Private Ltd, the cartoon not only makes “tradition” available to a new generation. It also allows the multi-national Turner corporation to bill itself as a proud sponsor of Indian national culture—made clear in official press releases (see link at bottom). The ACK thus comes to straddle not only the dual dictates of tradition and modernity, but also of the global and the local.


This is a great post on the marketing of tradition and how each element remakes the other in this strange animated entanglement of the two.  I am struck by the ways that the particular conventions of advertising allow for a certain flexibility of speech here, enabling Turner International to claim to be “a great believer in the Indian storytelling heritage” (whatever that means) and their claim to make this Indian epic “come alive.”  A certain capacity of media is assumed, so that even in its oddly two-dimensional animated form, this particular mode of story telling is endowed with the ability to be alive whereas presumably the rich tradition they “believed in” a few lines earlier is suddenly dead.  The ownership of the story, then, is not so much about proprietary rights as it is about the unique ability to tell the story in this particularly mediated way.

Jenna, thanks for this great response. You call attention to the strange status of these "immortal" stories: they are immortal insofar as they can be brought back to life, resuscitated by the next generation of children's media. And then there is also the strangeness of Turner using tradition to brand itself in India, when the mobilized tradition is itself a brand and a media company.


Fascinating post.  I am struck by the way that the press release obviously (to me) avoids referring to these epics as "Hindu," preferring instead to describe them as part of an "Indian storytelling heritage."  Not only do we find Turner International participating in the blurring or re-articulating of relations between (Hindu) religion and (Indian) national culture, but I also wonder how much of this decision is prompted by Turner International's reluctance to be associated with religion.  It is hard to imagine the Cartoon Network in the U.S. broadcasting a series devoted to Biblical storytelling.  So perhaps we find here other work being performed by the religion/culture distinction, as well, allowing Turner International to celebrate a "cultural" tradition without promoting a particularistic "religious" perspective.  It's culture, not religion, so it's okay! (and harmless?!).

This is a fascinating discussion. I am one of the anglophone Indian (and Hindu) children of the 1970s, who was introduced to many tales from Indian mythology via ACK.

I viewed them the same way I viewed the Classics Illustrated comics -- as a first introduction (and a gateway) to great literature.

I am not a fan of Hindu nationalism, and I can see where Isaac is coming from. However, I feel that mythology is a very rich basis for cultural tradition. There are great stories that deserve retelling in various epics, including Hindu, Judeo-Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Jain epics.

Incidentally, AKC has a whole line of Buddhist Jataka Tales, in addition to its Hindu mythology series.

The question of Hindu nationalism is a complicated one here, and while there are surely ways in which the ACK has tended to conflate the categories "Hindu" and "Indian," the series has also (as Kartik points out) featured comics that retell Buddhist tales and tales of various historical figures (themselves often Hindu, as with Gandhiji and Shivaji, both featured in the clip here).

I wonder whether some of the attention devoted to the ACK's possible Hindu bias owes its energy to a very different pictorialization of the Hindu epics: the famed Sagar Ramayana that aired on Doordarshan in 1987-88. This televised epic has often been associated with the rise of the BJP and, and in particular with the politicization of Ayodhya, the city where Ram is held to have been born. Part of my interest in this cartoon of a Ramayana episode is in noting the distance-- aesthetically, commercially, and politically-- between it and its epic antecedent.

Thanks to Kartik and Isaac for highlighting these issues!

That Turner International would prefer "Indian" to "Hindu" heritage definitely accords with its usual practices, but it is strange that even this has not been problematic for Turner. Given Ted's public critique of nationalist bias in CNN's reportage of the Iraq war and similar statements, perhaps Turner only promotes "the great Indian epic" on the grounds that "Indian" marks a cultural heritage which can be severed from nationalism, an internationalizable Indian-ness. Of course, even if Turner (or ACK for that matter) can imagine this especially commodifiable culture, we might assume that these cartoons will be read through both religious and nationalist investments by at least some part of their audience. I wonder if Turner's primary line of questioning concerns harm at all, or something closer to plausible deniability. Maybe ACK's power to revitalize stories is specifically an effect of its self-identification with this de-nationalized culture. The press release makes it quite difficult to tell whether the "Indian storytelling heritage" inspired ACK's comics, or includes them. ACK's previous work is "legendary" and embodies the "rich Indian culture" reaching across a homogenous antiquity right up to the childhoods of Turner's employees. Turner's intervention authorizes ACK to imagine its older creations as part of a heritage which now must be kept alive. Thus ACK Media's aspiration "to be the largest content producer of Indian stories and characters" might have less to do with the company's location than with a meaning of "Indian" that is now tautologous with respect to its own creations.

I'm interested in the visual traditions referenced by the images and animation of this series—the sculptures, paintings, manuscripts, etc. that the comic books appropriated.  I think that the choice to use "paper-doll-joint" rather than "drawn" animation is significant.  The jerky, very physical movements of the figures seem to connect these characters to their visual manifestations as objects.  It’s as if these characters are speaking to the audience as sculptures, as drawings.  This may be part of the cartoonists’ visual strategy for (as Jenna noted) making these stories come alive.

Barton, thanks for your interesting contribution.  While there is the issue, as other comments have pointed out, of such a production conflating "Indian" with "Hindu," and therefore playing into the hands of the Hindu right, I was thinking as I saw the clip you had posted of Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues.  Paley's adaptation provoked objections from right-wing Hindu extremists who threatened, she reports, to "hang" her for "using" the Ramayana.  Paley defends her adaptation as a work of art, and courageously refused to be intimidated.  So for the Hindu right it is not only a matter of how "Indianness" is represented but by whom.  Paley is not Indian.  She is a white woman.  The nationality and the gender of the representer of Indianness are also important for these ideologues.  But above all, it is the tone, the attitude to "Indianness" that concerns them: I suspect that Sita Sings the Blues does not display enough national piety, is too lighthearted, to pass muster.

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