But outside the Ivory Tower, ACK’s panels bring the power struggles, great feats, and sacrifices of Hindu lore and Indian history to life. With simple brushstrokes, illustrators evoke spare landscape backgrounds or classical architecture. Though light-hearted folktales like Panchatantra or Jataka Tales often tend toward caricature, ACK illustrators typically draw both mythological and historical protagonists in the image of Hindu deities of Indian classical sculpture. With characters’ dramatic facial expressions and body postures, the lessons, political scheming, and battles become captivating.
For his part, Pai said “his comics had helped foster the ‘integration’ of India, which is made up of hundreds of ethnic groups, by teaching children about its history and legends,” according to a 2011 New York Times story about the creator’s death. Still, these dialogues, plot arcs, and illustrations often erase or negatively portray many groups. ACK largely omits religious minorities, including Christians and Sikhs, from its extensive “Makers of Modern India” collection. Muslims fare the worst among these groups. In the series’ medieval histories, adherents of Islam often play the boogeymen, a menacing, green-clad horde threatening brave Hindus.
ACK also upholds popular, but regressive beauty standards by representing nearly all the stories’ “good” characters as fair-skinned, lithe women or fair-skinned, muscular men. (Canonically dark-skinned gods are shaded blue.) By contrast, demons, “ruffians,” and “ruthless killers” are given dark brown or black skin. In Issue #67 The Lord of Lanka (1974), Pai even distinguishes a demonic family’s virtuous members from its evil members by shading them white. In Indian culture, where dark skin is frequently associated with lower castes, colorism fuels casteism.
Low-caste and tribal individuals are sometimes valorized in ACK for self-sacrifice with disturbing overtones. In one scene of the epic Mahabharata, a boy named Ekalavya, who’s from a disparaged hill tribe, is denied instruction by a teacher of arms. After building a statue to practice in front of, Ekalavya becomes a fearsome archer. When the teacher discovers this, he demands the boy sever his thumbs in payment. Ekalavya’s obedience is framed as a model of deference toward elders.
ACK similarly establishes women as collaborators in their own oppression. As Issue #71 Indra and Shachi (1974) proclaims from the inside cover, even goddesses cheerfully demonstrate “unselfish subordination of their own selves and service to their husbands.” Men receive virginal wives as gifts from other men—or heroically kidnap them. At their most shocking, some ACK comics venerate women’s suicide as a means to inspire or defy men. Many heroines choose sati, a long-banned practice in which widows like Padmini and Ranak Devi burn alive on funeral pyres.