28 March 2023

Those fascinating ‘chitra katha’

The amazing ‘Mihira’ was a package of sweetness that came every Monday. The country and the world in a nutshell, that’s what it seemed to be. So much knowledge conveyed in simple language decorated with photographs beautifully laid out, long before there was designing software.

Naturally, the eye went to the visuals. The photographs, illustrations and the cartoon strips. And that’s how, as someone once said, many children acquired the ‘poth kiyavana pissuwa (the reading madness.’  

I have written about ‘Mihira’ before and also of S A Dissanayake who gave us Boo, Baba, Thus, Batakola Archchi, Yodaya and so many characters who became our inseparable friends. I need not repeat except to say this once again, prathama premaya mihiramai (Mihira was undoubtedly the first love). 

[ප්‍රථම ප්‍රේමය මිහිරියි,  මිහිරිම කාලය හා “මිහිර“ මතකයන්! Memories of Mihira days and when life was so much sweeter]

We called them Chitra Katha, literally art-stories. Cartoons. They were not ‘animated’ but there was more than enough animation in the stories and in what they did to us and our imaginations.

Such books were frowned upon and teachers would often confiscate them if someone was caught reading them. So the various parts of ‘Landesi Hatana’ writte by Dharma Sri Caldera and illustrated by Susil Premaratne were surreptitiously read and passed around the class. There was ‘Sathuta’ which contained more than a dozen serialised stories. I remember eagerly waiting for someone to bring the paper to class on Tuesday so I could read the next part of ‘Megha.’ The stories in ‘Sathuta’ were continued in ‘Madhura.’

Then there was ‘Siththara,’ a tabloid if I remember correctly, put out by Multipax. It quickly supplanted ‘Madhura.’ I remember Janaka Ratnyake’s ‘Ithin eeta passe…(so…thereafter…)’ with his flowing signature and characters with almost unnaturally wavy hair. Years later, when I worked at ‘The Island’ I met Janaka Aiya, a quiet, unassuming and absolutely humble artist who delighted in his work and always sported a smile, an ahinsaka sinahava which is not translatable as ‘innocent smile.’  

Back to cartoons. Chitra Katha.  There was and still is a series by that very name. Almost. ‘Amar Chitra Katha.’ A neighbour had dozens of books, all stories from what is now called India. Stories from the Mahabharata, Ramayana and heroic figures of the myriad of histories in the subcontinent. Wars, miracles, austerities, gods, demons, humans, human love, they had it all. I am not a student of history and therefore I cannot vouch for historical accuracy. Nevertheless these stories fascinated me and made me want to explore deeper, to seek confirmation or refutation.

The kings, queens, princes, princesses, gods, demons, sages, ministers and ordinary folk all looked alike. Maybe a single artiest or a limited team of artists had been employed by the folk who worked at ‘Amar Chitra Katha’ or rather the publishing house that gave us those fascinating stories. Then again, each individual had a character, a personality, a complement of skills or virtues or both. These were indelible.

Tintin. Asterix. They had their slots in the wider archive of stories which included novels and epic poetry. Even what I thought was decidedly inferior such as US comic books of the world wars, romance and the Archie stories had their moments. Later, even as an adult, I delighted in the ‘funnies,’ Charlie Brown, Calvin and Hobbes and of course The Far Side of Gary Larson.

For all the words I’ve encountered, I’ve always been more amazed by the work of cartoonists who, with a few words (if at all), a few brush strokes and clever juxtaposition could say what I could have to use 1,000 words to express.

There are people like S A Dissanayake whose work is known but names unknown or forgotten. They’ve made us walk on clouds. They made us believe that there will be another Monday that will make the sometimes disappointing intervening days somehow bearable. 

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart