Are the arts meant for girls alone? As a teenage boy growing up in rural India, the odds of me saying a “Yes” to that question were pretty high. I rarely saw a loud proclamation that “arts are not for boys” but growing up, I largely witnessed that taking arts seriously was considered unmanly.
I clearly recall a couple of instances where this messaging was delivered to me. At my school, boys were allowed and even encouraged to play outdoors during the arts classes. Most girls would stay back but the boys would head out. I was one of the few boys who would want to stay back to draw or paint but we became the target of lots of snide remarks and jokes by other children. As a result, we also began to head outdoors despite of our interests. Staying indoors to draw felt unsafe and conflicting with our gender identity.
Later on in my college years, my room-mate in engineering school loved to draw and paint and wanted to pursue it professionally. But I was privy to his struggle with his parents to pursue his passion instead of engineering.
There have always been two undercurrents to this topic in my life. One, That an interest in arts is associated with expressing feelings and that is not considered a domain for boys. Boys are pressured to only inculcate habits that reflect strength, not emotion or softness. And two, pursuing arts is considered a bad financial bet and it is deemed a moral obligation of boys to focus on financial security at the expense of emotional security.
That is why I was amazed when I learnt the personal story of Pran, one of India’s legendary cartoonists and the character for this month’s story. Pran is the artist behind best-selling comic book characters like Chacha Chaudhary, Pinky and Billu and he gave a generation of Indian children priceless, joyful moments of their childhood.
Pran: The Walt Disney of India
Pran Kumar Sharma was born in Kasur(now in Pakistan) in 1938. As a child, he loved to draw but it was not something that he was actively encouraged towards. Unless you belong to a family of artists, art is merely an activity you do as a child because the adults need a break from parenting. Pran’s family atmosphere was no different.
Since men have to be breadwinners and pursue serious endeavours, Pran also pursued a conventional degree in Political Science. Cartooning remained a mere hobby(at least, he was allowed to keep it as a hobby). College is when many boys stop dreaming and start behaving but for Pran, luck was on his side. Some of his cartoons got picked up by a college magazine and this motivated him to continue to draw.
After his graduation, he got a job in the government sector, a job that had good pay and job security. That was how many boys claimed their masculinity and place in society in the 1960s (perhaps even today). Pran had other plans though. He wanted to draw comics for a living. His parents tried to dissuade him but Pran had a vision for himself that he could not wait to start on.
A Steep Career Path
Pran started his career as a cartoonist in the 1960s. I was dumbfounded when I learnt that. Being a cartoonist must have been a lunatic’s dream back then. On top of that, Pran wanted to make comics for children. Even those who were crazy enough to pursue a career in the arts stuck to producing political content for newspapers and serious publications. The nascent comic book market in India back then was hence, an American syndicate. It largely comprised of mere reprints of American Phantom, Superman etc. An Indian comic strip with Indian characters was rare. In his own words, he felt like he was an ‘ant’ pitted against an ‘elephant’ but he was not afraid.
It was in 1969 that Pran sketched Chacha Chaudhary, his most iconic character that redefined the lives of millions of children in India. Chacha Chaudhary was first published in a Hindi magazine called Lotpot. What strikes me about Chacha Chaudhary today perhaps more so than when I was a kid is that it is basically the antithesis of a typical American comic book plot. A short, frail, balding octogenarian superhero instead of a muscular, young man with rippling muscles and chiseled jaws. A protagonist like that is hard to believe even today, let alone the 1960s when masculinity and heroism were more rigidly defined.
The 1980’s gave Pran his big break, when Diamond Comics approached him for a full comic book. The first two books that he did with Diamond Comics sold out within two weeks of their release and he became a household name. Over time, Pran brought several iconic Indian comic book characters to the market.
As a child growing up in a small town in India in the 1990’s, I was a big reader of all his works. While it is hard for me to reminisce about Nagraj, Dhruv or Doga much today, I still chuckle when I hear about Pinky or Billu. Pran’s work filled in the background of an Indian middle class life so perfectly that it is hard to not feel nostalgic about it. Billu and Raman were really special in my opinion, as they let boys be boys. The likes of Nagraj and Dhruv were in a hurry to make boys into men.
Pran’s story is extremely inspiring, especially in India where one, arts education is often believed to be not for boys and two, arts as a profession was mostly comprised of people who consider drawing for children not manly. We are all aware of the need to encourage girls to persist in Science & Math but by the same token, should we not encourage boys to persist in Arts?