Life & Letters

Indonesia’s Uncle Pai

Rimli Sengupta is a willing refugee from engineering academia who has recently taken to writing. She writes in both Bengali and English.
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His comics bear an uncanny resemblance to the signature Amar Chitra Katha style. And yet, Raden Ahmed Kosasih, the father of the Indonesian comic, was doing this many years before Pai began his own epic effort.

I knew nothing about Indonesian comics until a chance meeting about a year ago in an unlikely place. I was travelling in the Mekong delta and discovered that I had something remarkable in common with the man sitting next to me on the bus. Aditya Santosa was from Sulawesi, of Chinese ancestry, a practising Christian and a practising surgeon. So what did we have in common? In our respective homes in Makassar and Calcutta, he and I were both fondly holding on to dusty piles of crumbling comics based on stories from the Mahabharata. Aditya had never heard of Amar Chitra Katha or of Anant Pai, and I had never heard of Raden Ahmed Kosasih. There we were: middle-aged strangers, from neighbouring countries that were once close but long estranged, animated about our shared stash and the attached nimbus of childhood.

Later, when travelling in Indonesia, I got a sense of Kosasih’s reach in the vast archipelago. Aditya was certainly no exception. There was Jane Ardaneshwari, the half-Javanese half-Chinese editor-publisher from Jakarta’s Chinatown, who I met at a glittering evening gala. There was Nanang Wibisono, the Batak man from north Sumatra I chatted with at a juice stall. There was Beelong from Bali, of a Balinese-Hindu father and a Javanese-Muslim mother, who was my cab driver in the central highlands of Java. They had all grown up reading Kosasih’s comics, as had countless others. Getting yourself lodged in the headspace of an 11-year-old is a powerful thing, because you never leave. Kosasih had done exactly that for several generations of Indonesians. Which is why they call him the ‘father of Indonesian comics’.

RA Kosasih was born in 1919 in Bogor, a historic city in the rainy hills south of Jakarta. As a child he liked to watch wayang golek—wooden puppets in resplendent costumes acting out stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. In his twenties, he did illustrations for books published by the Bogor Agriculture Department, an unlikely but evidently effective crucible for what was to be his life’s work. Kosasih’s first comic—Sri Asih, based on the exploits of a mythical super-heroine—was published on 1 January 1954 and was an instant runaway hit. He had done both the artwork and text, as he would continue to do for the next four decades. Between 1957 and 1959, he produced a series of 40 comics based on the Mahabharata. These, and a later series on the Ramayana, were wildly popular and had numerous reprint runs until the late 1980s, when they were finally deposed by Japanese manga comics. Kosasih continued to produce his comics till 1993 when Parkinson’s disease prised the pen from his hand.

Pai didn’t start his Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) till 1967. I had found some scans of Kosasih’s early comics, and the artwork had left me astounded: it was the all-familiar ACK style. Yet, ACK was then over a dozen years from birth.

How did this happen? In the midst of my attempts to find out more about Kosasih and his comics, Pai passed away at 81. ACK had been a big part of my childhood, but I had never written to Pai to tell him that. Just as Aditya had never written to Kosasih. Most people don’t write letters to God. And for me to try to meet Pai would have been unthinkable. But in a convoluted response to his death, I felt I had to meet Kosasih, who had just turned 92.

The man who would take me to Kosasih is a die-hard comic-head and a Mahabharata lover. Andy Wijaya quit a successful infotech career in Singapore and returned to Jakarta to see if he could turn his passion into a living. On a muggy day this April, I met Andy at his bookstore in one of Jakarta’s teeming supermalls. Squeezed between cheap Chinese clothes and sleek model airplanes, his bookstore is small but deadly serious in its focus on comics: there were sealed first editions, old collectibles, and new releases by authors both local and foreign, both classic and fresh. And, of course, there was Kosasih.

Andy has recently published Kosasih’s 40 Mahabharata titles in a single volume. That the size of the print run is just 1,000 confirms that Kosasih’s heyday is decidedly over. But Andy grew up reading Kosasih and wears his love on his sleeve. Indeed, that day he wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the cover of Kosasih’s Mahabharata volume.

We left the bookstore and submitted to Jakarta’s early evening rush hour.  Outside, the traffic was pure horror, but in the quiet of the cab, Andy seemed less frantic than at his bookstore. He told me how he tells his two little daughters stories from the Mahabharata every night. And he told me about Sunan Kalijaga, one of Indonesia’s nine ‘walis’(Sufi saints), who had apparently incorporated the Mahabharata into his teachings. We talked about how surprising it was that he had never heard of ACK and I hadn’t heard of Kosasih till recently. During the lulls in the conversation, I tried to stay present to the reality that I was in fact going to meet Kosasih—a household name in a country of nearly a quarter-billion people.

Hobbled by traffic, we reached Kosasih’s home in a deep southern suburb of Jakarta way past our appointed time. As we sheepishly entered his living room, Kosasih, a picture of Javanese grace, rose from his chair to greet us and I was immediately infected by his ease. He looked like a frail Yoda, but his bright eyes sparkled with an impish wit. And as he spoke, his long, bony fingers traced invisible figures in the air. Looking around I could see that his legendary fame had not translated into material comfort; the house was modest and in need of urgent repair. With Andy’s help, I spent the next several hours chatting with Kosasih.

His reasons for starting the comics based on the great epics are rather pedestrian. Unlike Pai, who, when asked about the origins of ACK, mentioned the epiphanic quiz show in which school kids could not name Rama’s mother, Kosasih had simply responded to an ad in the paper in 1953. Indonesia had just emerged from 250 years of Dutch colonial rule in 1949. There was an effort to forge a popular culture that was overtly indigenous. Indonesian or Bahasa Indonesia (which is mainly Malay, with a generous sprinkling of Sanskrit, Arabic and Dutch) had been adopted as the official language in 1945. Popular literature in this new language would be a powerful tool to unify this archipelago of over 17,000 islands. And what better content than the great epics—a prominent presence in the Javanese cultural firmament for nearly a millennium? Much of Kosasih’s early work had been commissioned.

His success naturally inspired others, notably Teguh Santosa (1942-2000), whose Mahabharata comics enjoyed enormous popularity in the 1980s. Santosa’s art is more explicitly Javanese in its iconography and much more stylised, hence more sought after by comic enthusiasts and collectors in Indonesia today. He swerved away from Kosasih’s world of inked outlines filled in with flat colour to a visual bonanza, where moonlight actually looks moonlit. Santosa might have been an accidental disciple, but Kosasih explicitly mentored others, such as Jan Mintaraga.

By now I was itching to ask Kosasih the obvious question. No, he had never heard of ACK, or of Anant Pai. When told that Pai’s comics, started 13 years after his, look very similar, he turned on the sweetest buck-toothed grin. But what about his characters? What about the curvaceous, lotus-eyed women and stocky men with extravagant moustaches? They didn’t look Indonesian in the slightest. Where did those images come from? “Ah, that,” said Kosasih, “that was Bollywood.” So there it was, our blockbuster volcano, which continues to spew fertile ash that settles across the globe: from Vladivostok to Istanbul to Cairo to Jakarta. In 1950s Indonesia, Bollywood was all the rage. Kosasih still cannot forget Awara, and when he talks of Nargis, I can see the ancient embers kindle his creased face.

Kosasih is a practising Muslim. His daily prayers are not in conflict with his other daily habit of reading the Gita, which he described using the word “sempurna”. The meaning of this Indonesian version of ‘sampurna’ is not ‘complete’ but ‘perfect’. “The perfect text,” said Kosasih. “It should be required reading for every literate human being, irrespective of creed.” Welling up within me I felt the need to notice that a practising Muslim had just praised the Gita, and with a leaden heart recognised it as a Subcontinental tic. Indonesia has placed the Mahabharata squarely within its secular inheritance, of which the Gita happens to be a chapter. Here in India, we have placed the Gita on the Holy Book pedestal, partitioned by impregnable walls, and by contagion stuffed the Mahabharata in the saffron cubbyhole.

It had now been several hours and I could tell Kosasih was tiring. As I rose to take my leave, he said he has had visitors from Japan and some from Europe, but no one had visited him from India before. Then he hastened to add that he’d never been to India and never had to learn about India in school. Like every Javanese child, the Mahabharata stories were mother’s milk, but he had found out about the India connection much later. We stood there, silently acknowledging the surprising lack of curiosity our two countries have for each other. Neighbours by geography, neighbours on the alphabetical list of nations because of history, and yet gripped by severe amnesia, barely a blip on each other’s collective consciousness.

At parting, when I held Kosasih’s shrivelled hands to thank him, I was also thanking him on behalf of Aditya, Jane, Wibisono, Beelong and innumerable others whose childhood Sundays he dominated for 40 years. And I was finally thanking Pai for my childhood Sundays. In surrogate.