Indian comic book pioneer 'Uncle Pai' dies at 81

Anant Pai, a comic book pioneer whose colorful adaptations of Hindu mythology have been cherished by Indian children for nearly half a century, has died of a heart attack in a Mumbai hospital, his publishing house said Friday. He was 81.

Affectionately known as "Uncle Pai," he is credited with launching India's comic book industry in the 1960s with his series "Amar Chitra Katha" — or "Immortal Picture Stories" — chronicling the Sanskrit epics Mahabharata and Ramayana as well as Hindu folk tales and legends.

Pai meant for the series to be an educational tool. He was prompted by watching a quiz show on which Indian schoolchildren were unable to answer questions about Hindu mythology despite knowing Greek mythology, colleagues said.

"He believed the best way to communicate an idea or value to a child is through stories," said Reena I. Puri, his longtime editor at ACK Media publishing house. "He taught me everything I know. I am going to miss him terribly."

In 1980, Pai began publishing his wholesome children's series "Tinkle," giving the country its first Indian comic book characters living in modern times. The series, which like "Amar Chitra Katha" is ongoing, deals with topics of science and general knowledge not covered in the ancient Hindu texts.

Pai wrote his comics in English and excluded any slang, Puri said, because he worried children were not learning the language properly in schools.

"He wanted comics to become a medium accepted in schools," she said.

After falling and fracturing his foot last week, Pai underwent surgery Saturday and suffered a fatal heart attack a few days later, Puri said.

The fracture forced him to skip India's first-ever Comic Con in New Delhi last weekend, where fans gave him a lifetime achievement award.

"He was very excited about going to Delhi and wanted to postpone the surgery. The children were everything to him," Puri said.

Though he was mostly retired, Pai would visit his Mumbai office almost every day, even if just for an hour.

His unexpected death took people in the industry by surprise.

"He was a god of Indian children's literature. No one has shown Indian culture and heritage in such a beautiful way," said Gulshan Rai, who as head of New Delhi-based Diamond Comics had known Pai since 1990 and has published several comics based on Hindu folk tales not covered in "Amar Chitra Katha."

"He was an inspiration to me and so many others. We are so proud that he has developed this kind of literature for upcoming generations," Rai said. "His death is a great loss."

Pai was cremated at a small ceremony in Mumbai late Thursday. He is survived by his wife, Lalitha. The couple had no children.