Uncle Moon At 60
It’s the era our childhood belongs to, and when I say ‘our’, I mean you, me or anybody in the age group 18 to 80. Ask your grandfather if he has heard of Chandamama: chances are he would have even read it, if not read its stories out — to your father, that is.
For three generations of Indians, Chandamama and Childhood have gone hand in hand. Over the years, Superman and Spiderman might have elbowed out the valiant kings and princes in the imagination of pre-teen minds, but Chandamama manages to hold its fort as it approaches its 60th year.
Tales of King Vikram and Vetala, for example, is still a regular feature, which appears along with the same old sketch of the sword-wielding king walking through a cremation ground in the dead of the night with a corpse on his shoulder. For me, as a child, this trademark sketch was the ultimate symbol of bravery. I would look at it every now and then — at times at the fearless expression of the king, at times at the skulls strewn in the cremation ground, at times at the bats and the dangerous snake, and at times at the name of the artist, ‘Sankar’, which would be signed over a grey rock for easy visibility.
Sankar was one of my heroes, and I even wrote a post-card to Chandamama asking if they entertained freelance artists. I didn’t get a reply but my name did appear under the ‘Do You Know’ column — the first time I ever saw it in print. Anyway, the years rolled on and Chandamama entered the archives of my life — I didn’t really need it anymore but I knew it was safe somewhere.
Then, the other day, a quarter century later, I mentally dusted and dug out the archives as I hunted for the Chandamama office in Ekkatuthangal. A few minutes into the conversation with the editor and I mentioned to him what a great fan of Sankar I used to be. I wanted to enquire about the artist but feared that the reply could be heart breaking. But a surprise awaited me.
“Sankar is still here. He is about 75 now. You see, in Chandamama we don’t retire people,” informed the editor — a genial, self-effusing man called B Viswanatha Reddi, whose name appears in the magazine’s printline as Viswam.
Viswam himself is 63 — technically past retirement age. But then he looks only 53, and the passion with which he talks about the magazine makes his eyes resemble those of a pre-teen reader turning its pages. And in any case, owners don’t need to retire: Viswam, after all, is the son of the man who started Chandamama, the legendary film producer B Nagi Reddi. And Viswam has been in the editor’s seat since — now that was another big surprise to me — 1975. In other words, I was presently face to face with the man who had been editing MY Chandamama!
Chandamama is a month older than Independent India. The first copy came out in July 1947 — in Telugu and Tamil. It was brought out by Nagi Reddi and a writer called called Chakrapani, who had acquired minor literary reputation at the time because he was translating Sarat Chandra’s stories from Bengali to Telugu. He had learnt Bengali in a hospital in Madanapalli from a next-bed Bengali patient who was being treated for tuberculosis.
Nagi Reddi, on the other hand, used to run a printing press in George Town in Madras, and in 1945, had started a Telugu monthly, Andhra Jyothi. In the glow of the freedom movement, he also started a magazine for the youth called Yuva. It was with Yuva that he came to be associated with Chakrapani. Chandamama was an instant success. The first edition, priced at six annas, sold six thousand copies, and for a very long time the circulation stood at that figure.
Apart from working on Chandamama, Chakrapani also wrote stories and dialogues for the initial movies of Nagi Reddi who, by 1949, had acquired the Vahini Studios in Madras after its owner ran into tax problems. “The idea behind starting the magazine was to introduce the post-Independence child to Indian culture and tradition. Even today, we stick to the Indian ethos,” says Viswam, who too over the reins of Chandamama after Chakrapani died in 1975.
By then, it had become a household name across the country, being published in as many as 12 languages (the English edition began in 1955). The magazine's popularity peaked in the early 1980s when its combined circulation touched nine lakhs. It was also the period when Nagi Reddi had secured his reputation as the producer of “wholesome entertainment” movies with Swarg Narak and Swayamvar, both starring Sanjeev Kumar.
By then, he had already given Bollywood a few memorable movies — Ram Aur Shyam, Ghar Ghar Ki Kahani (in which actor Rakesh Roshan got his break) and Julie (which introduced Rakesh’s younger brother Rajesh as a music director).
But in 1980, his eldest son, Prasad, who helped him with the film business, died; and Nagi Reddi went into depression. Sanjeev Kumar sought to bring him back to his elements by successfully persuading him to make another film, Shriman Shrimati. “Sanjeev Kumar was a great support to my father. We were planning to ask him to run our movie business, but he died soon after,” says Viswam. The movie-making days were now, sadly, belonged to the past.
Chandamama, too, almost became history. In the mid-nineties, labour problems began to brew in their press at Vadapalani, where the magazine was headquartered for decades. Finally, a scuffle between workers and a supervisor spinned so much out of control that publication had to be suspended in May 1998. “It was the most painful decision of my life. I could have done much better in life had I not taken up Chandamama, but it was a passion for me,” says Viswam.
Adding to the labour trouble was a dispute in the family — Viswam calls it “conflict between ideologies of the second and the third generation.” The patriarch, B Nagi Reddi, meanwhile, lay bedridden in his Vadapalani home. Publication remained suspended for more than a year till two investment bankers, Sudhir Rao of Karvy and Vinod Sethi of Morgan Stanley, came to Chandamama’s rescue.
From a new, modest office in Ekkatuthangal, Viswam started all over again. “Once you shut down a publication, it is not easy to come back back. But by November 1999 we managed to print all the 12 languages and I presented the first set to my father on his birthday on December 1. That was the happiest day of my life.” The magazine sold six lakhs when it shut down, and when it revived, it sold around two lakhs — also the current circulation.
But seven years on, it has managed to break even and now, with some help from organisations like Infosys Foundation and Pratham, is seeking to expand its reach into rural areas. “For 60 years we survived on sheer goodwill. We never promoted ourselves. And we will continue to survive on goodwill,” says Viswam.
Considering three generations of Indians grew up on Chandamama, the goodwill is one thing you can’t doubt — so much so that Walt Disney has been reported to be buying it out. Viswam, however, says the report about Walt Disney taking over is only speculation. “I was surprised myself when the report appeared. My phone kept ringing throughout the day. Even my staff was upset that I had not told them anything.”
He, however, is in favour of a strategic partnership with Walt Disney where the American company can use Chandamama’s content for its programmes. But Viswam says his real desire is to see Chandamama develop into non-profit institution like Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan — the idea being to turn it into a permanent pillar of Indian culture and ethos.
If there is any truth in the report about Walt Disney’s takeover bid, then you could expect more action in the boardroom of Chandamama than in its editorial rooms. That should not matter for lay readers as long as they get their monthly quota of, “Once upon a time, there was a king...”