Changing habits illustrate decline of India's comics

Image caption, Indian comics are under pressure from 21st century competition

India's once-flourishing comic industry is in sharp decline because of increasing competition from satellite television and cartoons on the internet, as the BBC's Zubair Ahmed in Mumbai discovers.

The home entertainment preferences of eight-year-old Ayan Lakhani epitomise many of the problems now afflicting the Indian comic industry.

Once homework has been completed at his residence in Mumbai, he is encouraged by his parents to expend surplus energy with his peers inside the secure walls of their gated community.

After this mandatory physical exercise is completed, Ayan is free to spend his remaining leisure time before going to bed in whatever way he likes.

But unlike his parents and probably his grandparents before him, Ayan does not spend this valuable rest and relaxation time avidly reading a comic.

Like many other youngsters around the world, he has abandoned comic reading and instead catches up with his favourite characters on the Cartoon Network.

Ayan's knowledge of the daily offerings provided by this satellite TV channel is no doubt every bit as detailed as his parents' knowledge - when they were his age - of comic book characters.

He rattles off the names of the programmes he watches every day and gets visibly excited when his favourite characters do something out of the ordinary on his favourite shows.

"I watch cartoons because I love the action in them. Tom and Jerry are my favourites," he says.

Rise of Moochhwala

Ayan's tastes are reflected in Mumbai's ever growing and ever more luxurious shopping malls in which, as elsewhere in India, the most crowded area is invariably the gaming section where youngsters are given the chance to test their skills on computer screens.

"Once I played a game in which a good cop whipped bad guys. The highlight was when a young boy watching me do so gave me a high five," one child enthusiastically declares.

"I come here once a week. But I would like to come here every day. I love this place!"

The gaming industry, combined with children's TV channels, have caused a sharp decline in the sales of comics across the country.

The comic industry in India evolved later in India than in the West. Up until the late 1960s they were not much in vogue, only enjoyed by the children of wealthy parents

But from that time until the early 1990s they began to establish a grip on the imaginations of innumerable Indian children.

Comic heroes, such as Phantom, Mandrake, Bahadur, Moochhwala and Crooke Bond became popular, loved and well known.

'Age of innocence'

In the industry's heyday, a popular comic could easily sell more than 500,000 issues over the course of its shelf life of several weeks. Today its equivalent will sell between 50,000 and 60,000 copies over a similar period.

Image caption, Ayan finds other leisure activities more alluring than reading comics

Comic expert Peter Dias says that it was during this "golden era" that comics held the monopoly on the reading entertainment of most children.

"I loved the character of Chacha Chaudhary," he reflects, "and in a way it was an age of innocence.

"Comic characters were so powerful that it is no exaggeration to say that they even played a role in shaping our personalities."

He argues that today India is a far more commercial and market orientated place - and the pressure on school pupils to pass exams is so intense that they can barely find time to read comics.

Even so, the industry is surviving and comics remain available in many Indian languages apart from English and Hindi.

In general, Western superheroes are preferred over their Indian counterparts.

Another reason put forward for the decline in comic sales is the price, which ranges from 190 rupees ($3.80;£2.40) to 4,000 rupees ($80;£50) for a collector's item.

Manoj Gupta, the owner of Raj Comics, says that spiralling prices have undoubtedly affected sales, which declined significantly from 1997 to 2003.

Lure new readers

Comic publishers meanwhile have been accused by critics of lacking innovation in the face of digital competition - allowing complacency to set in rather than spearheading the fight against TV and the internet.

Image caption, The industry says it hopes to stage a death-defying comeback

"There is a shortage of new titles and a lack of long-term investment. Moreover distribution plays a big role in our business and in recent years this has become weaker," Mr Gupta said.

Publishers and comic lovers have now galvanised themselves in an effort to restore India's comic industry to its former glories.

An annual comic book festival launched in Delhi last February was one of several fairs across the country intended to reach that objective by offering T-shirts and other merchandise to lure new readers.

Comic fair organiser Jatin Varma says that new players have succeeded in entering the market in the past few years despite the tougher competition.

"There is no doubt that there is a niche in the Indian market for our industry," he says.

"These days there are better marketing opportunities - remember that in the 21st century it's possible for a comic character to be turned into a money-spinning animation character.

"Publishers can merchandise the product and so on - the opportunities are there but we need to be more resourceful in pursuing them."

Some publishers have put their entire comic book collection on company websites. They are also providing links to digitalised versions of comic characters in hard copies.

"Competition is tough," says Mr Varma, "but that doesn't mean that comics - like the death-defying characters that are sometimes portrayed in them - cannot stage a remarkable comeback and survive against the odds."

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