An Ideal Boy: Charts of India

Imran Ali Khan

There are images and then there are words, or is it the other way around? I am never quite sure. But a good way to ‘instruct’ is to say it without spelling it out, and so it is with the Indian Charts published in India around the 1960s and later by Tara Books (An Ideal Boy: Charts of India Tara Books, 2001) .

The Ideal Boy Charts are available everywhere from stationary shops at the corner of your street and on the pavement before you get there. There is no end to how desperately we want our young to be ideal, and how we feel the need to watch over them. Originally published in the 1960s, these charts were a visual reminder on how we can be the things we hope to be and how under the worst possible circumstances we are able, quite adequately, to solve the problem.

Like the chart, for example, which warns us about the evils that lurk around the corner when we are not looking – “throwing litter in open” and taking the “law in your hands” (where the law means anarchy). But while it is important to “salute your parents” and “pray”, we must always be equipped in case of an emergency. When someone faints, don’t bother with CPR just “sprinkle some water and fan”. But these are extreme situations; the ideal boy (rarely the girl) has other problems to deal with that are far more pressing.

What’s the best way to sharpen your pencil? However you choose to do it, don’t talk while you are you doing it because there is a possibility that you may get distracted and shove the pencil deep into your nose (but fear not because your book on First Aid is sitting on your lap, or at least that’s where it should be at all times).

The Good Habits of this ideal boy in question are an excellent study of how we see ourselves – not merely as good but as exemplary. He can no longer be a ‘boy’ in the Tom Sawyer way but is in fact some kind of larger than life moral compass by which we find ourselves. So whether he salutes his parents or is on the constant lookout for lost children to rush to the police station, this boy is every parent’s dream (or nightmare – however you want to look at it). What is fascinating about this chart and the entire series is that the ideal boy must do, and that’s all there is to it. Unlike other stories about bad boys gone good, here there is no hint of the pot of gold when he does. Would that have encouraged the boy to continue basking in the radiance of his high moral code? Or has he tired of it and today kicks kittens and beats old people instead? The generation that grew up with these charts is now quite possibly the generation that governs us. Enough said.

Fifty years after these were published (and they’re still in circulation), the question is whether the moral codes we draw from come to us from a colonial past or are they in fact from our own stories and myths? But moral instruction is one thing, retelling an epic is something else entirely.  Indian myths and epics play out in our everyday life, and the references to them follow us like shadows. So when you create a series of posters like the Ideal Boy, it would be imperative that the myths begin to appear. The chart that always catches my eye is the Ramayana.

Simply titled Ramayana, the chart is a wonderfully unselfconscious retelling of some of the main events from the epic. It begins with an episode from Dasharatha’s own life, the killing of the young ascetic, Sravana, on the banks of the Sarayu river. Why would you begin a narrative here? When this work was designed and put together did the artist imagine the Ramayana to be a tale of the revenge of curses? Does this Ramayana tell its own story – one that is in many ways, a cautionary tale about arrogance in one’s abilities and carelessness with one’s skills? And do the moments we choose come to define our way of seeing the narrative – where our actions, whether in this life or the last, come back to haunt our days?

How does a narrative work when it is based entirely on a visual language – does it allow for us to layer the narrative with our own understanding or does it instead expect the reader to read it as it is represented? When the chart skips through huge sections of the Ramayana, how does one read it? Or does one read it at all? So when we leave out the agnipariksha, are we battling with our own discomfort with it or are we saying that some stories are best left when there is no room for questions?

But, having said that, the beauty of these charts are not so much in the narrative sequence that they ask us to follow but in the semiotics that they ask us to recognize. Recalling a film set from the 70s, with the bright pink curtains heavily scalloped and the thrones of gold, the body language and expressions assigned to the characters indicate to the reader whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, godly or plebian. Rama is always in the foreground, blue-tinged and godly, Lakshmana always smaller and a step behind. Sita follows the visual tropes of the dutiful wife, often depicted with one knee bent submissively, with her gaze fixed on Rama or the ground and never at us.

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