‘Tinkle’ creator Subba Rao gets nostalgic on magazine’s 40th birthday, recalls famous characters and stories

Kalia the Crow was the brainchild of Luis Fernandes. "We had our editorial office in Wodehouse Road in Colaba, in a 100-year-old mansion. A crow used to visit us every afternoon around lunchtime. It would remind us to put our pens down and take a break," Rao shared.

Unless you have been living under a rock these past 40 years, the word ‘Tinkle’ would certainly evoke feelings of nostalgia. It was the year 1980, when a small team of writers, editors and illustrators got together and breathed life into a magazine that continues to be in circulation, catering to the demands of a whole new generation and loved by children and adults alike.

On the occasion of the magazine’s 40th anniversary on November 14, indianexpress.com reached out to Subba Rao, who was a part of the core team (he was also the then Associate Editor of Amar Chitra Katha), along with Luis Fernandes, editor Anant Pai — also fondly referred to as ‘Uncle Pai’ — and Kamala Chandrakant. In fact, Rao’s role was instrumental right from the conception of its name to bringing to life certain key characters which are immensely popular even today!

The idea to start Tinkle magazine came to Rao, as he wanted a spin-off for Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) comics which were already in circulation and doing quite well with their tales of Indian mythology. “Back then, if I recall correctly, there were only two children’s magazines: Shankar’s Children’s Book Trust and India Today Group’s ‘Target’. I still felt that there was a large chunk of reading material out there, and that there was a scope for monthly comics. While the format would be a magazine, the medium would be comics. Tinkle began as a monthly magazine, and later became fortnightly. It was visualised as a children’s monthly digest, because of its variety of stories, a two-page feature on science, animal life and a few brain teasers, along with a lot of readers’ participation. Fortunately, the formula clicked. Also, we kept mythology out of it, because we didn’t want Tinkle to compete with ACK,” he said over a telephonic interaction from his residence in Mumbai.

Rao went on to say that a one of its kind all-India storytelling event was organised around the time of launch. “We announced that every child who would participate in the competition, would get a copy of the magazine. We must have given out around 30,000-40,000 copies as prizes! It was unheard of in those days.”

The dream team

Rao remembered the “excellent team” that he was a part of. Of the legendary Anant Pai, who passed away in 2011, he said: “I conceived Tinkle but he supported it.”

“Then there was Luis Fernandes, who was an excellent script writer. In the formative years, I would tell the stories and he would write them. Kamala Chandrakant was the language editor. And all the promotional events were done by Anant.”

Tinkle’s enduring legacy and social relevance

Decades after launch, the magazine continues to enjoy a cult following. What could be the reason for this? “Unfortunately in India, we do not have too many good children’s magazines. The children of this country deserve a much greater variety. When Tinkle was launched, there was hardly any competition. I never considered that to be a happy situation,” Rao commented, adding that while they created some iconic characters like Suppandi, Shikari Shambu, and Kalia the Crow, among others, there was none that was representative of contemporary India. “That gave me a sense of great dissatisfaction.”

Creation of popular characters

The team wanted the magazine to depict certain original characters. Kalia the Crow was the brainchild of Fernandes. Vasant Halbe, a popular cartoonist in Maharashtra, brought the crow to life. “We had our editorial office in Wodehouse Road in Colaba, in a 100-year-old mansion. A crow used to visit us every afternoon around lunchtime. It would remind us to put our pens down and take a break. Luis (Fernandes) used to feed it every day; they became friends. That, perhaps, inspired him to start the series,” Rao shared.

Shikari Shambu was, as Rao explained, an answer to ‘Detective Moochhwala’ — a flagship character that appeared in the Target magazine. “Tinkle knew it had to compete with Target. And since there was already a detective, having another one was out of the question. One evening, in my Andheri flat, I happened to watch The Lucy Show — a popular sitcom. In that, Lucy’s husband was a big-game hunter. One episode had me laughing. The next day, we decided that a big-game hunter could stand up to Detective Moochhwala — and that is how Shikari Shambu was born. Ultimately it was Luis who brought him to life; I had only given the idea,” he said.

On Suppandi, Rao shared that it was a reader-sent mail from Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu that carried the idea of the character, who is essentially a fool and a misfit. “Very few people know that Suppandi is a folk hero from Tamil Nadu. The reader sent us a few episodes, and we realised it had the potential to become a series. It was later developed by Luis. The world is full of so-called ‘smart people’. And then there are underdogs who are ignored. People always relate to them, and I feel that is why Suppandi has been so successful.”

Naming the magazine ‘Tinkle’

It was essentially an editorial decision to have a name that would have an instant recall value and connect across states and regional languages of the country. “It was Anant Pai’s vision to have a name which would make sense in all the Indian languages. One evening, as we were having an editorial meeting, I received a call from a marketing person called Shyam Kapoor. I told him I will have to call him later, since I was in a meeting. He simply said: ‘All right, Subbu. I will give you a tinkle later.’ In those days, this expression meant ‘to call someone’. It sounded funny to me, and I made a flippant remark to call the magazine ‘Tinkle’. Pai immediately picked on the idea! He even thought of an ad campaign on the spot — children singing ‘Tinkle, Tinkle little star/How I wonder what you are’, and someone correcting them that it is actually ‘twinkle’, with them replying, ‘No silly, we are talking about a new star, a children’s monthly magazine called Tinkle!’”

While Rao is no longer directly associated with the magazine, he has seen it become more and more relevant with the passing of time. “I always like when there is some change. I want for it to have more original characters, to be more experimental, because not all characters will be accepted — and unless you experiment, you will not know,” he said in conclusion.

(As part of its anniversary celebrations, the team at Tinkle has come up with an anniversary e-weekly on the Tinkle app. It includes a special jigsaw puzzle. Additionally, for the landmark year, the team has also launched its 6th Tinkle Awards, where kids will get to vote for their favourite stories and characters. The magazine has also gone phygital (digital plus physical) this year, with e-weeklies appearing on the app from June 2020, including videos and vlogs and interactive games and puzzles.)

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