Children's books on Indian history, mythology becoming more visually stunning

Gradually, children’s books on India’s history and mythology are warming up to quirky palettes, vivid illustrations and vibrant storyboards. Two illustrators and an editor take us through this emerging trend

Priya  Kuriyan Q. How did you get roped into to illustrate for Razia and The Pesky Presents?
A. I’ve illustrated books for Duckbill previously, and books Natasha had written with other publishers. So, I knew I could be assured of a really fun book to illustrate considering what a good combination Duckbill and Natasha would make. I was sent the first draft to read and it was hilarious. I love making irreverent illustrations and there was immense potential for that in this title.

A scene depicting Raziya falling down, extracted from the book Raziya and the Pesky Presents by Natasha Sharma.   ART/priya kuriyan
A scene depicting Raziya falling down, extracted from the book Raziya and the Pesky Presents by Natasha Sharma.  
ART/priya kuriyan

Q. What were some of the immediate challenges you faced when you began work on this?
A. Well, the biggest challenge was that there wasn’t much existing visual documentation available in terms of what she actually looked like, what her palace looked like or what exactly she wore. So, a lot of that had to just be imagined. But the fun part of it is that it lets you take artistic liberties that one could not have otherwise.

looking for suspects
Looking for suspects

Poetry reading session
Poetry reading session

Q. Since it was a historic-themed book, did you have to alter your basic style?
A. Not really. On the contrary, I often feel the influence of the miniature paintings in my work. So, in some way, that kind of fit in very neatly with this book.

The fear of the ghost. ART/priya kuriyan
The fear of the ghost. Art/Priya Kuriyan

Q. Have illustrations for Indian children’s writing taken a leap of faith with experimentation, ideas and bolder colour palates?
A. Yes, I think publishers and editors have begun seeing the potential of well-illustrated books. I think more publishers are looking at illustrations, not just a value addition, but as an integral part of the book. Also, illustrators are getting a lot more recognition for the work they do now, as compared to 10-15 years ago. There is still a long way to go, though. A lot more experimentation in terms of book formats/printing techniques and so on, is possible if the economics of it weren’t so tricky.

Razia And The Pesky Presents, Natasha Sharma, Duckbill,  Rs 175.
Razia And The Pesky Presents, Natasha Sharma, Duckbill,  Rs 175.

Sayan Mukherjee Q. What were the points that you had to consider, keeping in mind that you were dealing with India’s most famous epic?
A. The first thing in my mind while working on this book was to keep things very simple. Because I knew communicating The Gita to kids wouldn’t be easy if I don’t make things the way kids would find appealing. I want every young reader to come and flip through the pages of the book and understand that this book is made for them. I had spent a long time on getting the style right. But everything will pay off if kids love it.

Bewildered Arjuna; a scene from chapter 1
Bewildered Arjuna; a scene from chapter 1

Bewildered Arjuna; a scene from chapter 1

Q. How crucial was the style while working on this particular title?
A. The idea of having a bright and vibrant cover was must for this particular book. I have used Krishna and Arjuna on the cover, but in a more contemporary way. The usage of vibrant colours, simpler forms and bold patterns make the cover look more attractive.

panel from chapter 9; (centre) Arjuna at war; (left) panel from  chapter 15
Panel from chapter 9; (centre) Arjuna at war; (left) panel from chapter 15

I wanted the kids to look at the book from a distance and grab it. The illustrations inside are simple and are in monochrome, even though some of them depict complex ideas.

The Gita for Children, Roopa Pai, Hachette, Rs 299. ART/SAYAN MUKHERJEE
The Gita for Children, Roopa Pai, Hachette, Rs 299. ART/SAYAN MUKHERJEE

The figures and expressions are line drawings mostly, with basic wash of shadows. This might look simple, but again we spent some time to get it right. Overall, it came out nice and the style also blends in well with the text.

'Today's kids have a lot of exposure to funky art'

Q. What are the specific challenges that face children’s book publishers while dealing with history and mythology, especially with regards to the visual element?
A. The main challenge is to be as ‘true’ as far as possible in both cases. In mythology, much of it was orally transmitted, we have only versions of what might have been the original, so much is ‘lost’ or ‘added’ in transmission or translation or retelling. So that’s a challenge.

Vatsala Kaul Banerjee
Vatsala Kaul Banerjee, Editorial director, (Children’s titles) Hachette India

Also, one grows up with mythology, one feels one ‘owns’ it in many ways; however, mythology also has a ‘faith’ and ‘religion’ aspect and one has to respect that. Specifically, the art — mostly one finds reinterpretations of interpretations, of interpretations. We look at references from different sources — clues from the text, temple art, other art; whatever that is accessible.

We try to stay true to the text descriptions as much as possible, so if a chariot had four horses pulling it, we do have four horses pulling it, or if a character was half-man half-bird, he stays like that, but beyond that, artists use their own interpretation of how the picture itself may look, and we welcome that. History is a little different, because you might have evidence such as photographs or an extant ruin. For pre-history, one goes
by what reliable research brings forth.

Q. How much of artistic and creative license can be taken in this context?
A. Depends on what kind of book you are doing. If it’s a reconstruction of mythology or history, I guess you can do what you want. As far as you keep to basic ‘facts’ accepted by most versions of the text, beyond that you can be imaginative/creative in the rendering.

For The Gita for Children, we chose Sayan Mukherjee because we could depend on him to read the text, immerse himself in it, and then come up with simplified and beautiful drawings in a bold contemporary style, with a touch of the classic.

We didn’t want a ha-ha Arjuna or a cartoon-ey Krishna, but we didn’t want very heavy drawings either. In this book, we did not want to trivialise them as figures in our epical or religious tradition, but we did want them to be more accessible. We have the Gita part of the Gita and then the ‘Lessons’, which are the author’s own interpretations and value-adds, so we needed two distinct styles and embrace readers with both.

Q. In an age where children’s attention spans are getting shorter, how important is this step?
A. Of course, today’s kids have a lot of exposure to funky art, but they are also organically exposed to all kinds of traditional art (rangoli, clothes prints) and so on, and we shouldn’t presume that they like only one style of art/visuals. We cannot have the same look for every book in order to woo readers.

I do try out the cover and some illustrations on a few kids - but that exercise can be self-defeating, you know: the 40 kids you tried it on may love it, and the other 9,760 kids you want to sell the book to, may think it’s blah. I go by what I know from experience children may like, what has instinctive appeal, and how true the art is to the text... if it achieves that, the book will present itself as a cohesive whole to the reader, rather than confuse him with cartoon illustrations or classic text, for instance.

Q. Do you believe that refreshing illustrations will be key to ensure that younger readers warm up to history and mythology in a better way?
A. What is refreshing is subjective, but yes, they certainly help to get kids interested, especially in the younger age group of below 10. After that kids get used to having books with fewer or minimal illustrations and they can imagine the story/text visually on their own quite well. However, if the book doesn’t hold up to the illustrations, then the reader will not read on. The presumption that kids are not naturally interested in mythology or history is wrong.

Kids are not naturally disinterested in history or mythology, but if you tell everything in writing in a boring or low-quality way, then I don’t blame them. In terms of illustrations, our books budgets more often than not limit us. We rely on and appreciate artists who illustrate children’s books without demanding the earth.

You know that book budgets for children’s books are very tiny, and the price noose is prohibitive; that’s why you don’t see as many colour books from Indian publishers, which is a shame. Paying for colour illustrations can completely out price the book in the market. It’s important for the mediators — parents and teachers and librarians — to enable the children to have access to good-quality writing and good-quality illustrations, rather than choose the value-for-money book.

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