Extracted from an Indonesian legend, The Great Race is a delightful potpourri of cultures. This folk tale has been retold by Indian-American writer Nathan Kumar Scott and illustrated by artist Jagdish Chitara who used the Mata Ni Pachedi style of ritual painting from Gujarat

Such literary collaborations would do the United Nations proud. When educationist and author Nathan Kumar Scott was researching about Indonesian shadow puppetry in the country, he encountered a glaring similarity with its Indian counterparts. "The most popular tales performed by the very ornate and elaborate Indonesian 'wayang kulit'(leather puppet) tradition are those of The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. During my research, I stumbled on another set of puppet tales -- which don't originate from India, but from the Malay Peninsula. They are called 'wayang kanchil' (Kanchil puppet), and feature the character and exploits of Kanchil, the diminutive mouse deer," shares Scott.

He adds that while folk tales originate from Malaysia, Malays don't use puppets to tell their stories. "This is uniquely Indonesian, based on puppetry traditions, which were brought to Indonesia from India. So I was introduced to this tale in Indonesia, told about a Malay character using Indian puppets!" explains Scott, who was born and raised in India of American parents.

Gujarat on a canvas
Flipping through the pages of this folk tale, one cannot miss the stunning artwork that will arrest the attention of the most distracted six-year-old. This is where 45-year-old folk artist Jagdish Chitara stepped in. Belonging to the Waghari community, the Amdavadi has been practicing this traditional art (Mata Ni Pachedi -- literally the Cloth of the Mother) since he was eleven.

"I learnt it from my father. We worked on cloth, using the handpainting technique initially, and later, moved to the block painting method," reveals Chitara from his home in Mirzapur, Ahmedabad. His textile art, which was on display at the Manav Sangrahalaya Museum in Bhopal, had impressed his publishers such that he was invited to Chennai to work on Scott's story. He tells us, "It was a challenge as I had never worked on paper I was taken through the process and explained Scottsaab's story. I completed the book's illustrations in a month. I was over the moon with the end result."

Jagdish Chitara at work on  one of his illustrations for The Great Race

Recalls Gita Wolf, Publisher-Tara Books, "I met Jagdish at a workshop we did with the Manav Sangrahalaya Museum in Bhopal. He'd brought along some of the ritual textiles he had painted, and I was stunned by the quality of the art and work. I liked the rendering of animals, and thought it would be interesting to work with him on a project."

Story board to success
How did the 'trickster' formula work for this folk tale, we asked Scott. "It fit rather nicely for the title. "Kanchil as a character fits neatly into the classic genre of Tricksters. There are trickster tales all around the world; nearly every culture has them. They are a celebration of brains over brawn and quick wits over brute strength.

And yet, tricksters are not flawless characters either, and succumb to greed and ego � and then they have tricks played on them, as happens in this story," elaborates Scott about the concept behind trickster tales like this. 

Clearly, this cross-cultural experiment is sweet reward that will promote novel methods in kids education as well as highlighting a traditional Indian art form. Summarising this experience, Wolf breaks it down for us, "We had Nathan's story; he wasn't involved with the actual art-working.

When Jagdish came to Chennai he was given the translated story. We came up with a storyboard and he started on the illustrations. Jagdish was an amazingly quick learner. When the final art was ready our team of designers did the layouts to create with this exciting product." We'll believe.

The Great Race, Nathan Kumar Scott & Jagdish Chitara, Rs 375. Available at leading bookstores.

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