Srinivasan says she framed the story with a child narrator, who is present on every page and thinks about her own artistic production in the course of the story
The Mini Masters boxed set, a popular board book collection for preschoolers in America, prompted California-based children’s author and poet Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan to think about a children’s book on Indian artists. One of the sets, she points out over an email conversation with mid-day, features the works of Degas, Van Gogh, Matisse and Monet with rhymes to accompany their famous paintings. Upon the suggestion of her publisher, however, the idea of an illustrated biography of Ravi Varma replaced that of a poetry book on the artist, and the result is Prince with a Paintbrush: The Story of Raja Ravi Varma (Red Panda), a sumptuous blend of words and images seen through the eyes of a young girl who loves to draw. “So many children I spoke to were familiar with artists in the western canon, but couldn’t recognise the paintings of well-known artists from India. Raja Ravi Varma was one of India’s most celebrated artists who blended European aesthetics with Indian imagery and connected the world more than a century ago. Yet, so few seemed to know him! I thought there was no better time to address this lapse.”
Srinivasan’s own generation grew up with a familiarity with Varma’s works. She describes his iconic lithographs with scenes from the epics hanging on the walls of her grandmother’s tharavad in Kerala, a starting point for several storytelling sessions in the house. Varma’s pioneering craft together with his commercial acumen apparent in the way he understood the value of mass production and set up India’s first lithographic press to make art affordable to everyone, were some of the things that drew her to his work and legacy. He “…travelled the length and breadth of the country at a time when travel was not easy, and also represented various regions of the country in his art. In many ways Varma’s art is a symbol of national integration and that appealed to me”.
While the book’s subject and narrator are both painters, it also seeks to give, as Srinivasan says, the artists among her readers an opportunity to think about their creativity. In this, illustrator Rayika Sen, who brought these different artistic worlds together, played an important role. She saw herself as a bridge that allowed the author’s words and Varma’s art to seep into young minds. Sen explains how her focus in the book’s introductory pages was to bring Varma’s childhood to life visually as there are no photographic records from that phase. “I used references from period films and the framework of the restored architecture to imagine and recreate what that would look like. For the pages having his artwork, I just wanted the illustrations to construct a framework that complemented the art without distracting from it. For that I drew inspiration from the paintings themselves. Like using a saree design as a border from a subject in a painting, or a particular object from another [like a peacock feather] and highlighting it so as to excite the young reader to focus on the details of the paintings,” she elaborates.
Both writer and illustrator highlight in particular the importance and beauty of Varma’s mythological portrayals and how some of our most popular and ubiquitous cultural markers can be traced back to them: “…readers will discover that Ravi Varma’s use of colour and realistic renditions of portraits have been ‘copied’ in old Bollywood posters and in Amar Chitra Katha comics that follow this approach. Children are also likely to be drawn to the stories from the Indian epics and the Puranas that were represented with such dramatic detail by Ravi Varma in his paintings,” observes Srinivasan.
While introducing young readers to Raja Ravi Varma’s vivid and fascinating world, the book, peppered with humour, is also valuable in the way it is presented from the distinct perspective of a little girl who is filled with wonder about the world, and yet is perceptive enough to feel sorry for Mangala Bayi, Ravi Varma’s sister, who though talented, couldn’t become as famous as her brother only because she was a woman.
A rhyming picture book called Parvati the Elephant’s Very Important Day is Srinivasan’s next project, currently waiting for the right publisher. “I recently read a 2019 report that stated that only about 27,000 wild elephants remain in India. It was 10 times a decade ago. And while there were five million elephants in Africa in the 20th century, only 4,50,000 exist today mostly because of poachers in search of ivory. I wanted to return the elephant—this beautiful large, gentle animal—to our collective consciousness in a joyful way with a story that has the simple premise of a day’s ‘adventure,’” says the author. She is hopeful that this new book will spread awareness about conserving our wildlife, help children learn about the splendour of Indian festivals through the representation of an Asian elephant in the south Indian temple setting, while its rhymes will aid their social and emotional development.