Childhood frames

Updated: Feb 13, 2019, 08:27 IST | Snigdha Hasan

Husband-wife duo Varun Grover and Raj Kumari bring together their diverse art practices for a coming-of-age graphic novel, hand-painted in Madhubani style and written in the Chhota Nagpuriya dialect

Childhood frames
A spread from the first chapter, depicting Biksu's initiation into hostel life

What is it that makes childhood beautiful? The simple experiences that seem ever-so routine in the moment, but acquire a new meaning when they remain accessible only as memories. A decade after he passed out of a missionary boarding school in Gumla, Jharkhand, Vikas Kumar Vidyarthi revisited his five years at the institution in a heartfelt letter he wrote to his artist cousin Raj Kumari and her husband, screenplay writer Varun Grover.

A spread from the last chapter. Pics/Raj Kumari
A spread from the last chapter. Pics/Raj Kumari

The episodes along with the people mentioned in the diary-like letter became the basis for the Hindi graphic novel Biksu - as Vikas was lovingly called - which took the couple two years to co-write and illustrate, and four years to get published. The book was first made available at the World Book Fair in Delhi last month and can now be ordered online.

Apart from chronicling a significant part of a childhood lived in a hostel, the book brings together the couple's diverse art practices. While Grover laces the dialogues with endearing, childlike spontaneity, and humour, Raj Kumari tells the story through hand-painted Madhubani artwork, a folk art style practised in Jharkhand and Bihar. To add another layer of authenticity, they chose to write in Chhota Nagpuriya, the dialect Biksu grew up speaking.

Raj Kumari and Varun Grover
Raj Kumari and Varun Grover

"Biksu began as a monthly series in 2012 in Chakmak, a widely circulated children's magazine in Central Schools and private schools in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. It gradually started enjoying a huge fan base, given the number of children who were writing in. That's when we thought it perhaps needs to be developed into a book," shares Grover.

Raj Kumari, who trained in product design at NIFT Hyderabad, had begun learning Madhubani art six months before the series was conceptualised. "As the pages kept adding, it became clear that there cannot be a better style to depict the simplicity and unhindered imagination of childhood than this," she writes in a note in the book. About rendering the folk art form to a graphic novel format that follows a fluid layout, Raj Kumari says, "My being new to Madhubani perhaps helped me gloss over elements that a seasoned artist would find problematic." But self-doubt was a part of the process, and validation came in the form of eminent artist Haku Shah's blurb for the book - "one that aims to blend the traditional with the modern."

A graphic novel; written in a not-so well-known dialect of Hindi; illustrated in Madhubani style - what makes the book unique, however, is the odds stacked against it. "Biksu was completed four years ago, but finding a publisher for it was an uphill task. We almost gave up in 2016," recalls Grover. "A well-known children's publisher liked the story, but told us they could go ahead with it only if we rewrote the novel in 'shuddh Hindi'. How can a dialect, spoken by so many people, be termed adulterated? As in cinema, even the publishing world prefers to do what has already been done," he laments.

That's when Sushil Shukla and Shashi Sablok of Bhopal-based Ektara – Takshila's Centre for Children's Literature & Art, stepped in and the novel saw the light of day under Jugnoo Prakashan. "It is priced at `525, which is nominal when compared to most graphic novels [of similar templates]. But it may still make it unaffordable for some," Grover says. "That's why the aim is to make the book available in as many school libraries as possible. Maybe when these kids grow up, they can buy such books on their own!"

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