Cut me some quack...
... is what artist Devangana Dash seems to say in her debut picture book that details the bird songs of India
We've been told to not judge a book by its cover. But when we come across Devangana Dash's The Jungle Radio (Penguin India), gleaming with gold embossed lettering, birds and foliage on the cover, it's hard not to stare — there seems to be no end to this fascination. And ahead of World Migratory Bird Day, observed on May 11, an annual event backed by the United Nations to highlight the need for protecting these birds, it only makes sense to pick this up.
Dash agrees with our judgement. "I am pleased with the final printed cover too, and it did end up looking and 'shining' like a little celebration of birds of India." Based in New Delhi, she has frequently illustrated book covers. But this is her debut picture book, and so illustrating her own, she says, was overwhelming.
The Jungle Radio (TJR), as a children's book, is a salute to our country's birds and their charming calls. It's a story told by Gul, whose radio sets her off on a new adventure — from discovering a magpie's chur-chooo and swee-wee-wee to the nightjar's chit-chit-chitrr-chitrrooorrr. And as a birder, Dash, 27, found inspiration in her own balcony where parakeets, babblers, sunbirds, kites, and woodpeckers flock by.
"But I got properly introduced to the colourful and musical world of birds only in college in 2013, where the book was originally conceived as a part of a storytelling project for environment education. The classroom led me to the jungles of Bandipur, Karnataka, which was fascinating for a student of nature like me," she tells us.
The book stems from intensive research. "While engaging with school-going kids in Bengaluru and Delhi I found that most city children were aware of only a handful of birds around them — commonly parrots, crows, pigeons, peacocks, and eagles, and ostriches! [You don't find in India]. For the sound component in the book, I was referring to audio clips and recordings of bird songs and calls, so I could accurately translate them into words," she informs.
For the illustrations, which were first hand-painted, Dash curated photographs of the exact species of birds so that the drawings would not be confusing for kids. "After a few birdwatching walks, I even started sketching all the birds I saw in my journal to remember the species correctly — the basic features including the size and shape of their beaks, and their feet, to help me differentiate between species. I referred to several books by the legendary Dr Salim Ali, and many field guides and writings on bird behaviour which helped me conceptualise and depict the content authentically," she shares.
TJR, Dash maintains, is essentially for urban children to familiarise them with these sounds that are missed or taken for granted, through an accessible and enjoyable story. With a rhyme in every paragraph, as adults, we can certainly attest to this.
"I believe that we can sensitise children towards the sounds of nature, when they look at these sounds as a crucial, intangible component of the forest resource," she explains, shedding light on how birdwatching is viewed as a boring activity in contrast to a multi-sensory experience with your eyes, ears, memory and even luck at play.
At the end, the writer and illustrator has weaved in a bird identification chart along with resource material such as a guide for birding, audio references and a list of bird sanctuaries in India. According to Dash, any medium that encourages children to be close to nature is the need of the hour.
"I wouldn't say there is a paucity of the material available. Because in the last few years, children's content on environment has been really out there and children's book publishers, educators and curriculum designers are dedicating themselves to producing a lot of informative and exciting content on the subject. However, knowing the state of affairs of the world we live in, I feel more stories around this subject will always be crucial, and have to be told and retold."
Dash's top three favourite birds include the Eurasian hoopoe for its crown of feathers, flamingoes for their lush pink colour and the Indian pitta, which she rescued in college
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