Fighting a loss of innocence

Updated: Dec 23, 2019, 17:45 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

How do you react when a children's book you have toiled on for months is taken off the shelves, with hatred and hysteria surrounding its launch? If you are Priya Kuriyan, you pontificate and make your next drawing

In the children's book Ammachi's Glasses, Kuriyan spun a funny tale about a granddaughter's crazy day with her unforgettable Ammachi, who Kuriyan says was the "archetypal grandmother from memories of my own childhood in Kerala'. Pic courtesy/Priya Kuriyan, Tulika Publishers
In the children's book Ammachi's Glasses, Kuriyan spun a funny tale about a granddaughter's crazy day with her unforgettable Ammachi, who Kuriyan says was the "archetypal grandmother from memories of my own childhood in Kerala'. Pic courtesy/Priya Kuriyan, Tulika Publishers

November 17 was an eventful day for Priya Kuriyan. That evening, the illustrator received the Big Little Book Award at the annual literature festival, Tata Lit Live in Mumbai, for her contribution to children's literature. Somewhere around the same time, in Chennai, a storm was brewing. Publishing house Karadi Tales had planned to withdraw The Art of Tying a Pug, a book by Natasha Sharma, which Kuriyan, 38, had illustrated. For someone who has made a career of her child-like exaggeration of reality, the day had been bittersweet. "What happened was unfortunate," she says, weeks after the incident.

The book had sparked controversy over drawings of a little boy helping his father tie the pagdi (turban), as his pet pug is seen getting in the way. The idea was to make a how-to book that appealed to children. But, the pun on 'pug and pagdi' seemed to have incited sections of the Sikh community, who described it as "blasphemous and hurtful". Bombarded with threat calls and emails, Karadi decided to take the book off the shelves. If anything, the incident revealed how vulnerable the world of publishing is, even children's fiction. "It all started when Natasha was to take a workshop in Visakhapatnam, and members of the Sikh gurudwara there, felt offended with the way the pun was used in the book," says Bengaluru-based Kuriyan. "Everyone has the right to be offended. This wasn't something that we could control. Everyone's experiences are different, too. One Sikh woman, who along with her kids attended a workshop I held, loved the book. She said, 'There is finally a book about us'."

Pic/Ajeesh F Rawther
Pic/Ajeesh F Rawther

Unfortunately, while Natasha and Kuriyan thought they were representing diversity, the community that inspired the book, misunderstood. "I didn't imagine that this would become a big deal. Humour has a place in children's fiction. And, at the end of the day, it is literature too. Any literature has to be political, and should push the boundaries. You can't set guidelines for all to follow. Otherwise, we would all be making just textbooks." In fact, that's what Kuriyan had intended to change about children's books, when she took a leap of faith 15 years ago. Trained in animation at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, Kuriyan was always drawn to "character design and storytelling". On an impulse, she reached out to Tulika Books. "I had seen some of their works at the [college] library. Until then, I hadn't seen well-made picture books about Indian characters." They got back, and that's how she began work on her first book, I'm So Sleepy (2004), with Radhika Chadha, the story of an elephant that had forgotten how to sleep. Kuriyan, meanwhile, continued to work on animation projects with a production house, in Mumbai.

The scope of her work has since evolved. Kuriyan now works as freelance illustrator, experimenting with both YA and adult fiction too. In 2018, she worked with Devapriya Roy on the graphic novel, Indira (Context, Westland), a biography of Indira Gandhi. "We travelled together across Delhi and Allahabad [Prayagraj] to get the visual language and details of her [Gandhi] story, right." Only recently, she worked with historian Manu S Pillai on his third book, The Courtesan, The Mahatma and The Italian Brahmin (Context, Westland), where she created two unusual ink covers and even illustrated his essays. "Manu's writing is witty, but at the same time, this is history, so the challenge was to keep that balance. Also, since this one was for a mature audience, I had to tone down the exaggeration that I otherwise rely on for other books." Despite the controversy, Kuriyan continues to be partial to children's literature. Even the jury at Tata Lit Live praised her "rare ability to get inside a child's mind with her illustrations". She says, "It might just be my favourite genre".

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