Friday, 9 October 2015

Book review: The Secret of Falcon Heights by Ranjit Lal

The Secret of Falcon Heights

Text: Ranjit Lal

Penguin Books. 2014. Paperback.  Rs. 250. 220 pages. English. Young adult.

ISBN: 978-0-143-33333-3

Until about five years ago, I was afraid we would never have relevant India- centric literature for young adults. Unanswered questions teased me: Why were we, as writers and readers, afraid to engage with the societal skeletons in our collective cupboards? Why were we constantly shielding our teens from explosive subjects that throng our media?

My misgivings vanished when Ranjit Lal ~ whom I have long admired for the engaging bandwidth of his writings ~ published ‘Faces in the Water,’ brilliantly tackling female infanticide with sensitivity and surety. His novel won the Crossword Best Children’s Book award in 2010.

Was his a random excursion down an offbeat track? Lal, to my delight,  proved me wrong to establish himself as an intrepid explorer of the young adult genre. Take the 1984 Delhi riots in ‘The Battle for No. 19’. Or child sexual abuse in ‘Smitten.’ Or teen sexuality in ‘Black Limericks.’ I came to applaud each rivetting read for his literary daring and masterly storytelling.     

          In ‘The Secret of Falcon Heights,’ Lal engages with other taboo subjects that seldom enter Indian drawing rooms. Here he explores (hold your breath!) political corruption, social ostracism and even an episode with shadows of Bhanwari Devi in 1992. 

On the tantalizing book jacket, a young woman in black sets a falcon free to soar against an idyllic landscape. The cover blurb reads: ‘She’s beautiful. She’s fearless. She’s bewitching. So why is she the ‘leper’ of Pahadpur?’ Lal treats his subject with a cinematic, edge-of-the-seat vividness, interspersed with episodes of distilled teen spirit, pulsing with life. 

Sandeep, 17, narrates the story, set against a post-colonial pucca hill station, complete with a club, an army set-up and treks into the hill. How will he and his siblings ~ Manish (14) and sister Chubs (7) ~ survive three months in the internet- free hills with their terrier Jacko, under the eagle eye of great aunt Mita Masi?  They are tantalized by Aranya, the girl next door at Falcon Heights. The townsfolk shun her; they gossip darkly about her past. But what is the truth?

With all the drama of breaking news, Lal transforms the mundane into an irresistible adventure that is unputdownable, yet inoffensive to teen readers, parents and teachers alike. His dialogue, distinctive of sibling rivalry and revelry, helps. So does his ability to weave in full-blooded twists and turns into his quick-paced plot. Who are the s/heroes; who the villains? Lal keeps the reader guessing almost till the end.

Sandeep’s voice is in perfect sync with today’s teens. Take this nuanced hint  of first love when driving past Aranya in distress on a rainy road, thanks to Mita Masi’s prejudices: ‘I turned around and stared: her face was lit by the battery lantern… Her jaw was taut, her chin stuck out defiantly, rain streaming off it, but there was anguish in her eyes, the same devastated, hollow anguish I had seen in Papa’s eyes when Mom passed away.’ From that moment on, it is impossible not to root for Sandeep’s happiness, no matter how danger-laced.

Lal’s writing is charming with its unusual detailing. For instance, the way the older siblings nurture Chubs playfully, coaxing her out of her wandering ways.  Or the enchanting evocation of Aranya’s falcon as it mantles its pigeon prey on a ledge. With the trio’s parents out of the big picture (a device often used by Enid Blyton and JK Rowling), the coast is clear for an adrenalin-fuelled plot.

 This powerful narrative soars, dips and lands as effortlessly as Aranya’s falcon. In Lal’s experienced hands, it never nose-dives into patchiness of tone, plot or character.

I am now a committed Ranjit Lal fan for his convincing unravelling of the ugly, everyday India. Especially since he has made this world accessible to young adults.


This review originally appeared in the GoodBooks site: 

Monday, 14 September 2015

Book review: Big Bully and M-me

Big Bully and M-me
Text: Arti Sonthalia
Illustrations: Sebin Simon
Duckbill. 2015. Paperback. Rs. 150. 68 pages. English. Age: 7+
ISBN: 978-93-83331-21-5

Some issues are so fiercely volatile, so intrinsically fragile, that they need handling with kid gloves, especially in children’s books. Yet, reading novels by British authors Jacqueline Wilson, Michael Morpurgo and Elizabeth Laird are like master-classes in how to communicate the most bleak, even gory, subjects. Broken homes. Refugee lives. Current politics.  Mental illness. The differently abled. They touch each issue with deep understanding, sensitivity and superb storytelling to make it child-accessible.

Within the Indian context, some authors have mastered this tricky turf. Names that spring to mind immediately include Sigrun Srivastav, Ranjit Lal and Paro Anand.

 To me, Arti Sonthalia’s book stands apart from the other Duckbill Hole books I have read because it is essentially issue-based. The series, for children just stepping into chapter books, has uncomplicated plots, fun characters and lively illustrations.

How is Sonthalia’s distinctive? Her plot, potentially a minefield because her narrator Krish has a speech impediment, is handled with intelligent emotion, laced with humour. Her quick-paced storytelling is a sure invitation to even reluctant readers. Her adept handling of the subject will silence adult doubters who ask, “But why write about this for children?”

Her main character Krish (he hates being called Krishna), is shorter and skinnier than his classmates at Bright Side School. Self-doubt clouds his days. Will his best friend Green pick him at basketball? Will Ishaan, the class bully, trip him up every day? How many wily ways must he think up to avoid oral tests, plays and debates?

His worst nightmare comes to life when Krish’s class teacher decides on an extempore speaking contest for the semester show, with an irresistible prize. But why must he be paired with the Big Bully? I will resist giving away more of this quirky plot.

Sonthalia gifts Krish a credible narrative voice: “Every time I open my mouth, my words break and jerk, making it difficult for others to understand what I say. Sometimes the words get stuck in my throat and won’t come out.’

The supporting characters are as vivid, as unforgettable. Like Dennis ‘the Menace,’ their class teacher, who ensures that classes are fun-packed. He believes Krish can conquer challenges.  

Krish’s mother promises him a new bicycle if his extempore is smooth sailing. His super-achiever brother wins an inter-school spelling bee. His smart classmate Khushi seems to read his mind. Krish is in awe of them until he discovers that everyone is human. This changes his world.  

Sonthalia evokes Krish’s plight just right. She does not talk down to young readers, neither does she preach. Her narrative sparkles, her vocabulary is spot on.

In an interview with Tanu Shree Singh on the Duckbill blog, Sonthalia says, ‘I did my research on stammering and what children face when they stammer. I also met the Indian Stammering Association leader in Hyderabad.’ She attended their sessions, listened to podcasts, read books ‘to feel the trauma a person who stutters goes through.’ What emerges is a poignant tale about the human condition, its sunshine and shadows, wrapped in an extra-large heart.

Sebin Simon’s zany illustrations enhance the story. Such as notebook jottings of Krish plotting his way to a new bicycle. Or a class joke translated as a teapot filling a car petrol tank. Or Dennis in a mighty stretched jump-stop. Or a Krish’s tall mother looming over Dennis as he announces the results.  

Sonthalia seems like a natural for the Hole books, even with her first book for children. Would young readers and older reviewers like to read more by her? Yes, beyond a shadow of a doubt. 

This review was originally published in GoodBooks at:

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Book review: A Bhil Story

A Bhil Story

Text and visuals: Sher Singh Bhil and Nina Sabnani

Tulika Publishers. 2015. Paperback. Colour. Rs. 175. 32 pages. English. Age: 5+

ISBN: 935046628-7

Folk tales take us back to our roots, to ancient wisdom, often to common sense. Some memorable versions of Nani’s or Ajji’s tales illuminate the trail of Indian children’s publishing over the past two decades – such as Gita Wolf’s ‘A Very Hungry Lion,’ Vayu Naidu’s ‘A Curly Tale’, and Shobha Vishwanath’s ‘The Blue Jackal.’ Retold with finesse, each has an inbuilt rhythmic narrative that is in sync with the spoken word, a grandmother’s way of evoking time and place.

‘A Bhil Story,’ in a nutshell, is about how the parched village of Jher in Madhya Pradesh searches for water. Its dramatic personae include Sher Singh, wise Bhuri Bai, a rooster with a flair for drama, and the local badwa or shaman, who can divine water sources.

The book was sparked by a workshop at the Industrial Design Centre at IIT, Bombay, supported by the Tata Centre for Technology and Design. As a follow up, film-maker/ illustrator/ animator Nina Sabnani led a team to Jhabua district in Madhya Pradesh, in the footsteps of Bhil artist Sher Singh.

The tale was first realized as an animated film, voiced by the villagers. It was later reborn as this book. Sher Singh’s pithora paintings – akin to prayers in the Bhil community, with each dot evoking an ancestor – are bright, tantalizing, deeply evocative. Each dot or line is a call to the imagination as they morph into a person or an animal, each frame is infused with movement. For the reader, his is a call to explore, to ‘read’ the pictures and between each frame.

The relationship of visual to real life grows richer once we realize that Sher Singh, as a child of seven, learnt to paint from his mother Bhuri Bai. (Is hers a common name among the Bhils? Is this a true story from their lives?) By 15, he had graduated from walls to canvas, and evolved an individual colour palette. 

As I read this book through four times over, my eyes danced with delight over Sher Singh’s images. In one corner, two wild-haired heads look goggle-eyed into the text. Across another spread, meandering villagers with pots move towards a little bird that symbolizes hope. They follow a ribbon of water till they find an overflowing pot under a badwa with a dholak. His advice to the villagers is simple: go home and paint trees on your walls.  

That, say Bhil folks, is how the tribals began to paint – and how they had enough water ever after. This origin tale points to sound environmental logic – with enough trees planted, we can save the parched earth and ourselves.  

Within the Bhil community, we know that sacred Pithora paintings signify happiness, peace and prosperity. They are a must at weddings, childbirth and festivals, doubling as a visual spell to heal sick children or cattle. The local badwa, when called in to mediate with Pithora Baba, often suggests a painting as an offering.

Sher Singh’s art teems with life. It is pristine, primal, yet sophisticated, dancing to a secret rhythm.  If only the folktale retold here had responded to its call. Instead, lost in translation, the text proves lacklustre, even bordering on the pedestrian.  

This sparked a slew of questions:   

Was the text a literal translation of the Bhil tale from Jher village? Could editorial intervention have enhanced its rhythm to bring it alive in English? Why is the story less playful than its latent humour suggests? Would the use of more local Bhil words with Word Bird notes as in earlier Tulika books have helped? Would creative use of typography have proved the right match for Sher Singh’s singing pictures? Could a better designer have worked magic? Such dynamic visuals, we realize, could have told the tale on their own.

This book is disappointing because of how exceptional each of Nina Sabnani’s earlier books for Tulika were. Remember ‘Mukand and Riaz,’ ‘Stitching Stories’ and ‘My Gandhi Story’?

In this case, between the art and the story falls the shadow. No matter what the answers to these questions, this is a far cry from the best of Tulika. 

Originally published on the GoodBooks blog:

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Book review: The House that Sonabai Built

Text: Vishakha Chanchani
Photographs: Stephen P. Huyler
Tulika Publishers. 2014. Paperback. Colour. Rs. 250. 32 pages. English. Age: 8+
ISBN: 935046627-9

What happens when a dedicated art educator/ writer like Vishakha Chanchani teams up with noted US-based cultural anthropologist and Indian folk craft expert Stephen Huyler? They magically, quite poetically, conjure up the life of Sonabai of Puhphutara village in Madhya Pradesh.  

Some lives are akin to those of a plant. Without sunlight and water, they wither and perish. Others struggle to bloom against all odds. Sonabai’s life – part of Tulika’s ‘Looking at Art’ series for children ~ was like a never-say-die flower.

How was the book born? As Vishakha puts it, ‘Stephen Huyler’s passionate sharings in his book on Sonabai provided eloquent reference. He brought her work into a fuller picture… I was overwhelmed by her story and the solitude of her journey. Her joyful creations spoke of a love of life that in reality had been denied, but could not be stolen from her.’

For Sonabai’s story echoes that of thousands of creative minds from rural India. Like other women from the Rajawar community, she was born to a landscape of dust and obscurity.  At 14, she was married to Holi Ram, much older than her. He permitted her to pitch in with their fields or to use the well, but she was forbidden to meet anyone, even her own family.

‘Sonabai dared not disobey him. So she stayed like a prisoner in her own home. Alone with her son,’ writes Vishakha.

Instead of succumbing to darkness or depression, Sonabai looked for light. Harking back to childhood memories of clay play, between chores she made her little Daroga Ram ‘a monkey, a girl, Krishna playing the flute.’ Her tools were born of the earth and necessity – a bristly brush from the chewed, blunt end of a stick, natural pigments of ground leaves and vegetables.

Sonabai’s journey is evoked simply yet vividly by both the text and Huyler’s brilliant photographs: ‘As the clay touched her fingers, and her fingers touched clay, something happened! Her heart leapt up, and a new light gleamed in her eyes… She suddenly remembered the days when she was carefree and young, when she had helped her mother smear cow dung and earth on the wall – how she would make zigzag or curly patterns with her fingers upon wet white lime, which was used to paint walls, and then decorate them with designs.’

Huyler’s images are like rich, dazzling lodes of Indian folk life. A hand with bangles etches lines on a clay wall, elemental yet elegant. Rice straw hair streams from a face yet unborn, as gnarled fingers shape eyes. A faceless woman paints a fashioned parrot in vivid green.

Like more urban artists like MF Husain and Jamini Roy in the Tulika series, Sonabai’s tale is both personal and universal. As her spirit began to soar, she created creepers and leaves in relief for the house Holi Ram built. To diffuse the harsh light that entered their home, she cobbled together fantastical lattices / jaalis of bamboo, twine and clay, embellished with lively human and animal figures.

Out of the blue, a team from Bhopal’s noted Bharat Bhavan for the arts came to Puhphutara. Though homes in the area were traditionally decorated, at Sonabai’s they found an unbelievable wonderland. As Huyler observed, ‘Everywhere around us was art. The columns, the walls, the doorframes, the windows, and beams and the baseboards – all alive with Sonabai’s humour, wit and remarkable eye for balance and form.’ He  researched her work for five years, resulting in an international exhibition in San Diego in 2009-10.

Some episodes touch the heart. As when the Bharat Bhavan team seek a sample to show their director in Bhopal, ‘They were so keen that Sonabai didn’t know how to refuse. But her heart broke. There were tears in her eyes when she saw them breaking off a piece of jaali to take back with them, along with the sculptures on it.’

The other villagers were just as astounded when they first stepped into Holi Ram’s house. One remarked, ‘Look, Sonabai has turned mud into gold!’

In another chapter of life till her late 70s, Sonabai travelled and taught across India and abroad, accompanied only by Daroga Ram. By the time she passed away in 2007, Sonabai had passed her unique skills on to son, her daughter-in-law, even younger folks in their community. Thanks to her vision, their village was imprinted forever on the art map of India.

            Vishakha captures the transition from village to world thus, ‘How did Sonabai feel, to be suddenly uprooted from her home, where she worked passionately, content to be appreciated by her son and no one else? Did she like going to cities, conducting workshops, training others in her village, getting written about in newspapers and books? Shy and awkward, Sonabai did it all. She didn’t complain all those years when she had to stay at home and she didn’t complain when she had to leave it.’

This deeply moving book is about Sonabai’s life as much as it is about dreaming big. It invites urban Indian children to look at rural life with curiosity and to respect its depth.  Read with attention to detail, it is about the magic latent in everyday life. It calls out equally to children who are hooked to screen devices as much as to those who are led to craft bazaars and art galleries. Its potential audience includes schoolchildren, parents, art teachers and librarians.  

To conclude in Vishakha’s words, ‘Like her many beautiful figures that would emerge from a lump of clay, Sonabai’s art grew from simple beginnings, experimenting, evolving. In the small village, with nothing to work with except what she found around her, and in spite of all the difficulties she faced, her art continued to thrive. It is this spirit that stirs us, as much as her art. This, perhaps, is her true legacy.’


This review was originally in the GoodBooks India website. The link:

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Book review: Raza's Bindu

Raza’s Bindu

Concept & Text:  Ritu Khoda and Vanita Pai.

Afterword by S.H. Raza

Illustrations: Kundan Shanbagh  

Scholastic India. I am an Artist series. 2014. Hardcover. Full colour. Rs. 350. 150. 66 pages. 

ISBN: 978-93-5103-282-3

Breathes there a child who doesn’t enjoy playing with colours, whether on paper or on walls? My informed guess would be: No.

Like music, art has an universal appeal for the young across countries, colours, religions ~ until adults (including parents and teachers) step in with spirit-sapping  questions. Like ‘How can an elephant be silver, with a pink trunk?’ or ‘Silly! Why have you painted the sky green and the grass blue?’

I think it is unfortunate that Indian adults often tend to look down on arts-based professions. Nor do most parents take children to visit artists, studios, or art galleries. Their fear: how could this lead them to the top of the class, an IIT seat, or a Bill Gates lifestyle?

As an art buff (surrounded by original art at home during my growing years), my friends today include dozens of creative dreamers. For decades, I have wished it was possible to change our collective lens on art. But how?

To me, this book is a long overdue step in the right direction. Active art educator Khoda and creative writer Pai spell out their dilemma in a concept note, ‘Why are children not aware of great Indian modern artists?..... How are we to inform them? What approach should we take? How should we balance the visuals with the concept and text to make a book that would grab children’s attention and more importantly, hold it?’

Their foray begins with a mere dot ~ or Raza’s bindu. They engage the reader with a hands-on, child-centric approach to his art. The legendary artist, now 93, says in his afterword, ‘As a child I was never able to concentrate on studies. One afternoon, my primary school teacher made me sit and train my gaze on a ‘Bindu’ he had made on the wall, to teach me to focus… Decades later in Paris, when I sought some Indian ideas for my art, the Bindu came back to me and it became a recurring image in my work over the years. To me, Bindu is a still centre, a source of energy. It is the beginning and the end.’

Guided by a playful, lilting narrative, aided by intelligent creative exercises, the book charms both the child and the art-resistant adult. For instance, one of the three tear-out worksheets at the end comes with these instructions: ‘Take your paints, pencils or crayons and find a quiet corner to sit in. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Slowly open your eyes and start making your Bindu.’

The core illustrations based on Raza’s paintings, some with unique fold-out pages, are irresistible.  Play is the central road to a child’s heart, a route the authors navigate with soul. Via geometric stickers with which to create art.  Via exercises on the Rangamala or the Panchatatva, made easy and fun.

And best of all, via questions that tease the child into exploring uncharted concepts: What would it be like to be under Raza’s cool, blue sea? Or looking up at the calm blue sky?...  Why do you think Raza painted these bindus in half? Could they be playing hide-and-seek? Do you think they will meet? What will happen then?

Unlike other recent Indian children’s books on art, which have concentrated on art lives instead of experiential learning, Khoda and Pai have their formula just right. They often back up their book basics with intimate, non-stop fun workshops at bookstores, libraries and other child-centric spaces.

The time is right. The approach is right. All we need now is for parents to take their rearing cues from these luminous creators: Ask open-ended questions. Listen patiently. Focus on the process. Accept mistakes. And so on.

This beautifully-produced book makes me look forward to future journeys in the series with Ambadas Khorbragade, Ram Kumar, Ganesh Haloi, Jamini Roy, Badrinarayan and others.

Who knows, a generation impacted by this insight-rich series might bring mind-blowing surprises our way. Perhaps there is a future  MF Husain, J Swaminathan or KCS Paniker in the wings? As adults, we need to peek carefully ~ and not disturb.

Raza’s Bindu made me wish this book had come my way when I was 8-plus. It might have enhanced my journey into the art world by several notches. I would not doubt that for a micro-second.   

(This review was originally published online in GoodBooks in 2015)

Book review: The Patua Pinocchio

The Patua Pinocchio

Text: Carlo Collodi (adapted from Carol della Chiesa’s translation from the Italian)

Illustrations: Swarna Chitrakar

Tara Books. 2014. Hardcover. Colour. Rs. 550. 190 pages.

ISBN: 978-93-83145-12-6

Pinocchio has gone viral since it was first published in Italian by Carlo Collodi in 1883. Adapted by Walt Disney Studios as a 1940 film, the wooden marionette who dreams of being a real boy is all set to reappear in a Disney live action fairy tale in the near future. In Italy, director Roberto Benigni (‘Life is beautiful’) did his own film version in 2002, while Pinocchio inspired a popular Korean tele-series.

The wooden boy made guest appearances on Sesame Street and the Muppet Show, and was a supporting character in the Shrek movies. He was even a knight on the chessboard in the Japanese manga anime series MAR between 2003- 2006.  Former British children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo did an irresistible, quick-paced variation on the tale in 2013, told by Pinocchio in the first person, with breathtaking illustrations by Emma Chichester Clark. And so, Pinocchio’s conquest of the global imagination continues.

I first heard of this long-nosed, cheeky bad boy as a bedtime tale from my Ma when I was about three. What did I make of it as I grew? That it was about a good father and his naughty son. That it is not always right to create stories or live in a fantasy world. It did not strike me as a highly moral tale then. Nor does it now.

This Tara book is edited and abridged from Collodi’s Italian text, translated into English by Carol Della Chiesa. It was born during a recent workshop for traditional Patua scroll painters from Bengal, hosted by Tara Books.  These enchanting balladeers, often seen at crafts bazaars and in scenic villages across Bengal, meld painting, story-telling and performance in their art form, evoking Indian epics, folklore, mythical heroes and creation stories.

Swarna Chitrakar, a Patua artist for over 20 years, was charmed by the Pinocchio story at the workshop. She chose to illustrate it in her traditional style, though not in age-old sprawling scroll panels but in smaller frames to suit the book format.

On these pages, the little wooden boy crosses cultures, continents and languages to resemble maybe a child Krishna, a cross between a folkloric hero and a universal child. His skin is dusky, his gaze wondrous and undaunted (almost Jamini Roy like). He is clad minimally, or dons only jewellery, true to the Patua trope. Visually, Swarna renders him as mischievous, playful yet almost beatific. Irresistible, beyond doubt.

As across Indian traditional folk paintings, Patua artists use clothing to denote social rank. The marionette theatre chief (or Fire Eater), for instance, is dressed in fancy raja-like gear, draped with necklaces. In contrast Pinocchio’s father, the carpenter Geppetto, wears a simple dhoti, while the pretty, pivotal Blue Fairy is sari-clad and bejewelled.

Patua art has, for centuries, celebrated animals and birds, whether mythical or real. Swarna’s chirping cricket, non-existent in Indian folk art, captures the eye in a trice.  Zigzagging across the frame, with scales and striped limbs, he sets the mood for other rollicking creatures from her fertile imagination. For instance? A goggle-eyed trickster cat with a goofy grin. A subtly-feathered red pigeon who flies Pinocchio to safer shores. Fish in earthy ochres, browns and greens, netted from the deep with Pinocchio.

Some of Swarna’s stunning images linger in the mind’s eye for hours. Such as the detailed black-and-white title drawings that launch each chapter. Or the incredible rath-like  coach drawn by dozens of monochrome outlined horses, almost whinnying with life. The Fire Eater in blazing red striding towards his stove, the Harlequin as his intended tinder grasped firmly in his hand, while Pinocchio pleads for mercy. Or the cunning giant ochre cat, almost purring with content, with a trembling blackbird in its jaws. Or Pinocchio swimming into the swirling waves from the Shark’s wide mouth with Geppetto on this back, surrounded by buoyant little fish, the predator rendered minimally as a gaping jaw with an enormous eye.

Spectacular art apart, the playful typography in this impeccably produced book ~ a hallmark of the best Tara books ~ makes this one distinctive. Designer Tanuja Ramani lays out the story with accents of 19th century book design, including border motifs and smaller typeface when dialogue is in a gentler, softer voice. This element proves both playful and powerful.

V. Geetha of Tara Books writes in her concluding note: ‘This is the first time that Patua art has been used to illustrate a children’s classic from another tradition. While re-drawing and designing the tale, the book adds fresh ~ and startlingly unfamiliar ~ layers of meaning to a well-known story, and in the process, renders it truly universal.’

So true. This book is highly recommended for parents and teachers who seek to realign their children’s imagination. Or tweak ways of looking at popular tales.

Looking back at The Patua Pinoccio with wonder, I am faced with a nagging, unresolved question: Does Indian folklore have a Pinocchio- like story in any form? Would you know? 

(This review was originally published in the GoodBooks website in June 2015) 

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Book review: DO! ~ a Warli visual wonderland to celebrate


Text/ concept: Gita Wolf

Illustrations: Ramesh Hengadi & Shantaram Dhadpe (with help from Rasika Hengadi and Kusum Dhadpe)  

Tara Books. Non-fiction/ Art. 2009. 2014 edition. Paperback. Full colour. Rs. 150. 32 pages. 

ISBN: 978-93-83145-16-4

Minimally worded picture books are often more powerful than ten thousand long-winded words. Such as? The wacky board books for children by 2013 Astrid Lindgren awardee, Argentinian artist Isol, like her two-way multi-fold classic, ‘It’s useful to have a duck/ It’s useful to have a boy,’ for sure. Or David Shannon’s 1998 brilliant ‘No, David.’

In India, most publishers hesitate to concentrate on visuals to engage young minds. Or to explore the riches of indigenous art forms to tell a story. Maybe because of the prohibitive cost of colour printing? Even Uma Krishnaswami’s brilliant ‘And Land was Born’ in the Bhilala style for Tulika had a strong folktale by Sandhya Rao as its base. Against this backdrop. Tara Books creatively pioneered the use of Gond, Warli, Mithila and other folk styles in hand-crafted, internationally acclaimed books such as ‘The London Jungle Book,’ ‘That’s How I See Things,’ ‘Hope is a girl selling fruit’ or ‘The Nightlife of Trees’ over the last two decades.  

On my shelves, dozens of Tara Books vie for attention because of the sheer joy they bring me as a reader and an art buff. Their quality-conscious team ensures that each one makes a lasting impression ~ for its text, visuals and impeccable production values. I wasn’t a jot surprised when Tara won the Bologna Prize for the Best Children’s Publisher of the year in Asia 2013, in addition to one of the International Book Industry Excellence Awards 2014 at the London Book Fair.

‘DO!’ just makes the case for Tara even stronger. Silkscreen printed on recycled kraft paper, it brings to life the rural walls on which the Warli art of western India originated. What is the book’s intent? Since the fluid Warli figures are pictogram-like, its blurb says, ‘Children relate immediately to this art style, and DO! can be used in many ways: as a picture book, to learn about verbs, to discover the stories on each page, to talk about village life, or to draw their own pictures and stories in the Warli style.’

The book works intelligently at each level ~ and in unforgettably image-driven ways. The child within me came vitally alive again once I discovered that I could open this book to any page and plunge headlong into a pictorial paradise, chuckling all the way.  

To begin with, I scanned the double spread with the verb ‘Play’: stick figures chase a football with concentration, their hair streaming behind them; three men play badminton by a large-leafed tree, their rackets as finely wrought as the net; girls skip rope with abandon as others bounce a ball with glee.

Next, I explored ‘Read’: a duo under a thatched roof concentrate on books, as do figures stirring a steaming pot of (maybe) rice; a man and a woman on their way to work carry a stick in one hand, a book in the other; a rural library has its cane and bamboo shelves stacked high; a villager shepherds his livestock, his fist clutching a book, signalling his dream of quieter hours.

As for ‘Draw’, it is a page-packed crash course on do-it-yourself Warli art: two parallel lines that morph into a Z, grow a torso, acquire limbs ~ then dance, run and bounce to life. Using the basic geometry of lines, circles and triangles, the renditions are wonderfully zany.  

The Warli pictograms made this book a wonderland of non-text, as I plunged into a super-active world of sleep, sit, fight and verbs-plus. Such as roosters at war over grain. Or cattle locking horns by the edge of a pond. Or a man resting under a tree, atop which birds roost. And of course, the irresistible delights of the Warli dancing circle that visually summons up the community as much as the circle of life, true to the traditional style where a single spread tells a complete tale.

This exceptional book allows the child (or adult) to imagine brilliant colours in the moving figures against the clay-brown backdrop. To realign an urban perspective in the light of tantalizing faraway, unknown rural lives. Even to acknowledge that wordless wonders can spark more brilliant texts in a writer as a reader.

‘DO!’ is a book worth reaching for to nurture your child’s visual vocabulary. It is as potently an essential tool to revitalize the sleeping inner child within each of us as adults, whether as parents, teachers, grandparents or creative guides. I could celebrate this visual wonderland every single day. 

(This review was originally published in the GoodBooks India site) 

Monday, 9 March 2015

Sari lore: When the classic is contemporary

Chimy Nanjappa at Vimor

 (This article was originally published in The Hindu Metroplus supplement in Bangalore on July 28, 2003)

        "LOOK AT this antique pooja sari," says Pavithra Muddaya, holding up a rich red silken length. "Unlike the popular ones today, its orange checks are ikkat or woven tie-and-dye, so are the white butas within each. Working with Tamil weavers over the past 28 years, we've taught them to create the butas with a single strand of silk, so that they don't have to combine local weaves with ikkat from a different region. The result is two silk versions and one in cotton that the market can afford, and that sustains the weaver community." 

       Pavithra should know, as she holds up a more contemporary avatar of the classic pooja sari, distinguished by its wavy white mailikanne or peacock's eyes border. She's grown up with natural fibre weaves ever since her mother Chimy Nanjappa set up Vimor (that's Indonesian for "pure") at their inconspicuous home in the Victoria Layout in 1974.

         "I used to sell saris on my trips abroad. So, the idea came to me: if I can sell to a foreigner, I can sell here too," reflects Chimy, a former general manager at Bangalore's Mysore Arts and Crafts Emporium, often assigned overseas by the Handicrafts and Handlooms Export Corporation (HHEC). Initially, she travelled to small south Indian weavers, and coaxed the local Weaver's Service Centre (WSC) to replicate her exquisite collection of temple saris. In time, Vimor's clientele grew to include Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Begum Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, Pupul Jayakar, and Shabani Azmi.

          But big name clientele means little to either Chimy or Pavithra. For Vimor's reputation has grown by word of mouth, instead of advertising. Why? Probably because the experience of shopping off a large bed, picking saris out of cupboards, makes you feel completely at home. It's comparable only to diving headfirst into your grandmother's sari cupboard, and emerging full of wonder over every singular weave.

        For the timeless saris at Vimor, adapted to the skills and resources of today's weaving community, speak subtly of history and geography. Through the gandaberunda or double-headed eagle that was the Mysore royal insignia, or the mythical annapakshi that recalls Tamil lore. Through the procession of elephants on a pooja sari pallu that evokes a Mysore Dussehra or temple friezes at Belur, through untold stories of legendary weavers' guilds in mailikanne or mokalmoru weaves against shimmering grounds sumptuous as peacock feathers or dusky skies. Through a Manipuri pallu that turns up in a Karnataka sari, signaling peregrinations of style. Through an antique magenta sari enlivened with butas of bi-planes, vintage cars, and gramophones.

      Vimor's success links intrinsically into a second generation of both buyers and weavers today. Buyers who know they will not find an eyesore among its woven treasures, priced between Rs. 350 and Rs. 14,000. And weavers from the Kancheepuram belt, from Raidurga in Karnataka who trust the outlet for, as Chimy says: "We're here to encourage the weavers, to help them come up in life."

       How? Sharing her mother's stunning yellow-checked black cotton sari with red and ochre Ganga-Jamuna borders, Pavithra points out: "It's so easy to keep antique pieces in the cupboard, to bring them out to exclaim over every few days. But we have to give something back to society." So, she's shown the Raidurga weavers how to create a heavy cotton, minimal-care black sari with yellow woven borders and a contrasting pallu. An office-goer can afford it for everyday wear. And the weavers have learnt to innovate from its colour and design palette, instead of merely replicating an old sari.

      Take the case of the original temple cotton sari, which has flooded the market in its Chettinadu avatar. Simplifying the concept of a checked or striped ground with contrasting big borders, Vimor taught weavers in Salem, Kancheepuram, and Andhra Pradesh to adapt the sari with a single shuttle, instead of three. This cut weaving costs, sustaining whole villages, and ensuring that the elegant sari survived. On a parallel track, weavers in Durgam and Arni learnt to weave lightweight silk saris on a single shuttle in stunning combinations such as rust shot with golden yellow and green, promising personality-plus at Rs. 1,500 to woman executives tired of look-alike power dressing.

      Instead of monopolising traditional weaves or patenting their own innovations, Vimor has ensured that lakhs of weavers live with dignity. "I've tried to impart that multiples of one or two beautiful saris should sustain and feed their families," Pavithra stresses. "That sets the weaver free to experiment for the home market and for export. But most important, it builds up his self-confidence." For award-winning C. Shekhar, a towel weaver, she conceptualised a deep blue cotton sari with a silk pallu, interfaced with jute, banana or pineapple fibre interweaves from his export surplus stocks.

      Pavithra, who trained at the local WSC while studying law, shares warm memories from Vimor's times past. Of taking their rich cottons to Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, the late doyenne of the post-independence Indian crafts renaissance, who lauded their documentation of kasuti stitches on a red cotton sari sampler. Of Jnanapith awardee U.R. Ananthamurthy's comment in the 2002 National Handloom Expo visitor's book, comparing their revival of weaving traditions to a resurgence of music. Of an Andhra weaver who waited hours for "Chimy amma" to bless his wedded daughter, despite a delayed train at Katpadi junction.

      Together, they share the story of a Tamil weaving family ruined by an avaricious son. He collected orders that they were unable to execute, plunging them into insurmountable debt. The skilled father is currently a daily wage earner at his nephew's loom. "The weaver's pride is of paramount importance in our polycot age," says Pavithra earnestly. Weavers like Shekhar, Balasubramaniam, and Rajendran, whose lives they have touched, could not agree more.

      What makes Vimor's buyers return time and again? "Good aesthetics and minimal costs appeal to common people and the sophisticate alike," notes Pavithra, as she folds a divine brinjal-hued Kancheepuram silk with golden checks, vivid against a deep green border with two streaks of patterned gold.

(Vimor can be contacted on +91-80-25551514). 

Monday, 9 February 2015

Dance: Constanza Macras and Dorky Park 'Back to the Present' ~ A Startling Take on Today

(On February 9, 2015, I watched Constanza Macras' Dorky Park troupe perform 'The Past' at Chowdiah Memorial Hall in Bangalore. It took me back to a piece I had done for The Hindu Friday Review in December 2004, when they first made contemporary dance lovers in the city sit up and take notice with 'Back to the Present' at the same venue. Here's a sharing of my take on them way back then).

CONSTANZA Macras has the power to electrify and energize. To upend conventional notions of dance theatre. To draw optimal output from her multi-faceted, cross-cultural artistes. To satirize society with the precision of a Powerpoint presentation, the joy of peaking from collective achievement.

There was no arguing with these facets of ‘Back to the Present,’ the Argentina-born, Berlin-based Macras’ cheeky look at reality shows and lifestyle bytes, when her troupe ~ 2003-born Dorky Park ~ took the stage at Chowdiah Memorial Hall on Dec. 1, 2004, .

The prop-packed, many-tiered stage setting had us wondering what was in store at this Asian premiere when a curly-haired dancer of Mexican origin began to execute rather conventional contemporary dance moves, slowly, sensuously, dramatically. Caught off guard, within a trice, we were watching a melee of performers vaulting through an array of doors, tripping each other while performing karaoke numbers in the oddest positions, balancing, tilting, pirouetting, miming, surviving a series of abysmal ‘accidents.’ At its very core was contact improvisation, synchronized to a seeming spontaneity.

What was the point of the perfectly orchestrated chaos with a cast originally of Australian, American, Dutch, Mexican, Peruvian, Indian and German origin? To quote the programme notes, Macras “takes the audience on a journey into the past ~ memory as looped feedback, as it were. How do you recycle the stuff that never decomposes, like love letters, flags, old props and old ideas? As history becomes increasingly digitalized, what is the difference between storage and memory? And where do you go when you don’t want to deal with either the past or the future?”

With its individual inputs directed by a conceptual overview, dizzy with high-voltage performances and brilliant costumes by Gilvan Coelho de Oliviera attuned to a spoof, this tour-de-force overturned Indian notions of dance theatre. Those who entered with specific ideas of Kalakshetra-style dance dramas or more established musicals had to jettison their baggage within the first 15 minutes of ‘Back to the Present.’

For here was a performance that took a shy at globalized notions of entertainment (especially reality TV), urban ideas of living and loving, idioms of contemporary dance, and even performance per se. It jolted us out of comfort zones, handing out new lenses with which to view ourselves at a manic, irresistible pace. It was an enchanting, challenging experience for dance connoisseurs and laymen alike.  

Macras’ show, originally performed as a site-specific work at a derelict, abandoned, rambling early 20th century, centrally-located department store in former east Berlin, proved outsize in both vision and execution. It entailed the audience following the cast from room to room as scene followed tumultuous scene.

Adapted to the proscenium stage, the 2 ½  hour non-linear performance offered unforgettably absurd scenes that gauge the futility of TV realism engaged in “the flatness of everyday struggles.” Such as the madcap couple engaged in a gluttony and karaoke contest. Or the serious-faced introduction to the sex lives of the insect world, against the backdrop of a musical soiree. Or even the roughhouse, seesaw battle of the sexes amidst the merry-go-round of life, in which a kiss and a cuddle are no more potent than a sock on the jaw.

Back to the Present,’ characterized seamlessly by the here and now, showcased a mind-blowing range of virtuosity, interspersed with onscreen sequences to allow for scene shifts ~ whether as a slapstick sequence, a warbling duet in an on-the-move relationship, couch potato combat, a take-off on classical concerts, or a frenetic chase between improvised exits, culminating in a madhouse fight with stuffed toys. 

With frenetic movement as its only constant, the show wove together elements of pop philosophy, visual satire, lyric-based melodrama and over-the-top wit with perfect body dynamics to the tune of musical hits, including ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Kal Ho Na Ho,’ the latter rendered by Delhi-based artiste Anusha Lal. Bangalore dancer Abhilash N. stepped into the shoes of Israel-born Nir De-Volff without missing a cue, while B.S. Arun Kumar proved as adept at the drums as at staging deadpan interludes.  

At the end of the non-stop action, what did we take home from this premiere, sponsored by Daimler-Chrysler and Max Mueller Bhavan? An understanding of the strong emotions generated by Macras’ workshop at Attakkalari earlier this year. A hope that ‘Back to the Present’ could be pruned slightly for easier interface with a stationary audience. And a fervent wish that Dorky Park will be back in our midst soon with another brilliant production.