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) 

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