Tuesday, 23 June 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) 

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