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.
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)