According to Amrita Patwardhan, head of the education portfolio in Tata Trusts, 45 per cent of all literature for children published in the country is in English, 25 per cent is in Hindi, while all other Indian languages constitute the remaining share. And yet, it’s not as dismal a state as one would imagine. “Over the last 15 years or so, we’ve seen a greater number of writers engage with children’s literature. There is greater diversity in content, genres and much of this is thanks to the efforts of independent publishers such as Pratham Books, Duckbill and Tulika Publishers. This has also meant that there are more such books published in regional languages in India,” says Patwardhan, in turn highlighting that there’s no danger of overcrowding in the field of literature for children written in Indian languages other than English and Hindi.
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To celebrate this diversity, Tata Trusts’ Parag Initiative has instituted the Big Little Book Award, which seeks to promote reading among children. The awards, which are to be announced on November 17, the first day of the Tata Literature Live! Mumbai LitFest 2016, will be given to an author and an illustrator. The shortlist for the latter category is pan-Indian and includes Atanu Ray, Nina Sabnani and Proiti Roy. The author shortlist, on the other hand, is designed to focus on a single language each year and in its inaugural year, is felicitating two stalwarts of Marathi literature for children — Madhuri Purandare and Rajiv Tambe.
The Award’s focus on Marathi in its first year is reflective of the many innovations that writers in the language have brought about in children’s literature. “In Europe and the US, children’s literature has a history that goes back a couple of hundred years, but in India, one can only trace it as far back as the beginning of the 20th century when Bengali writers like Sukumar Ray and Rabindranath Tagore began to address children as a distinct audience. Bengali has continued to produce a variety of books for children since then, but most people would acknowledge that among the other Indian languages that do so, Marathi is one of the leaders,” says Patwardhan.
The history of Marathi children’s literature begins like that of literature in other Indian languages, with translations of stories such as Aesop’s Fables. But the first truly popular book that was written for children was by the Gandhian social activist, Sane Guruji, and was called Shyamachi Aai (Shyam’s Mother). The book, which was the author’s autobiography, was popular enough that it was translated into other Indian languages and even made into a National Award-winning movie of the same name in 1953. However, like most books for children written in that era, it is marked by didacticism. The subsequent writers of popular children’s books in Marathi followed a similar urge to “teach” children valuable lessons for life. Post the ’50s, however, as the demand for children’s literature grew, fuelled by the National Book Trust and the Children’s Book Trust, writers began to experiment with narrative forms and genres when producing books for a young readership.
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The innovation in Marathi literature for children was led by Bha Ra Bhagwat, who not only did contextualised translations of world classics such as Around the World in 80 Days and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but also created highly imaginative original stories. The most beloved of these stories feature the adventures of the Tom Swayer-like character, Faster Fene.
Another important figure in the field was Vinda Karandikar, who wrote for adults as well as for children. “His poetry for children, in particular, is a great example of his playfulness and his ability to engage with children. His language relied a lot on playing with words and the poetry he wrote set a high standard for other writers,” says Patwardhan, “He truly pushed the boundaries of what was seen as children’s literature,” she adds.
This year’s awardees are similarly pathbreaking. Rajiv Tambe’s work, which includes Premal Bhooth (The Loving Ghost) and Gammat Shala, a series on ‘zero cost’ science experiments, is unique in how it has spanned multiple genres from stories to plays, poetry and science. Purandare, on the other hand, is one of the few writers working today who also illustrates her own stories, producing much-loved books such as Babachya Mishya (Daddy’s Mo), besides translating works like Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine and editing the hugely popular series Vachu Anande. Both writers believe that the reason their works are popular with children is because they have accepted that young readers are just as discerning as adults when it comes to reading books. “One can’t treat the business of writing for children casually, because they too have very strong opinions on what they like and dislike,” says Purandare, “In fact, it’s even more important to take children’s literature seriously, because if they don’t develop a reading habit at a young age, they are very unlikely to be readers as they grow older,” adds Purandare.