Unlike the West, where excellent artist biographies and art books are available for a young readership, in India, such publications are still a rarity. But it’s soon going to be India Art Fair season — reason enough to go scouring for books on art and by Indian artists that can introduce children to art practices and personalities in the country.
With the publication of Raza’s Bindu (2015, Art1st Publications, appropriate for 4-7 year olds), their biography of Progressive artist, SH Raza, Ritu Khoda and Vanita Pai filled up the lacunae in the Indian publishing scene when it came to art books for children. A slim volume, it focuses on Raza’s preoccupation with the dot and how it transformed his life. Generously interspersed with some of the artist’s iconic artwork and independent exercises inspired by his practice, the interactive nature of the book makes it particularly exciting for curious, young minds.
Khoda and Pai followed it up with Eye Spy Indian Art (Takshila Publication, appropriate for 10 + years), a book on modernist art movements in India, the next year. Designed like a treasure hunt at a museum, readers are led through major transitional phases — from Company School of painting to the patachitras of Kalighat, from the art of Raja Ravi Varma and Jamini Roy to the philosophy behind the practices of MF Husain and Gulammohammed Sheikh — of Indian art. Through it all, like a leitmotif, runs a treasury of reproductions of artwork by the masters and exercises to hone one’s understanding of their work. terms such as diptych, lamp black and oleograph are explained in a glossary. The lack of a pedagogical approach works in favour of the book as does the ample encouragement to build up a critical approach.
The purpose of art is to free up the imagination rather than to limit it within rote depictions. Like the six wise men of Indostan discovering for themselves “the marvel of an elephant” in John Godfrey Saxe’s poem, indie publisher Tara Books introduces children to folk and tribal approaches to drawing a fish and an elephant in a series of unique activity books — 8 Ways to Draw an Elephant (2015, Paolo Ferrarotti and other artists) and 8 Ways to Draw a Fish (2016, Luisa Martelo and other artists) through tracing, pattern-making, and, of course, colouring. Unconventional, informative and incredibly fun, these books, meant for a 4+ readership, is perfect for all ages.
When artists turn to fiction, the results are just as delightful. Little Poppy is glum for all the usual reasons that children get glum — her father forgot to pat her on the head before he left for work and her mother is forcing her to drink milk. But as she mopes around the house, a little visitor, a sparrow, arrives and brings a smile back to Poppy’s face by introducing her to the natural world. Written and illustrated by the multifaceted KG Subramanyan in his distinctive graphic style, How Poppy Grew Happy (2008, Seagull Books), is a charming reminder that all you need for happiness is a daily dose of wonder. There is no recommended age group for this book, but it’s safe to say that while younger children will enjoy the simple storytelling, older ones and adults will love it for the evocative art.
Delhi-based artist Madhvi Parekh’s foray into art began early, with her immersion in local folklore, her proximity to nature and her adeptness in handicrafts, particularly needlework, in her village in Gujarat. Later, when she moved to the city, after her marriage to artist Manu Parekh, Madhvi would draw upon those memories and translate them on to canvas. Dreamscapes, fantastical beasts, myths and nature form the basis of the ouevre of the entirely self-taught artist, whose work has often been compared to that of German artist Paul Klee and to Spanish painter, Joan Miro. Last year, during a retrospective of her work, Delhi Art Gallery launched a book, Madhvi’s Magical Daydreams, written by the artist for very young readers (appropriate for 4-6 years). It takes them through her childhood in the village, the centrality of faith in her life, and how she brought all of these together in her art. The extensive artwork offers children a glimpse into her fascinating artistic vocabulary and the simple text acts as cues to hold it together in a winsome combination.
The late Meera Mukherjee, best known for her bronze sculptures, was also a writer of children’s books. Catching Fish and Other Stories (2000, Seagull Books) is translated by Anjum Katyal from the original Bengali. Peopled with ordinary characters who encounter the extraordinary — near-Biblical floods, talking fish, quilts filled with clouds — Mukherjee’s stories have a fable-like quality that renders them timeless, while staying anchored in the everyday.