In A Summer’s Tale, a story about a king and his subjects braving the brutal summer heat, 43-year-old writer-illustrator Suranya Aiyar draws from the royal durbar as portrayed in Mughal and Rajput miniature art. In another of her books, The Mango, The Ant And The Bucket Of Water & Red Moon, the sun and moon have been drawn the way they are in Bihar’s Madhubani art, while one can notice elements from Kalamkari in the earth. In the banyan, peepal and mango trees that find place in her stories The Mango, the Ant and the Bucket of Water and The Peacock Who Wanted to Fly Like An Eagle, both of which are set in a garden, Aiyar used the Pichhwai paintings of Rajasthan to design her trees, while the detailing of the leaves was inspired by Maharasthra’s Warli paintings. All the books are under the pen name, Mama Suranya.
Aiyar, a lawyer by profession, started making storybooks for fitting Indian art forms in the vast and vibrant aesthetic world of children two years ago. “When we pass on our arts to our children, we also pass on our culture and heritage to them. I believe that few things can beat the richness and drama of Indian art forms,” she says.
Mumbai-based writer Anita Vachharajani, 46, noticed a dearth of “relatable” biographies on Indian artists. This was unlike many written on sportspersons, technocrats and the likes. “When we write about art, we present our opinions as a given to children. X was a great artist. That’s it. We don’t talk about the process they went through — how hard they worked, who they were inspired by, what music and books they liked, what they believed their art was trying to say, or how their work changed over time,” says Vachharajani, who then decided to write the life story of one of India’s most famous artists in Rebel with a Paintbrush ( Harper Collins India). In this she chronicles the life of Indian-Hungarian painter Amrita Sher-Gil, who died young, but was celebrated as one of the great avant-garde female artists of the early 20th century.
“I wanted to talk about an artist in a way that takes away some of the reverential mystery which we usually use when we speak of them. Amrita seemed utterly human to me, her flaws, strengths, everything. I wanted to give young people a glimpse into the connections that exist around us — between art styles, political events, geographical and economic realities — and how these connections impact our work. Amrita’s story, with her Hungarian mother, her Sikh father, her education in Paris and her desire to work and live in India — seemed like the best way to explore all the inter-connections around us,” says Vachharajani.
Since Sher-Gil died suddenly, at the age of 28, in Undivided India’s Lahore, Vachharajani says that we have no idea about how she would have grown as an artist. “But from what we can see of her work and her writings and her travels, we can tell that she was always open to change and to influences. Those are significant lessons to learn for children,” says Vaccharajani, who wants the young readers to acknowledge that “art grows and thrives in an air of pluralism and openness to influences and ideas”.
Writer Mamta Nainy, 35, agrees. She says that art has ended up becoming “a free time activity for children”. “It is important to nurture art in children because, apart from bringing their imagination and creativity into play, art also helps them understand human experience, respect others’ ideas and ways of thinking, develop creative problem-solving skills, and communicate thoughts and ideas in a variety of ways,” says Nainy. Her book, A Brush with Indian Art (Penguin), takes one through the illustrious story of Indian art — from Buddhist paintings at the Ajanta caves, Mughal miniature art, religious depictions of Tanjore, hybrid Company to revivalist Bengal styles, folk arts of India and the works of the best modern and contemporary artists.
She says art history is not “about arcane concepts, dusty dates, or esoteric artists”. It, instead, tells the visual side of history and mirrors human evolution from caves to urban high-rises. “Looking at art is like solving a mystery; children can compare and contrast, read visual narratives, sort out symbols, and figure out the artist’s intentions, which could be wonderful exercises in all-round education,” says Nainy, for whom it took three years of extensive reading and visits to galleries and museums to make the book.
Nainy didn’t want to present mere facts, so they were fleshed out into small stories, interesting anecdotes, trivia tit-bits and snippets, along with images of iconic paintings, and illustrations by Aniruddha Mukherjee. Young readers can also know about online resources and museum and galleries where they can see more artwork and can have an engagement with Indian art beyond the book.
What sets Aiyar apart is that she decided to publish her own books, and has a mobile application to supplement the print. “I wanted the freedom to articulate my own vision… and I felt that a publisher would be a drag. Publishers have their own ideas of what will and what won’t sell, and I didn’t want to have to justify my work to them,” says the writer. She recently launched Play Art, an app for six-nine year olds, which has drawings and stickers from her books, story videos along with instrumental Hindustani classical music in the background. Aiyar has also collaborated with folk artist Shankarlal Bhopa for a colouring book on Rajasthan’s Phad paintings.
While the West has seen some excellent illustrated biographies for children, it is only a recent phenomenon among Indian writers. With the publication of Raza’s Bindu (2015, Art1st Publications), a biography of Progressive artist, SH Raza, Ritu Khoda and Vanita Pai filled up the blanks. They followed it up with writing on modernist art movements in India in Eye Spy Indian Art (Takshila Publication). Writer Anjali Raghubeer has also written a series of four books, Looking at Art (Tulika), with stories of artists Amrita Sher-Gil, Jamini Roy, Ravi Varma and MF Husain that are easy to read for children. “Reading about art will broaden a young person’s horizons and perhaps help them see the universality of human experiences,” says Vachharajani.