As a restless child, Proiti Roy found the strict regime at her schools in Kolkata and Delhi stultifying. The early years of her education had been in Rabindranath Tagore’s experimental academic set-up in Santiniketan, West Bengal, where classes were held under an open sky, and where grades and syllabi did not define the boundaries of an able student. Even at her grandmother’s home, where she spent her childhood, she would be out in the open, playing with farm animals and climbing trees. “In that house, there were all kinds of animals, a wild sort of a garden, pond, paddy fields behind the house, many fruit trees on which I would be up a lot. They were beautiful days,” she says.
The lack of freedom in the cities chafed at her. “I was not interested in studies. I hated sitting in one place for too long. So, class hours were quite an ordeal for me. My concentration would wander, I was constantly doodling in my school books and making a mess and the teacher was always unhappy with me,” says Roy. The 52-year-old is the winning illustrator of the Big Little Book Awards, 2017, an award set up by Tata Trust’s Parag Initiative last year to encourage quality children’s literature and art in regional languages. This year’s focus language was Bengali and Roy was awarded for her body of work.
Her easy camaraderie with nature is apparent in Roy’s illustrative work for children. In Bulbuli’s Bamboo (Tulika Publishers), the soft green of the new bamboos contrasts sharply with the yellow of the old and dry bamboos; in The Enchanted Saarang (Tulika Publishers), the Kashmiri landscape, both in terms of its stunning topography and the political unrest that embroils it, come alive in darker, more sombre shades; in Panch Khambonwala Gaon (Room to Read), the excitement and eventual disappointment of a village that waits for electricity to come to it is expressed through the blues that she uses to illustrate the dark night skies. “I am not sure if I have a particular style and I don’t try to have one consciously. Being restless by nature I keep changing my style and technique. I suppose without even trying, one develops a certain style unconsciously,” she says.
The feeling of being uncomfortable in what she calls “overbearingly brooding” school campuses never left her, but Roy’s need to doodle only strengthened over time. Home was a sanctuary — there was music playing all the time, storytelling sessions by her father and uncle. “We were drawing everywhere and all over the house with crayons, chalks and not get scolded for that. My siblings and I spent time with books, even when we couldn’t read. I would look at the illustrations in great detail and look for clues to build the stories further and travel into those pictures,” she says.
In the early 20th century, Bengal had a rich tradition of illustrations. There was Sukumar Roy doing pathbreaking work in accompaniment to his literary work, the Tagores — Abanindranath Tagore, in particular — were pioneers in artistic techniques. Roy says this cultural inheritance seeped into her work like a life force. “I think every child around my generation in Bengal grew up with illustrations by Sukumar Roy, Upendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury, Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose and other Bengal school artists and illustrators. They had such a strong presence in our young lives that I can’t imagine a child growing up without Abol-tabol, Shahoj Path, Tuntunir Galpo and other Bengali classics… Tagore’s work influenced me later in life and I consider not just his drawings and paintings but his writing and music as one of my great source of inspiration,” says Roy, who returned to Santiniketan for her MFA from Kala Bhavan.
Yet, Roy would come to illustrations rather late in life, after a career in advertising in India and Bangladesh, where she worked as a graphic artist. During her time in Dhaka in the late Eighties, she first got an opportunity to illustrate a book of European fairytales. A lot has changed since then. In the last decade, children’s literature has received a fillip in terms of both investment and the kind of work being done. South India — Chennai, in particular — where she lived for seven years before recently moving back to Santiniketan, she says, sees a lot of such experimentation. “We are dealing with issues that are complex and important and presenting them to children in various forms and approaches. There are quite a few children’s book publishers now whose works are outstanding and notable,” says Roy, who has her hands full with several projects at the moment. “I just finished working on two picture books — one is a delightful story of a blind boy written by Lavanya Karthik (Tulika). The other one is a very interesting book published by Eklavya. It is an accordion book and the text is a beautiful small piece in Hindi,” she says.