In a country where racism is often on display — the most recent example being that of a Tanzanian girl in Bangalore who was assaulted by a mob — comes a book which aims to sensitise children on the issue.
Mumbai-based illustrator Shrujana Niranjani Shridhar says children are the starting point to bring about any social change. “In India, we don’t familiarise our children with the various cultural minorities and their practices, which later leads to discrimination,” she says. In an attempt to bridge that gap, the 23-year-old Mumbai-based illustrator recently came out with a storybook titled Aamu’s Kawandi, based on the a little girl from the Siddi community, the descendants of Africans who were brought to India as slaves, soldiers or servants before Independence.
Shridhar discovered the existence of the Siddis when she read in newspapers about an Indian tribe celebrating Barack Obama’s election as the US President. The ethnic community, spread across Gujarat, Hyderabad and Karnataka, has roots in Africa.
So when an opportunity arose, she chose to make an illustrated storybook as part of her final project of her art course and decided to have a Siddi girl as its protagonist.
Since the little girl belonged to the tribe of Siddis in north Karnataka, Shridhar called her Aamu, a common pet name in that part of the state.
As part of the research, she would take the images of Aamu to a garden close by — Shridhar was studying in Bangalore then — and ask the children there to culturally place the storybook character.
“Pointing to Golu, a dark-skinned girl from Uttar Pradesh among them, they would say Aamu perhaps comes from her town. But Golu, offended by the parallel, would point out that Aamu is darker than her and perhaps comes from West Indies. But none would accept it if I told them that Aamu is Indian,” recounts Shridhar.
During her visits to Mainali, a village near Dharwad in north Karnataka, home to a huge Siddi population, Shridhar came across many young girls who would say they had “come back”. A large number of Siddi youth migrate to cities for education through sports quota. But once there, they are faced with racism and eventually return to their village, bitter.
Shridhar decided to use the colour quilt, called kawandi, that the Siddi women make as a means to earn some money, as the key motif in the book.
“Any little girl will be proud of her mother and imitate her. So Aamu makes a quilt, just as her mother makes kawandis. And Aamu’s kawandi represents her world — home, friends, family and village. The quilt thus became a way of showcasing the Siddi culture through the eyes of a seven-year-old girl belonging to the community.”
The story, however, is kept simple, and is meant to draw children into Aamu’s world. For the visuals, Shridhar initially did the storyboarding using materials easily available to a Siddi child in her village, such as ribbons, graph paper, ice cream sticks, strips of jute bags and crayons.
She then clicked high-resolution pictures of these and worked on them to give them a three-dimensional effect. The text is kept minimal and simple.
Shridhar will soon start work on another children’s book that will address the issue of body image and how it impacts girls.