Madhuri Purandare is rarely to be found among children. The writer and illustrator has a “long distance” relationship with her readership. “It’s not as if I maintain this distance deliberately,” says the 64-year-old. And it has not made a difference to her work. Purandare is one of the most successful writers for children in Marathi literature, and has had her works translated into English, Urdu, Kannada, Assamese, Telugu and Hindi. Besides notable works like Babachya Mishya, Radhach Ghar and Chitravachan, the Pune-based writer also conceived and edited Vaachu Anande, an anthology for children that juxtaposes classics of Marathi literature with iconic artwork from across India. For her contributions to children’s literature, she won the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar in 2014, and more recently, the first Big Little Book Award instituted by Parag, an initiative of the Tata Trusts.
As is evident from her stories, Purandare sees children as they really are: individuals with strong likes and dislikes, who do not like being talked down to and who are not universally adorable. “Her stories have a sense of rhythm and flow. They are very visual as well, making it easy for even struggling readers to comprehend,” says Shubhada Joshi, founder of the Pune-based alternative school Khelghar, which uses Purandare’s books in its reading programmes. Joshi says, “Every story takes you into a child’s world, shows you how she perceives the world. Her writing creates opportunities for children to ask questions and think independently. Her work also gives parents and teachers an insight into a child’s imagination.”
For example, in its basic outline, Babachya Mishya (Daddy’s Mo) is the story of young Anu and her fascination for her father’s moustache. Purandare’s narration and illustrations (which include a series of delightful drawings by Anu) turn a simple story into a celebration of a child’s imagination.
“One special thing about her is that she is both a writer and an illustrator,” says Amrita Patwardhan, education lead at Tata Trusts. “That is common in children’s literature abroad but rarer here. She is also able to combine the traditional and the modern in her stories, without sermonising,” she says. Purandare does this subtly. In Daddy’s Mo, she shows the father in a more active parenting role than most traditional Indian fathers, while in her latest books, Pachvi Galli (The Fifth Lane) and Sakhye Shejari (Real Neighbours), she depicts the parents as separated.
For someone with such a natural gift for transforming the simple details of everyday life into engaging storytelling material, Purandare arrived at her metier after many fascinating detours. Her father was a writer and theatre personality and her mother a social activist. As a child, she was inclined towards various forms for art. “I liked painting, music, literature, theatre and cinema, but only to the extent that someone else was creating the art and all I had to do was applaud,” she says. After school, Purandare went through a period of confusion, unsure of what path to follow. She graduated in fine arts from the JJ School of Art and then spent a year in France learning printmaking.
When she did begin writing, it was more by way of accident. She was put in charge of editing a bimonthly magazine that her mother instituted as a means of training local women to teach in rural balwadis, which formed an educational bridge between first-generation learners and the schooling system.The editor’s task was to provide training content, as well as children’s poems and stories, which could be used by the teachers to keep their students engaged. After being unsuccessful in getting writers to contribute, Purandare began composing most of the material herself. One thing she was always clear about: she wouldn’t preach. Or write stories that begin with “Once upon a time” and end with “…and they lived happily ever after”.
Purandare’s stories began to appear as books in 1998, with the publication of three titles — Superbaba, Jadugar and Shamyachi Gammat. Because of her unconventional storytelling, she had a hard time finding a publisher. She recalls that her series Radhache Ghar (Radha’s Family), was ready as far back as 1985, but was published only in 2003.“It kept getting rejected because it didn’t fit into any traditional formula. It was simply about a little girl called Radha and each of her family members.”
If a “moral-of-the-story” is ever to be included in any of her books, it would probably be one about following one’s heart. “I lived with all this — singing, theatre, cinema and writing — and still do. Which is perhaps why people say that my writing illustrates, my illustrations have drama and my singing has everything. I do only that in which I feel pleasure. And that alone is my limited ambition.”