Suranya Aiyar rediscovered her love of folk art with her children and through her range of books, and now an app. She talks about drawing children away from the world of Peppa Pig and i-Pads and introducing them to the joys of Indian peacocks, folk art and raga Malhar.
Creating an alternative to Peppa Pig
Reading to my kids, I felt, like many Indian parents, the need for more modern stories that were rooted in India, especially for children in the cities who are educated in English-medium schools. There is a lot of excellent Indian writing for pre- and early-teens, but not enough for the pre- and primary-school stage for which children have literally torrents of Western material. I feared that my children would be so immersed in the world of Peppa Pig and Lightning McQueen that waiting till they were 10 or 11 to introduce the Indian material was too late. So that is how I got the idea of starting a line of children’s books with stories that revolved around all things Indian, from our iconic birds, trees and animals to our festivals and legends and our very Indian likes and dislikes, like how we suffer in the summer heat and our love of mangoes!
The peacock led the way
One of my first books was about a little peacock. I was sitting at the table on a hot, hot day and thinking longingly about the rains, as we all do in Delhi. And then I started humming a song in Miyan ki Malhar that my Ustad had taught me. Legend has it that Mian Tansen could bring the rains with his Malhar. So then I got the idea for writing about just that, the joy of the monsoon and what is more symbolic of it for us in north India than peacocks dancing in the rain! So that is how the story of the Peacock Who Wanted to Fly Like an Eagle came about.
Since the story had a peacock, all the other birds of India came in—the eagle, parrots, bullbuls and so on. Even a very special crow. It was almost as if they flew in by themselves to join their friend the peacock! The story is set in a garden—Madhuvan—and while drawing for the story I got the idea of showing as a backdrop all the iconic trees of India. And so, one by one, all the trees sprang up as if by themselves under my fingers —the banyan, gulmohar, champa, mango, peepal. All my old wise friends from around Delhi…I think it was they who wanted to say something to children and I was only the instrument for it.
Dreams of a Kathakali-ballet fusion
In this way the idea acquired a life of its own and took me to so many places. For instance, parrots and peacocks are a favorite subject in dance and when I go for storytelling in schools, I invite the dance teacher to show the children a few movements to depict the birds. The kids love that and it introduces them to the Bharatnatyam or Kathak form, depending on the teacher’s specialty, in a very easy and playful manner. Then when I made this story into an animated video, I was able to use music. Ustad Arif Ali Khan, sarangi maestro of the famous Kairana Gharana composed a wonderful score using the Malhar bandish that was made famous in the film song ‘Bole Re Papihara’, with Jaya Bahaduri (as she then was). I even worked with master puppeteer Santosh Bhatt to make this story into a puppet show with all the different birds. One of my dreams is to make my story—The Battle of Northway—into a dance drama. It is about a war between the good “rakshasas” of Ambavan and the evil magician King Hamlin of Northway. I can see it as a fusion between Kathakali and western ballet dancers!
Children love folk art
You only have to glance through a few examples of any folk art to see how child-friendly it is! I don’t mean that folk art is easy – it is sophisticated and highly evolved as art. But children can take great pleasure from it. The themes are often drawn from nature—trees, birds and animals. If you ask a child to draw something, these are their natural subjects of choice. Another set of themes in folk art are scenes from mythology and the great epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata that children are well familiar with. Then there are depictions in folk art of their favorite festivals like Diwali and Holi. These are the hooks that can be used to draw them into folk art. We have started an online Art Library on our website that curates folk art for children on Pinterest from around India. The idea is to create a hub for parents to explore all kinds of folk art with their children in one place.
Incidentally, I have always liked and got on with artists. Once I became a mother, it was even more so. I think there is a mutual recognition of my being “mast” in my children, as they are “mast” in their art! In my first years of quitting work to become a full-time mom, I turned to music and art, old abandoned hobbies that became the new anchors of my world. First it was my music “ustads” and then the folk artists who became my “saathis” in my new journey in life.
Competing with i-Pads
As my children started growing up, I went on a mission to compete with the Pixar and i-Pad factor in their lives! I was determined that Indian dance, music and art would be as much a part of their lives as all the Western stuff. One of the first things was taking them to dance and puppet shows. Thanks to the (now demolished) large Kathputhli colony here in Delhi, it was easy to find Rajashtani puppet shows. I made a compromise with my kids that for their birthday parties the cake could have their favorite cartoon character but instead of the Bouncy Castle we would have a Rajashtani puppet show for the entertainment. So with successive birthdays the puppeteers became friends. As the children grew a little older they both showed themselves to be keen artists. I wanted my children to be as familiar with traditional Indian art as with modern or Western art, so I enquired with the Kathputhli colony folks who found me the wonderful Shankarlal Bhopa.
Discovering Phad and Madhubani artists
Shankarlalji is a Phad artist. He is also proficient in miniature art. He is an empanelled artist with the Government and has traveled all over the country doing exhibitions and workshops. His ancestors were Bhopas or travelling performers from Rajashtan who entertain people with stories and songs based on the famous Rajasthani legend of Paboji Rathore. Traditionally, the performance uses Rajasthani Phad drawings that depict scenes from the legend as it is told. Shankarlalji’s grandfather learnt Phad from an artist in Rajasthan and moved to Delhi to seek his fortune. He taught his art to his children and that is how Shankarlalji’s family became Phad practioners from being Bhopas. Watching Shankarlalji teach my kids I got the idea of expanding Mama Suranya Books from storybooks to folk art colouring books.
For the Madhubani book, I found a folk artist at Dilli Haat. I went there to display my books during the Delhi Literature festival. On the way, out some Madhubani artwork in one of the stalls caught my eye. I decided to buy a few pieces and found that all the pieces I liked were all by the same artist—Sujeet Karn. I was really struck by his work and asked about him. We met and hit it off, and that is how we collaborated on the Madhubani colouring books.
Adapting Madhubani for kids to colour
Sujeet Karn is a very interesting Madhubani artist. He uses the Madhubani form, but his sensibility is very modern. He has caught the “hava” of modern tastes, which are inclined towards the abstract. So he will isolate a motif from the Madhubani palate, like, for instance he will draw just a peacock, instead of a full Tree of Life scene, and it will be in just one or two colours. It also made it easy to work with him for the children’s series because he understood that we had to pare things down so that it would not be intimidating for small children.
We plan to roll out colouring books on all folk art forms—Kalighat, Kalamkari, Mehndi designs, Orissa Pat Chitra, Kerala Mural Work, Gond, Warli, Kathakali masks and so on. There is a wide range of forms available and that is what makes India so special.
Delhi, a hub for crafts
In this way I keep looking out for artists to work with for the folk art colouring books. One special thing about Delhi is that it is easy to find artists to work with as a lot of craftpersons live here and others come here with exhibitions and workshops from around the country. This is one great thing that the government has done. Since Independence there has been a conscious nurturing and support of traditional arts and crafts. We could always do more and better, of course, but at least the flame has been kept alive. Now it is really for the public to start consuming folk art in greater numbers.
Introducing kids to Indian culture
Parents can check out the Art library and Storytelling, Music and Dance Videos posted on our Mama Suranya Books website. We have something new every week. You Tube is also a great resource for art and music shows that you can enjoy with your kids in your own time. Apart from that I would say to parents take your kids to music, dance and puppet shows as much as you can. They are mostly free. You can find many shows during the festival times. In Delhi, the best times are Diwali-Dussehra. For smaller kids, look out for shows that use percussion instruments; drums and “dhols” are a never fail with the kids. I would say begin with dance shows as they are easier than musical performances to hold the attention of small kids. Look out for open air venues; for small kids, you need the space to take them off for a quick walk if they get too restless.
Need to curate cultural shows for kids
If you can get a small group of kids together, like 3-4 school friends or cousins, then they tend to last out longer. It takes some effort, but it is really worth it. At least that is what I tell myself when the kids are particularly naughty! One way of looking at it is that kids are uncompromising critics. I have noticed that by the age of six-ish, kids will sit through a really top class show; it’s only the middling stuff that leaves them restless. What we really need is for top class critics and performers to recommend cultural shows for kids.
Schools also need to do more to have folk and classical shows and training. We should ban pop music and synthesisers from school performances. Every child should be taught at least “saregama” and “teen taal”.
Online learning resources for kids
There is a lot of material out there—word games and math-related activities. There are also YouTube kids’ channels with science experiments that I highly recommend. Using soap, vinegar, baking soda and other household materials, there are some really fun science lab channels with kids making huge bubbles and self-expanding balloons and using the surface tension of water to make paper stick to upturned glasses and so on. It’s completely safe. There are also some great art and craft channels out there. I am very happy when my kids choose to spend their time doing these science labs and art and craft. It’s a wholesome and creative way of passing the time.
(Suranya Aiyer is founder of Mama Suranya Books, rooted in Indians arts and culture, and Play Art, a colouring and stickers app for primary schoolers, drawn from their book collection and folk art colouring books.)