Scraggly, Sniggering, Never Prim: Drawing the Indian Child in the Indian Children's Book

In India, a quiet revolution has been afoot to give children a visual experience closer home in their reading. Here’s why it’s necessary.

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It’s hard to imagine Indian children ever going for picnics in sloping meadows with wicker baskets filled with jam tarts and scones. They don’t meet too many men (or cats) in top hats either. Many don’t go to bed in matching sets of night clothes and very few have rooms of their own where they are tucked into patterned blankets.

And yet these are some of the most familiar images on the pages of children’s books which have been around for decades. From chunky board books that can weather the teething adventures of toddlers to paperbacks for older children, these images offer a picture of bonny bliss in settings that most Indian children are unlikely to experience. 

Irrespective of whether she is rich or poor, the Indian child has been reading books that show her represented as a prim western ideal. Naturally, this makes her reading experience farther from her own social reality, the more disadvantaged she is.

An illustration in  a book is often a child’s first brush with literature and the significance of getting to see her own face and surroundings mirrored in it is not lost on Kavita Arvind, who recently illustrated a batch of nursery rhymes in diverse Indian settings.

Details from illustrations accompanying Juggernaut’s ‘My Indian Baby Books of Nursery Rhymes’. Photos: Juggernaut Books/ Kavita Arvind

Published by Juggernaut, Arvind’s books are rich in homeliness. For ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, a little girl dressed in Eid finery — and yet suitably scraggly as all little girls are — has an adventure in the skies with her cat. In ‘1, 2, Buckle my Shoe,’ the protagonist child is in a pagri, in ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat,’ a Dal Lake vegetable seller is assisted by his daughter on a boat (main image above). But eschewing tokenism, the Kashmir girl is not in a pheran but in jeans. 

The protagonist of ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’. Photo: Juggernaut Books/ Kavita Arvind

This is quite the departure from the lip service to Indian diversity that books are accustomed to paying and Arvind knows it. 

“Which Indian child wears traditional clothing on an ordinary day?” asks Arvind, who says it is difficult to resort to stereotypes of any kind when representing children in urban India. 

As an illustrator with a creative past in social justice, Arvind looked for a balance between appearing ‘quintessentially Indian’ and the Western world of pink babies and extremely round pigs. 

“The pink baby aesthetic, even though it is beautiful, has nothing to do with the experience of an Indian child,” she says. Arvind wanted her pigs caked in mud and fought to ensure that the ‘Five Little Ducks’ were all spot-billed – a species unique to India.

A page from ‘Five Little Ducks’ of Juggernaut’s ‘My Indian Baby Books of Nursery Rhymes’. Photos: Juggernaut Books/ Kavita Arvind

Arvind notes how she grew up dreaming of Enid Blyton’s ham-and-egg sandwiches and how a generation later, her own 12-year-old daughter writes stories, “not about her own experiences but about John, Lucy, Amanda and Astoria.”

She quotes from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous talk on the ‘danger of a single story’. “If you don’t see yourself, how do you know where your place is in the world?” she asks.

This question worried Paro Anand – a name that has had a lasting impact on children’s and young adults’ books in India – when she started out as an editor and continues to be her  uppermost  concern some 30 books later. 

The many illustrators she has worked with, from Atanu Roy and Rajiv Eipe to Taposhi Ghoshal and Priya Kuriyan are also mindful that a young child looks at illustrations even before she speaks and thus needs to see herself and her life in books.

Atanu Roy, who has illustrated over a hundred children’s books, cannot overstate the importance of representation in illustration. 

“​​Ego animadverto ergo sum… to see is to believe,” he says, adding that a really young child needs to form an image bank in her mind to associate with reality later in life.

When Roy gets a project, he spends some time devising the ways in which he can moor his young reader to it.

“Ethnicity is important as it gives an idea of time and space, and connects you to the lives and lifestyles of the characters. In a country which is very text-centred it is important, I think, to understand that without seeing first, you cannot imagine or write,” he says.

An illustration by Atanu Roy. Photo: https://www.behance.net/gallery/43688217/Atanu-Roy

At almost 70, Roy is a master of moving  between Indian art styles. The fact that he has been able to illustrate quite as many books, including Paro Anand’s Wingless, in quite as many styles is testament to the richness of opportunities that a departure from the Western style brings.  

“You don’t usually meet your illustrators while preparing a book, your publication is the one that matches you to the correct person. Very often, the illustrator draws his or her own take and that is capable of enriching the story greatly. In ‘Babies in My Heart’, Rajiv Eipe portrayed a father in a wheelchair in a very trendy bun which I wouldn’t have thought of,” laughs Anand.

The book is covered with rotund infants who cover the spectrum of Indian skin tones and are doted upon by grandparents in cotton clothes, and same-sex parents, against backdrops of whistling pressure cookers. 

A detail from ‘Babies in my Heart’. Photo: https://www.ektaraindia.in/ektarashop/babies-in-my-heart/

This book is sold by Ektara, a publisher based in Madhya Pradesh, which has long since prioritised the necessity for Indian representation in illustrated kids’ books. 

Anand, however, draws attention to the fact that such publications, although thoughtfully and intricately illustrated, occupy a niche space and bigger publishing houses have more than an advantage when it comes to reaching kids.

Not a level playing field

Of course, Juggernaut is by no means the first publishing house to think of illustrating books for Indian children in all their diversity with equally diverse Indian landscapes and people. 

Like Kavita Arvind, the experience of reading his nieces’ and nephews’ stories with characters that had English names is what is said to have given Anant Pai the impetus to set up Amar Chitra Katha – the one-stop shop for illustrated books on mythological and biographical themes that have been unfaltering in their popularity since the 1970s. But they had their own set of problems. While written in English, they suffered from the onus of sticking so resolutely to India’s past that they perpetuated an almost wilful ignorance of the various changing aspects of Indian life and living. 

“Flat drawings where the mother is always in a saree and a bindi make it appear as if you are entering a moral science lesson,” says Anand, of the tradition of representing Indianhood as one single style of representation.

Illustrative styles of some of India’s most popular big publishers have thus swung between a Western representation of characters and an overdose Indianness that is out of touch with the everyday smallness and bigness of Indian life. 

Even the iconic Children’s Book Trust, founded by the legendary Shankar in 1957, is guilty of this – though the house has made giant strides in illustrating with an eye on reality as well.

Some Children’s Book Trust covers. Photos: www.childrensbooktrust.com

Several smaller publishers like Pickle Yolk, Tara, Sahmat, Tulika, Katha and Pratham have singularly taken on the responsibility of telling their young readers that India exists with a host of issues, evils, lessons and niceness. In their variety, they collectively outdo even the state-run National Book Trust. And casual look at their covers is effective communication to a child that diversity is the foundation of her society.

The books of many of these publishers are absent from mainstream bookstores, leaving the Dr Seuss and Enid Blyton books prime for the pick year after year. This, in spite of a clear admission from even the West that many of these books are racist, pigeonhole girls into set roles, and have not aged well. 

Also read: Enid Blyton Fans React to ‘Racist’ Label

Adrija Ghosh, an illustrator with Pratham Books, who recently drew the Google Doodle for one of India’s first women doctors, Kadambini Ganguly, says that at Pratham’s offices, hours are spent on fine-tuning illustrations so the Indian boy has a scratch or two on his knee, a little girl on an adventure has flyaway hair and a lamp at the corner of a living room is not in a style only affordable to affluent people.

An illustration by Adrija Ghosh on ‘Art is Everywhere – Here, There and in Trash’. Photo: Adrija Ghosh

“While Pratham is a non-profit and distributes books to disadvantaged children, it is true that smaller publications are stumped by Amazon recommendations and lack of attention from bookstores, which don’t view them as lucrative options. Very few exceptions exist,” says Ghosh. 

Which is a shame, considering that the smaller houses take on the big responsibilities of telling children that inequalities exist and that not everything is rosy in the country. Tulika’s My Name Is Gulab by Sagar Kolwankar, is on the child of a manual scavenger who takes on her classmates who accuse her of smelling bad.

A page from ‘My Name is Gulab’. Photo: www.tulikabooks.com

Radhika Menon, who founded Tulika Books, agrees. Tulika’s book Oluguti Toluguti (co-edited by Menon and Sandhya Rao) which contains rich drawings with 54 children’s rhymes in 18 Indian languages and also translated into English, has not gotten the attention that Juggernaut’s rhyme book is expectedly getting. 

“Of course bigger [publishing] houses have a network and get more space in stores. They have huge catalogues which no store can ignore. Smaller publishers like us do not even have the ability to distribute to that scale. We choose not to give bigger bookstores our books because they never pay justly. The credit system doesn’t serve independent houses, which need money from bookstores to in turn pay authors and illustrators,” says Menon, who highlights Tulika’s online sales through its own portal as a way out. 

While English illustrated books take the bookstore and online sales route, most regional language books reach children through NGOs, says Menon. 

The problem of following an illustrative tradition set by the West seeps into regional language books as well, though not as deeply as it does for English books. 

Sukumar Ray’s ‘Tyashgoru’.

The former are fortified by local heroes who are testament to the insurmountable influence that literary and illustration traditions moored in one’s own experiences can have on a people. 

In the early 1900s, the Bengali writer Sukumar Ray complemented his maverick poems and short stories with drawings of reedy ghosts and pumpkin men. These ink illustrations were outright bizarre but they represented the Bengali human in a way so innate that generations after him – including his son, Satyajit Ray – would consider them the firmament of their creative expression.

Even the maudlin, office-going bird-cow hybrid ‘Tyashgoru’ (right) has a muffler – exactly like every Bengali office goer through the ages.

The customers

So what do the consumers-in-chief think? Do they react differently to representative illustrations or does it not matter to them if the child in the book is sitting in a house very different to theirs and looking nothing like them? 

Two individuals who have worked in spaces that encourage artistic expression and storytelling among children say it is a curious mix of both.

Ruchira Das, who runs the organisation ThinkArts, says it is important to not limit a child. “The books that you read end up shaping your imagination. But then again, children’s imaginations jump in ways that don’t really correspond to what they have read. Some of them draw characters who look a lot like them, some others draw themselves as unrecognisable shapes entirely,” she says.

Also read: How Studying Children’s Drawings Can Change Our View of History

Chandana Dutta, who has run a workshop called Akka Bakka for several years, and has seen hundreds of children gravitate  towards art, notes that in a country which is obsessed with teaching, children are very susceptible to unwitting insertions of tradition.

“A few years ago, after a storytelling session in Jaipur, I asked the children  to draw a picture connected to  the story that they had just heard. I was surprised to see that the children drew  the same scenery I was taught years ago – triangles as mountains and a semi-circular sun!” Dutta says.

She does believe that Indian children need to see themselves in books – if only to strengthen their already fertile imagination.

“The aim is to allow children to write and illustrate creatively, not to teach them. We let them colour trees in pink if they are firmly convinced that that is what they should do,” says Dutta.