An exclusive bookstore for children is still a rarity in our country. Nevertheless, were you to come upon one and engage with it meaningfully, you would discover a world unto itself. A raconteur of tales would occupy centre stage, nostalgic of a grandmother of a bygone era of joint families surrounded by her grandchildren. In most Indian families, stories were, as AK Ramanujan puts it so delightfully, ‘just a grandmother away’. But all this is part of a glorious past and there it has remained.
The children’s literature industry in India is in a state of flux with many voices. There are dissenting and igniting debates between writers, publishers, illustrators, international book distributors and readers. A totally different scenario from the post colonial India that I grew up in! I read Enid Blyton series and later graduated to Agatha Christie and Perry Mason. Indigenous literature was available in the form of Amar Chitra Katha or Chandamama. The lack of a rich Indian children’s literature was felt and explored by great writers like Satyajit Ray, Rabindranath Tagore, RK Narayan, and later by Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Ruskin Bond who wrote stories, plays and verses, not specifically for children but their writings could be read, understood and enjoyed by children thoroughly. The publishers in the foray, CBT and NBT, contributed in their own way through adaptations of oral literature of ancient India, but sadly the publications lacked quality and lost the rich essence of the fables.
Panchatantra is a frame story, with story within a story, which was created by Vishnu Sharma to tutor the maverick princes of the kingdom. An octogenarian with twinkling eyes had set out to bring lessons on wisdom and truth, not through preachy dialogues but beautifully crafted allegorical stories. Gautam Bhatia reworked a multifaceted, layered, intricate Panchtantra for adults. But writings for children, in an effort to simplify a classical text, lose nuance, rich imagery and metaphor, a mere recounting of the outline story. Illustrations through cave paintings and classical miniatures, which not only enhance the words but convey the happenings through visuals, became mere supplements of the text. Radhika Menon puts it very succinctly when she says, “An ascetic is shown doing the Suryanamaskara. It is a very sombre picture showing the serious business of the ascetics – except that there is a cat in a corner standing on its hind legs imitating the ascetic, with a few unconcerned mice playing nearby. What a wonderfully funny, detailed, sophisticated picture for a story!”
In the last decade, the story of childrens’ literature in India seems to have undergone a sea change with herculean efforts and a refreshing vision from publishing houses like Tara, Katha, Tulika, Rupa, Navneet and others which specially design books for children. The narrative, locations, language and culture is essentially Indian. The books are an enthralling blend of diverse voices in contemporary times dealing with plaguing issues of our society. Others introduce our art and culture, geography, myth and science using illustrative visuals drawn from our folk arts, tribal landscapes, traditional paintings and graphics of the modern era. The stories are sensitively portrayed using rich imagery, metaphor and syntax.
Now, we would think that such treasures would flood the markets, libraries and the international bookstores in no time, but the process again meanders in lanes and by-lanes of controversy and disagreements. Meticulous productions raise costs which have to compete with those from abroad. Network of public libraries and school libraries, the base for channelizing and distribution of children’s books, is yet to be established in India. The melting pot global arena still views India as exotic and mysterious and would like to see the very same portrayal in children’s books.
To be continued…