Painting Indian portraits Indian artists, past and contemporary, deserve to be better known, and what better way to introduce them to the nation than to children? Anjali Raghbeer's Looking at Art series does just that.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, Michelangelo’s The Creation of Man and Raphael’s Madonna and Child are by default what we consider to be some of the greatest pieces of art by equally famous painters. But why don’t a Ravi Varma’s Shakuntala or Jamini Roy’s Three Sisters feature in that list? Probably because we haven’t even heard of them or don’t value them as much as we do those by foreign masters.

Awareness about Indian art and artists is not completely lacking but is surely underrated and diffused. Will the generation next ever learn about the rich art that its country claims ownership of or about the home-grown geniuses responsible for it? Since an interest in art is very subjective, Anjali Raghbeer hopes to at least initiate a dialogue with her Looking at Art series for children published by Tulika that introduces them to the life and work of four great artists that India should take pride in.

“In the West, everyone markets their art so well. Everyone would know the Mona Lisa. But nobody will know which is Hussain’s or Ravi Varma’s best painting” -- this was her motivation to work on an unlikely set of books on artists for children.

Explaining her choice of artists, Anjali says “We went with ‘who are the top five’ and thought we’ll do them geographically -- North – Amrita Sher-Gil; South – Ravi Varma; East – Jamini Roy; West – M.F. Hussain, with Souza being the other choice. If you were to name the top five contemporary artists in India you would actually come up with these names and it was fortunate that they were from different parts. But Souza is more western and international so you can’t really pin him down as an Indian artist.”

She set down to work on the project first with Barefoot Hussain, a book that takes a fun look at all that embodies the quirky, spontaneous and controversial artist, including his ‘hobnobbing’ with Madhuri Dixit. The plot revolves around a school boy, Jai, trying to help the barefoot M.F. Husain find his shoes that he promised his sister he would wear to his art show. During the search adventure, the boy learns of Hussain’s humble beginnings to his penchant for spontaneous sketches.

A Trail of Paint is based on the real scenario of mass produced Jamini Roy fakes, which the author feels would have upset Roy if he were alive today. The book, backed by an intelligent plot, offers an excellent insight into a style of art that is so popular and familiar and yet one which we no had no idea was created by one man.

In The Veena Player, the subject of painting restoration is dealt with, with a bit of fantasy thrown in for the benefit of its young readers. “Ravi Varma’s portraits are so life-like. I wanted to use this in the book where the painting comes alive, tying it with his skill as a painter” explains Anjali. In the book, young Valsa helps her aunt restore an old Ravi Varma painting – ‘The Veena Player’, and in the process helps it come alive literally.

But the best in the series is arguably ‘My name is Amrita…’ born to be an artist. “I wanted children to see it from her point of view, see into her mind, her sensitivity, her genius and how it developed. In the short span of 28 years that she lived she was the top” says Anjali who in this book, unlike the others, has used excerpts from the artist’s own diary entries that were usually accompanied by illustrations by Amrita herself. It is indeed interesting to actually see these illustrations evolve over the years from a childish doodle to mature sketches as Amrita grows.

All the three books except Amrita’s are illustrated by young Soumya Menon, who like Anjali says, has not intruded into the essence of the test or the artists’ works reprinted within the colourful pages.

The books by no means offer a complete understanding of the artists or their works but like the author herself agrees “I don’t think that the books are comprehensive. This is just a beginning to stimulate their curiosity.” And they will definitely succeed in doing just that.

Continuing along those lines, Anjali is currently working on a set of four books for children on folk art. “I am planning to focus on art like Madhubani, miniature paintings from Rajasthan which are a little difficult to get, Ganjifa art, and Bollywood poster-making which is dying out because of the popularity of neon signs” she reveals.

 

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