There’s always been something inherently symbiotic about the relationship between words and pictures. One can survive without the other but when they do come together, the result is almost always wonderful.

Perhaps the best example of this relationship is the lifelong partnership between Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake. Today, a number of publishers have woken up to the beauty, importance and contribution of illustrations to a book. The idea that a picture book with colourful, bright and lively illustrations is meant for children while adults can make do with just the written word is fast changing, and independent publishing houses like Tara Books and Tulika are dedicated to bringing out picture books for adults and children with authors, designers and artists working together.

Radhika Menon, Managing Editor of Tulika Books, says, “Good picture books work in so many different ways. They are the first windows to the world for a child. The universal appeal of picture books cuts across linguistic and cultural barriers if adults overcome their own inhibitions and biases. Picture-book publishing is fairly recent in India. It is an exciting time as so many new and talented illustrators are emerging and different styles — from contemporary to folk to graphic — are being explored in picture books.”

The latest in this genre is Wisdom Tree’s new series, Art Tales from India. This set of four books reaffirms the importance of illustrations and combines it with another idea that is both unique and exciting: the use of Indian folk art. Splashed richly between the covers are contemporary and innovative interpretations of the artistic traditions of Madhubani and Bhil, as well as the dying art of Ganjifa (handmade and hand-painted playing cards used in India since medieval times), and hand-painted posters of Indian cinema.

Each book focuses on one form, captured within the canvas of a delightful fictional tale. Written by Anjali Raghbeer, a children’s author and art lover with many art appreciation workshops to her credit, each book is illustrated by a different artist. The books keep the style of illustration relevant to the plot of the book. “I did a series on famous artists called Looking at Art, introducing artists like Husain, Amrita Sher-Gill and Ravi Varma. Then I thought that folk art, a very important part of India, is losing out with the youth and I wanted to do something that would, in its own little way, change that. I took the folk art form and wove the story around the legends. We had a shortlist of about eight stories and chose the ones that were pictorially very appealing.”

While the story of a greedy card-playing king is visualised in the Ganjifa style, in Poster Boy, Deepak M. Saarsar uses hand-painted Bollywood posters to illustrate a struggling actor’s story. Kunal Kundu, who illustrated A Jar of Sound with his wife Utsah Ghosh Kundu’s help, with Bhil art, says, “It’s gratifying to see that Indian illustrations have improved so much. These books, while they may attract children, are fascinating to adults too. A good illustration isn’t about colours,;it’s about being conceptually and stylistically strong, with good design and composition; something that adds to the story.”

These books thus establish a firm connection between the contemporary and the traditional.

Bottomline: The books become both a window into the art forms of the country as well as a means to preserve them.

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