“Gobble You Up!” is a coming together of images, text and orality with fascinating results

Back in school, while studying Seamus Heaney’s poems, we came across one called ‘Cow in Calf’. Heaney describes, with great immediacy, a pregnant cow as he ponders her plumpness (“I had to/ hit again and again and/ heard the blows plump like a depth charge/ far in her gut”). Except, before we started reading the poem, a few of us took the title too literally. “How can a cow be inside a calf?” someone asked, not anticipating the years of ridicule that lay ahead.

I was reminded of this episode while reading Gobble You Up! a new book by Chennai-based independent publishing house Tara Books. It is based on a Rajasthani trickster tale, where a wily jackal, too lazy to hunt for food, dupes his friend the crane, proceeding to gobble up every animal he comes across — a tortoise, a squirrel, a peacock, an elephant even — until his belly can hold no more.

The minimalist offering is an example of the successful coming together of the usual antagonists – images, text and orality. The tale has been illustrated by Sunita, an artist originally from Datasaooti village in Rajasthan, who remembered it from her grandfather’s narrations.

It was then written down by her husband Prabhat, and Susheela Varadarajan translated it into English. From the basic plot of the original tale, Gita Wolf of Tara Books wrote the text with cumulative rhyme, where the plot progresses through the repetition of key verses (such as “Twelve fish in my tum/ sorry crane just too dumb”).

The spare plot of the tale is complemented by intricate illustrations. The art is an example of Mandna, an ancient art form practised, and kept alive inter-generationally, only by women. “In the village, on floors and walls we used to draw these images. You can draw anything you want – birds, tigers, elephants, horses. Nowadays, on pukka walls we have to use colour, but traditionally, on kuchha walls we use khadiya and geru,” says Sunita. She was put in touch with Gita Wolf by an acquaintance named Madan from Kota, Rajasthan, who holds a Ph.D in Mandna.

“There are no brushes – a piece of cloth soaked in chalk and lime paste is squeezed through the artist’s fingers in a fluid line. The art is ephemeral and renewed regularly, during festivals and celebrations. Apart from ritual motifs, one of the favourite themes of Meena artist is animals and their young; village walls teem with portraits of all kinds of beasts, domestic and young,” the book informs.

One of the challenges in illustrating the story was to keep the quality of wall art, while transferring it to a different surface. For the purpose of this handmade book, brown paper has been used with white acrylic paint squeezed through the artist’s fingers. Thereafter, book designer Rathna Ramanathan split the images into two colours — the jackal is rendered in black, while all the creatures he swallows are in white.

Sunita has also contributed illustrations to the magazine Champak, and is planning to hold an exhibition of her art in Jaipur, a rarity among Meena women whose art is rarely seen away from their villages.

Keywords: Gobble You Up!