BOOKMARK Richly illustrated, “The Puffin Book of Folktales” brings together 10 tales, familiar and new, of humour and wisdom, says Shalini Shah

We all know the story of the father and son who took their donkey to the market and listened to everything and everyone but common sense. What if, instead, one listened to no one? A different kind of foolishness. The story “A man, his son, their donkey” by Manjula Padmanabhan is one of the many reinterpretations of Indian folktales that finds its place in The Puffin Book of Folktales brought out on the occasion of Puffin completing a decade in India. Other tales in the anthology include Paro Anand’s “Harshringar”, where the besotted and, later, heartbroken Surya, curses the narcissistic damsel he loves and turns her into a flower; Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s “Podna and His Revenge”, where a little angry bird stuffs a zoo in his ear to go exact revenge on the king who has kidnapped his Podni; and Kamala Das’ “Panna” about a little girl who ends up in the depths of the sea with the Fish King and Fish Queen, to name a few.

Binding them together are the illustrations by Pune-based artist Poonam Athalye. Done in oil, the drawings capture the spirit of the stories — the determination of Podna flying to confront the king, the anguish of a drowning king, the boredom of the Fish King and Queen presiding over a kingdom running in perfect order; the despondence of the dove whose egg is stolen by the blacksmith’s wife…

Considering how some of the stories are familiar, with their own set of published imagery, was there a reference point?

“The publishers approached me after they liked a certain technique I had used for an earlier book. I think they had a clear idea that they wanted me to use oil paints for the book and they showed me some of my own work that they liked as a reference to what they were looking for. I didn't refer to any other illustrations made for the stories before me. As always I just read the stories several times and waited for ideas to develop,” says Poonam.

Devdutt Pattanaik’s “Renuka’s Umbrella” — where a sage, angry with the sun for scalding his wife’s feet, threatens to shoot him down from the sky with his arrow — proved more challenging than the rest, says the artist.

“There are some stories in the book that have a mythological background to them, like some folk stories have. I wanted to refrain from illustrating any mythological character in detail as it would not remain a book of folk tales then; it would appear more of a book on Indian mythology. ‘Renuka's Umbrella’ was particularly difficult due to this reason,” Poonam explains.

An architecture student, Poonam later enrolled in Visual Communication at the Industrial Design Centre of IIT-Powai.

“Although throughout the course I made animation films, for which I chose to draw and paint by hand, towards the end of the course I began working with Prof. Kirti Trivedi, and with him I began illustrating for children,” says Poonam, listing oil and gouache as preferred media.

Illustrators whose works she admires range from K.G. Subramanyan to Marjane Satrapi, Elodie Nouhen and Carll Cneut. “I tend to observe the work of painters and print-makers more than that of illustrators, like J Sultan Ali, Katsushika Hokusai, Paul Klee and Joan Miro.”