“A word-gobbling monster,” is how Mamta Nainy describes herself. An editor of children’s books and author of eight herself — the latest being A Brush with Indian History (Puffin) — Nainy says her fondest childhood memory is graduating from a pencil to a fountain pen and “how days after filling it with ink I would proudly eat with ink-stained hands!”
Her road to being an children’s author included a “ramble through the long road of writing copy for advertisements, copy-editing self-help and coffee-table books, and dreaming up a magnum opus under my name before a small girl inspired me to write my first picture book for children. When that got published, I felt brave enough to write more for children and haven’t stopped since then.”
But the “experience of writing” always “enthralled” her, she says. Though she’s “thrilled by the idea of creating something new, be it a character, a storyline, or a turn of phrase” she’s actually “a messy writer; my grocery lists usually end up becoming my idea journals.”
In A Brush With Indian Art , Nainy succeeds in making history and art history in particular come alive. You learn about Jahangir’s personal zoo and how the emperor promoted paintings of wildlife. Or there’s the Curious Case of the Curse of the Caves at Ajanta. Or how Dr Vishnu Wakankar discovered the rock paintings at Bhimbetka. So the readers are led gently through the evolution of art, the development of the different styles of miniature painting, what the Tanjore style is all about; the birth of Indian art schools and more.
Ask Nainy what gave her this idea and she replies, “The book is actually a gift to my younger self. When I was in school, the art classes were mostly drawing classes where we would draw whatever we were asked to or they were free periods. Art wasn’t really explored as a medium of expression.”
Later, when she realised that Indian art contained many stories and ideas, she wanted to “give kids a more comprehensive and inclusive idea of art. It was also important to show them how any art form or idea changes and evolves over time — thereby encouraging them to think up ideas, explore them visually and bring their dreams, imaginations and stories to life!”
Of course this meant a lot of “painstaking” research. “It took me almost three years of extensive reading on art and museum and gallery visits to get this book together. If research was one thing, verifying the facts quite another. Books, magazines, websites, were checked and re-checked to verify the information that I’d put in.”
The book is written in a chatty style with conversational asides, snippets of information about museums and galleries and and admonishments not to deface heritage sites. The idea, says Nainy, was to “make Indian art accessible to children. For art history is not about dusty dates, arcane concepts or obscure schools and movements, it is the visual side of history which can be extremely exciting to explore... the facts were fleshed out into small stories, interesting anecdotes, trivia tit-bits and snippy information segments.”
Finally I ask about children’s literature in India. What does she think of the current state? In a happy space at the moment, she says. While we have “diverse new voices, new children’s imprints and more attention to indigenous children’s books, distribution remains a roadblock. There are only a few well-stocked children’s book stores. In regular book stores, children’s books get very little space. Very few dailies and children’s magazines carry thoughtful book pages for children. So, we need more bridges that connect the publishers and the authors with the readers.”
Editor and writer
All writers edit their works to some extent, I suppose. But being a writer and an editor helps me look at my own work with a rather cold eye. So even when the writer in me wants to be a little indulgent and exuberant with words, the editor in me says an obstinate NO. I do try not to over-write or over-edit. But, I guess, having a two-in-one sort of a personality as a writer-cum-editor can be a sweet deal and a cheese off in equal measures.
Nainy’s writing is complemented by Aniruddha Mukherjee’s stunning black-and white illustrations ranging from recreating a horse from the Lascaux cave paintings to folks crowding around a modern installation. Among the eye-catching ones are the portrait of Bani Thani, a pair of fish drawn in Madhubani style, a monk completing a painting in Ajanta and a patua artist telling stories. Don’t miss the crowd around a modern installation either.
A few of my favourite things
Books: Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke; Red Oleanders by Rabindranath Tagore; The Words by Jean-Paul Sartre
Children’s Books: All of Abanindranath Tagore’s works for his untethered imagination; Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol for the whimsy of his words; Bibhutibhushan Banyapadhyay’s Chander Pahad for the epic adventure it is; The Crescent Moon by Rabindranath Tagore for the sheer delight each poem in this collection is; The Blue Umbrella by Ruskin Bond for the lyric simplicity sprinkled through its pages
Authors: Rainer Maria Rilke, Rabindranath Tagore, Rajshekhar Basu, Naiyer Masud, Manto, RK Narayan, Ruskin Bond… I could go on and on
Artistes: Nandalal Bose, Abanindranath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore, KG Subramanyan
Children’s books illustrators: Sukumar Ray, Satyajit Ray, Quentin Blake, Pulak Biswas, Aniruddha Mukherjee
When: Usually first thing in the morning
How: I start with re-reading what I’d written the previous day and editing it. That kind of builds the flow and makes way for more words to get on to the paper…er...laptop!
Where: My big but rather messy dining table that doubles up as my writing desk
What: Picture books mostly. Non-fiction occasionally. Poetry wishfully