Children’s books: Northeast in the everyday

A few months back, an endearing wordless story called Snip popped up on Pratham Books’ StoryWeaver, the digital platform for open-licensed children’s stories. Illustrated by Nagaland-based artist Canato Jimo, it features a pair of siblings who find themselves home alone and, in a moment of curiosity, decide to experiment on their hair with a pair of scissors. Things go out of control as they hilariously try to cover up their mishap before their parents arrive.

As wordless books often go, Snip is for all ages. Apart from being a delightful story, for adults it evokes nostalgia for a time when boredom was an essential part of childhood; often leading to creative experiments. However, Jimo shares that keeping it wordless happened quite organically. “After I had made the drawings, I realised words weren’t necessary,” says the artist, who worked on the illustrations for six months.

Children’s books: Northeast in the everyday

Bypassing stereotypes

Jimo conceived Snip while he was interning at Pratham in Bengaluru as part of his diploma project at the National Institute of Design. “They were putting together stories for their digital platform, and they wanted me to work on a story keeping in mind themes of cultural diversity and inclusivity.” It took some time for him to realise that diversity didn’t necessarily mean something that is steeped in cultural symbolism. “I started out by doing the obvious thing — looking at culture-specific stories like folk tales and festivals that were celebrated in Nagaland,” he says. But as he followed online movements advocating for diversity in children’s books, both in India and the West, he understood that “because I was used to reading certain kinds of books about the region I grew up in, my natural instinct was to think in the same direction. Sometimes, without realising it, we tend to stereotype ourselves”. He credits conversations with his mentors at Pratham, Bijal Vachharajani and Yamini Vijayan, and his guide at NID, Nanki Nath, with motivating him to create Snip. “Taking their suggestions, I started looking for more universal stories to tell.”

What stands out in Jimo’s gorgeously illustrated pages is how the subtle yet conscious attention to detail sets the story in the cultural context of Nagaland, without exoticising it — be it the jholas that hang in the corner of a room or the cane muddha on which one of the kids stand. Through their antics, the children move around the house, giving us a glimpse into a regular household. “Just as they say that good design is invisible, I wanted the cultural context of the story to seamlessly be part of the storytelling and not become the story,” he says.

Children’s books: Northeast in the everyday

Keeping it contemporary

Browsing the book lists of various Indian children’s publishers, one will find numerous stunning picture books set in Nagaland and other parts of the Northeast. There is The Story of Shangmiyang by Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya with art by Suddhasattwa Basu (Katha Books); Meren Imchen’s The Rooster and the Sun (Tulika Books), and Mamang Dai and Kalyani Ganapathy’s Hambreelmai’s Loom (Tulika Books), to name a few. However, one can’t help but notice that most are retellings of folk tales; there is a huge gap when it comes to contemporary stories.

Six for the shelf
  • Kuriyan has also collaborated on a few titles this year. “The most challenging was Indira, since it was a book about someone who has lived a really full life. To put that across in 160 pages and make it interesting for children was not an easy task,” says the illustrator. Here are six to look out for:
  • Indira: Written by Devapriya Roy, it is a graphic biography of former prime minister Indira Gandhi for young adults. “I used black-and-white pen and ink to render Indira. Each chapter has a single colour theme, depending on the mood and the content.” ₹599; Context, an imprint of Westland Books
  • The Poop Book: Written by Tejaswini Apte-Rahm and Sujatha Padmanabhan, it is a picture book filled with fun facts about poop. “I used colourful paper cut-outs to create various animal shapes for this one.” ₹100; Kalpavriksh, a Pune-based NGO
  • Baby Looking Out and Other Stories: A collection of young adult short stories penned by Padmini Mongia. “The illustrations are in black-and-white paper cut-outs to match the quirky writing style.” ₹350; Yoda Press
  • Bow Meow Wow: Written and illustrated by Kuriyan, the almost wordless picture book is about a dog, a cat and a chase. “I’ve kept the colour palette bright yet minimal, as colours are an integral part of the story. I used photocopier inks for this project.” On StoryWeaver
  • The Pottering Pig: Written by Rohit Kulkarni, the picture book follows a potter and his pet pig. “While the animal is rendered in charcoal, the backgrounds are done using paper cut-outs and watercolours.” On StoryWeaver
  • Why the Elephant has Tiny Eyes: Written by Pow Aim Hailowng, this is a retelling of a Tai Phake folk tale from Assam. “I wanted the treatment to be really gentle, so I used water colours and colour pencils.” ₹175; Tulika Books

Young adult fiction seems to be luckier, with authors like Arup Kumar Dutta (The Kaziranga Trail, Trouble at Kolongijan) and Siddhartha Sarma (The Grasshoppers Run, Year of the Weeds) writing some fantastic and relevant books for children. “One of the reasons for this gap could be that our oral storytelling tradition has always been rich, but its documentation in the form of children’s books is a fairly recent phenomenon. It is only natural for most authors to write about the familiar stories that have been passed down to them than their lived experiences,” says Jimo, who also recently illustrated a story set in Sikkim called The Very Wiggly Tooth, written by Reshma Thapa Gurung.

Growing up in a town called Zunheboto in Nagaland in the 1980s, he remembers being surrounded by Archie comics, Tinkle, abridged versions of classics like Ben-Hur, and beautifully-illustrated stories from the Bible. He also has strong memories of his parents and grandparents narrating folk tales. Though it was not too evident at the time, there was a clear bifurcation: the Anglicised characters did normal things that children do, like play or go to school, while the Naga characters only inhabited folk tales. “I think a lot of us just unconsciously took that forward in our own storytelling,” he says, adding, “While I do believe one needs to preserve our rich oral history, we also need stories about everyday life, set in the places that we inhabit. And publishers should treat these books like they would any other, without specifically labelling them as books from the Northeast.”

Exploring diversity

Illustrators often take on projects set in different cultural contexts, especially when working on stories written by others. What are the challenges? “If the illustrator is from the place where the story is set, there is a certain nuance that he or she gets immediately, but just as I wouldn’t want to box myself into doing only books set in the Northeast, everyone should be free to do the work they enjoy doing. One’s cultural identity needn’t be the primary driving force behind a story. My first intention is to tell my story well and as authentically as I can. The rest just follows,” he says, stressing that detailed research is also important.

At the moment, Jimo is continuing his work with Pratham Books, as an art director. He is also excited by the possibilities that StoryWeaver has to offer. “It is a great way to collaborate with other creators. At the moment, I am trying to see if I can get together a group of people to translate some of the existing stories on the platform into Naga languages. It could be a great way to contribute towards preserving some of our languages,” he says, adding that books are the perfect way to break barriers. “I really believe that there is more that unites us than divides us. The more diversity that children see in our books, the more they will know about others, and the easier it would be to accept differences in fellow human beings. Books can open up numerous conversations that can bring us all closer.”

Priya Kuriyan is a children’s book writer, illustrator, comics maker and animator.

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 12:42:02 AM |

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