I don’t recall learning much about the Northeast in school. There might have been a mention that the contiguous States were called the Seven Sisters (eight now, with Sikkim included). I might have been asked to mark where iron ore is mined in India and drawn a star in the vicinity of Meghalaya. That was it.
I didn’t give any of this much thought until I became a parent and began reading about the role of diversity, representation and inclusion in children’s books. A research paper published in 2014 in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology stated that young people who read the Harry Potter series and identified with the main character were less likely to be biased, or prejudiced against minority groups. (Yes, one can see the irony here, considering the author’s own social media posts about the trans community.)
It’s important to remember that diverse and inclusive books do not exist just to shape the mindset of the majority. Authentic representations of minority communities that go beyond tokenism send an important message: that their stories matter. As a medium, picture books are perfectly placed to do this with humour, warmth, economy of words, empathy and above all, beauty.
It’s something illustrators Canato Jimo and Pankaj Saikia have been doing with aplomb: creating books set in the Northeast that show children navigating mundane issues: their first wobbly tooth, showing the new kid around school, and playing pranks on each other. This is worth noting as most children’s books set in the region have largely been folktale retellings or mythology and there’s little that portrays contemporary life.
While they both feel that folklore and oral traditions should be preserved, Saikia, 32, says contextualisation is important: “Folklore retellings are often sanitised of the socio-cultural information embedded in them so that they’re more child-friendly. Also, when children’s books derive heavily from folklore or mythology, we deny children the opportunity to read stories about their lived experiences.”
Jimo, 39, admits that while working on his wordless picture book Snip! (Pratham Books) for his final year project at the National Institute of Design, his first thoughts were centred around folktales. “They are a huge part of our upbringing and culture,” he says. “But then, through discussions with editors and other illustrators, I began to think of more universal themes.” Set in Nagaland, Snip! eventually became a book about two siblings making mischief while their parents are out working.
Given that there are so few children from the region who show up as characters in books, I wondered if Jimo and Saikia saw themselves reflected in the books they read as children.
Jimo, who grew up in the small town of Zunheboto, several hours away from Kohima, didn’t have a library in his school. “Most of what I read was borrowed from my siblings and an informal circulation library amongst the children in my town. We would read books and pass them onto others. This way, I read Tinkle, Phantom and abridged classics like The Swiss Family Robinson.”
Local and global
Saikia, whose father was in the army, moved constantly before the family settled down in Guwahati. He too had a library network with his cousins, and fondly remembers the Assamese children’s magazines Mouchaq and Akonir Agradoot, which had stories that captured life in small town Assam. “It was easy to see myself in those stories because everything was familiar,” he says.
As we might imagine, both loved drawing as children: Jimo filled up the back pages of his notebooks with doodles, and Saikia’s parents provided him with a constant supply of cheap drawing paper to keep his interest going. Though they veered into different paths as adults, with Jimo studying Theology and Saikia History, both eventually returned to their childhood passion: drawing.
What drew them to picture books though? For Jimo, it was coming across Oliver Jeffers’ How to Catch a Star while Saikia always enjoyed telling stories through comics and illustrations. As picture book makers, they are both committed to creating stories with a strong narrative pull and approach the process with curiosity. When working on Snip! Jimo kept asking himself: “How much do I want to try and reflect my culture in this book?” He shares that he’s come to learn to focus on the story, and not the setting or place or an underlying political message. “If you want to explore those things as a reader, it’s fine, but for a creator the story must take precedence.” You can see how this thinking plays out in Snip! where the reader is pulled into the drama of spontaneous haircuts. The fact that it’s set in Nagaland feels incidental, shown through the details in the art: the handwoven modas, jholas hung on hooks, and the shawls worn in a framed photograph.
Saikia, who has published four picture books till date, says it took him almost four years of trial-and-error and a few unpublished picture books to understand the medium. It was during the COVID-19 lockdown that he began experimenting with localised storytelling rooted in the everyday. Saikia feels children need to see their surroundings in what they are reading, and be able to relate to it.
This includes the difficulties of childhood as well. In When We Are Home written by Priyadarshini Gogoi and illustrated by Saikia (Pratham Books), two children displaced by floods remember their home through sensory memories: the smell of til pitha and kopua flowers, the sound of their father’s snores, and their mother’s loom at work.
But my favourite book by Saikia is Theatre of Ghosts, in which a group of children walk through the lanes of their village at night to a local theatre and dance performance called Bhaona. Every time I read Theatre of Ghosts, I have the same wistful feeling I get from watching My Friend Totoro by Miyazaki. Both of them present a version of what childhood could and should be like — out in the open, in the company of friends and nature. Saikia acknowledges that some might say he is influenced by Miyazaki, but also cites the work of illustrators Jean Giraud, Marjane Satrapi and Dave Mckean.“I keep going back to the works of Mckean for his intricate lining and compositions,” he says.
As for Jimo, who has worked as Art Director at Penguin Random House and Pratham Books, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what his illustration ‘style’ is. “I tend to rely on what approach would work best for the story rather than staying true to a signature style or medium,” he says.
While Snip! uses traditional paper, pencils, gouache and watercolour, in I Love Grey (Pratham Books), he uses shapes and a more textured approach to striking effect. Jimo loves to experiment, drawing from both his cultural roots and the work of other illustrators he admires, like Jon Klassen.
In Asamo! Is that you?, he collaborated with artist Ogin Nayam to tell a story that imaginatively subverts the monsters-in-the-dark trope. Armed with a torch, little Yumum is searching for her friend Asamo in the dark. She comes across a number of monsters, including the Pheicham from Mizoram and a Titi-ribi from Arunachal Pradesh. “Many of these monsters only have names and no visual references, so we were free to explore how we would depict them,” Jimo shares. Here he uses linocuts and a palette of chiefly yellow, red and black. “The decision to choose red and black was conscious, as the colours are strongly used across the Northeast in textiles and artifacts.”
Read to know
Does the tag of ‘Northeastern illustrator’ come with any burdens, especially since these are eight different States with diverse cultures? Jimo is saddened by how the narratives of such a diverse region are often clubbed together as one or when one story is made representative of the whole. “But, as an artist, one must put things out there so that there is more conversation and engagement.”
Saikia feels that creators from the region carry a certain cultural baggage and have a tendency to fall back on pre-existing forms of narrative as a reference point or inspiration. He adds that most of the visual material that is available to children is hardly representative of their time and space. “Not to mention the lack of representation of the Northeast in school textbooks. Which is why it becomes even more urgent to feature characters or stories in which children can see themselves.”
Saikia is right. In the 27 years since I last studied social science at school, little seems to have been done to improve the representation of the Northeast in our textbooks. Citizen and State government-led efforts to correct this are afoot, and hopefully it won’t take another two decades. Till it happens, we can take comfort in the fact that talented artists like Canato Jimo and Pankaj Saikia fill these gaps with their artistry and imagination.
The second in a series on children’s books illustrators from across the country.
The writer is a children’s book author (Loki Takes Guard) and columnist based in Bengaluru.