Children’s books illustrators Nina Sabnani and Durgabai Vyam are introducing India’s indigenous art and craft to a new generation

Highlighting the art and craft of indigenous India, children’s books illustrators Nina Sabnani and Durgabai Vyam use everything from digna to embroidered saris to create stories with a global resonance 

Updated - November 17, 2022 08:31 pm IST

Published - November 11, 2022 12:38 pm IST

Clockwise from top left: Illustrators Durgabai Vyam and Nina Sabnani, and a page from Mukand and Riaz

Clockwise from top left: Illustrators Durgabai Vyam and Nina Sabnani, and a page from Mukand and Riaz | Photo Credit: Susanne Hakuba and special arrangement

In August, an art fair awarded a blue ribbon to an A.I.-generated picture. A month later, The New Yorker published a poem about cryptocurrency. The poet? An A.I. known as code-davinci-002. As someone who writes children’s books, I think about the rise of A.I-generated picture books, and what that might mean for the humans who create them. But, as I pore over the exquisite books illustrated by Nina Sabnani and Durgabai Vyam, I wonder if an A.I. will ever be able to replicate the years of artistry and soul they bring to their work.

I consider both Sabnani and Vyam, artists who have transformed my understanding of storytelling, to be trailblazers in their own right. While Vyam was one of the first women artists from her community to step outside the confines of her home to become an artist, Sabnani was instrumental in setting up the National Institute of Design’s animation programme in Ahmedabad.

Watch | Illustrators Nina Sabnani and Durgabai Vyam’s artistic journey

For over 15 years, they have created thought-provoking books around themes like gender, caste, and acceptance. And, while they have very diverse backgrounds and journeys, artistically, Sabnani and Vyam have introduced a generation of young readers to Indian folk and tribal art through their work.

A page from  Durgabai Vyam’s book, Sultana’s Dream.

A page from  Durgabai Vyam’s book, Sultana’s Dream.

Wall art to animation

Born in Gujarat to a textile family, 66-year-old Sabnani was not interested in art or drawing as a child. But, her nose was always stuck in a book, she tells me during an interview on Zoom. “We lived in Bharuch, and would take the train to visit my grandmother in Jaipur. The first port of call at the station was the AH Wheeler and Co. stall to buy books. Then, I’d sit in a corner and read for the entire journey.”

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Sabnani was all set to pursue medicine when a friend who was studying fine arts invited her to visit her studio in Vadodara. “I couldn’t quite believe that one could get a degree from drawing, sculpting, and painting. I decided on the spot that I would take up fine arts.” She went on to get her degree from MS University, Vadodara, and later joined NID where she was one of the first few animation film students.

A page from Nina Sabnani’s Mukand and Riaz.

A page from Nina Sabnani’s Mukand and Riaz.

Vyam was born in Barbaspur village in Madhya Pradesh. Over a telephone interview, the 49-year-old tells me that her education in art began at a very young age at the feet of her mother. “I learned digna from her. It is an art form that uses geometric patterns made with natural colours to decorate the walls of homes during festivals and weddings.” Her daughter Roshni, also an artist, is translating from Gondi to English for me.

“As the eldest, I had to look after my two brothers and two sisters, help with household chores, and work in the field. The girls in our village were not sent to school,” she says. At the early age of 13, she was married to Subhash Vyam, who is now her collaborator on many artistic projects. The couple moved to Bhopal where their uncle, the late Jangarh Singh Shyam, the force behind the modern Pardhan Gond art movement, took them under his wing.

Pages from the 2019 book Turning the Pot, Tilling the Land: Dignity of Labour in Our Times illustrated by Durgabai Vyam.

Pages from the 2019 book Turning the Pot, Tilling the Land: Dignity of Labour in Our Times illustrated by Durgabai Vyam.

“He gave me papers, canvas, and acrylic paint, and told me to try working with them,” Vyam recalls. After her paintings began to get noticed, she was invited to participate in workshops and exhibitions at Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal. But, it was her illustrations for Chakmak magazine which caught the eye of publishers Tara Books and Katha.

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I remember my first copy of Mai and Her Friends (Katha), the story of a cow that gets lost in a thunderstorm only to be rescued by a group of unlikely heroes. The Gond style was something I had seen as a child, trailing behind my mother as she attended Crafts Council exhibitions. To view them in the pages of a picture book felt surprising, yet reassuringly familiar.

When even saris tell a story

Sabnani’s foray into animation was rife with resistance — from herself! “I wasn’t interested in animation at all,” she says. “I thought it was all about Disney films and shrieky princesses.” But a UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) scholarship allowed her to travel across Europe learning from greats in the field like Roger Noakes. “He was the one who told me that I needn’t look to Disney for inspiration, but to draw from India’s own indigenous art forms.”

Clockwise from top left: Book covers of Durgabai Vyam’s urning the Pot, Tilling the Land, and Sultana’s Dream; and Nina Sabnani’s My Mother’s Sari, A for Ajrakh, My Gandhi Story, and Mukand and Riaz.

Clockwise from top left: Book covers of Durgabai Vyam’s urning the Pot, Tilling the Land, and Sultana’s Dream; and Nina Sabnani’s My Mother’s Sari, A for Ajrakh, My Gandhi Story, and Mukand and Riaz.

This made me think of how each of the illustrators I’ve spoken to for this series has, in their own way, created what are quintessentially Indian children’s books, and how distinct it is.

Sabnani recalls it was her film, All About Nothing (1990), which looked at how the zero came to be used in mathematical calculations, that brought her into the world of children’s books. “Radhika Menon of Tulika Books asked if I would turn the film into a book for children. I was hesitant, as I knew nothing about picture book making, but she insisted,” says Sabnani. It was the start of a long partnership between her and Menon, resulting in a vast body of work that won her The Big Little Book Award in 2018. A body of work that includes books like My Mother’s Sari, a book that has always been special for me.

A page from Nina Sabnani’s My Mother’s Sari.

A page from Nina Sabnani’s My Mother’s Sari.

Made with author Sandhya Rao, the illustrations have been created using photographs of saris — each borrowed from a loved one — and acrylics. During the COVID lockdown, I had found myself wearing my mother’s simple cotton saris as a way to comfort myself and Sabnani’s art captures the succour one’s mother’s sari can provide beautifully.

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Vyam’s own collaborations with Tara Books and Navayana have resulted in powerful books like Sultana’s Dream, a reimagining of the 20th century feminist classic by Rokheya Sakhawat Hossain, and The Night Life of Trees, for which she won the prestigious Bologna Ragazzi award with co-creators Bhajju Shyam and Ramsingh Urveti. Her illustrations for Bhimayana, a landmark graphic novel about the life of Bhimrao Ambedkar, will always stay with me. Written by S. Anand and Srividya Natarajan, it is unlike other graphic novels in form.

Durgabai Vyam, a Pardhan Gond, signing a copy of Bhimayana.

Durgabai Vyam, a Pardhan Gond, signing a copy of Bhimayana. | Photo Credit: Susanne Hakuba

The artists — Vyam collaborated with her husband and daughter for the first time — use digna to make the panels of the book. To fully comprehend just how sophisticated their visual language is, one must pay attention to the different kinds of speech and thought bubbles used: one representing inner thoughts, and another resembling a scorpion’s tail to show the stinging words of those who continue to propagate the caste system.

Why A.I. will not match up

The act of collaborating for picture books is something that I’ve always been interested in, and I learn that one of my favourite books of Sabnani’s, Mukand and Riaz, came out of one too. “It’s my father’s own story,” Sabnani tells me, about this tale of friendship during the Partition. “He never spoke of the Partition until the year before he died. He was unwell, and the sharing of this story was therapeutic for both of us.”

A page from Nina Sabnani’s Mukand and Riaz.

A page from Nina Sabnani’s Mukand and Riaz.

I’ve always wanted to know why Sabnani used embroidered fabric scraps to recount it. “Cloth, like memories, fades over time, but is also wonderfully resilient,” she replies. It is a tribute to her father and his work in textiles, and amongst the fabric used are scraps of material from his old shirts.

She worked with a group of refugee women artisans who embroidered the material. “When we showed them the film, they nudged each other, saying, ‘Look, your piece is there’,” Sabnani remembers.

READ | A reading list for woke Indian children

It has been a few years since Vyam worked on a children’s book, turning her energy to other artistic endeavours. In 2018, the Padma Shri-awardee and her husband created Dus Motin Kanya Aur Jal Devata, one of four Infra-Projects at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Painted on marine plywood and then mounted along the walls and pillars of the exhibition area, their work narrated a traditional Gond folklore. The couple is currently working on a 200-foot tall installation that will be displayed at the State Museum of Tribal and Folk Art in Khajuraho.

One of the panels from Durgabai Vyam’s Infra-Project Dus Motin Kanya Aur Jal Devata at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

One of the panels from Durgabai Vyam’s Infra-Project Dus Motin Kanya Aur Jal Devata at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

My conversations with both these artists left me feeling buoyant and energised about my own work as a children’s book author. Perhaps A.I.-generated picture books will be a thing of the near-future. But to me, these books won’t come close to those created with care and passion by Sabnani and Vyam. The lives and imaginations of our children are so much richer thanks to artists like them.

The final instalment in our 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.

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