In the early 1970s, A. Ramachandran was amused to hear his son saying “gol gol” for anything the toddler found exciting in their city of Delhi. That Hindi word, meaning ‘round’, proved the trigger for the renowned painter to come up with picture books with circle-shaped objects.
“If he liked the ice-cream very much, Rahul would say with a yell, ‘Arrey! This is gol gol!’ I thoroughly enjoyed that expression,” recalls the 78-year-old artist, currently holding his first-ever exhibition in native Kerala.
The little boy’s novel wordage led the father to come up with a series of children’s books teeming with round-looking images — in 1975. The series, titled Song of Circles, was brought out by a leading publication in Japan.
While that endeavour by Tokyo-based Fukuinkan Shoten Publishers boosted Ramachandran’s parallel career as a children’s books writer, it wasn’t his debut in the field. Much before that, in the late 1950s, he was instrumental in an innovative children’s-books project back in his home-State.
During his art studies at Santiniketan during 1957-61, Ramachandran’s holidays in Kerala used to be defined by meetings with the State’s literary figures that included C.N. Sreekantan Nair. The renowned playwright once took him to writer Karoor Neelakanta Pillai, who was heading the Sahithya Pravarthaka Cooperative Society.
The Kottayam-based guild was at that time planning to bring out a children’s books package in honour of then Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Ramachandran, also encouraged by short-story writer N Mohanan and college-mate G Aravindan who went on to become an illustrious filmmaker, sketched for the 12-book series.
“I couldn’t use variety colours because we had only the facility of line blocks,” recounts Ramachandran. “But they came out well. I got Rs 1,500. It was a princely sum.”
Then, in 1967-68, entrepreneur-publisher Arun Poorie of Thomson Press commissioned a children’s books project — and entrusted it with Ramachandran. “It took a while for him to eventually complete it, but we finally came out with a set of 12 books,” says Ramachandran, who has been living in Delhi since 1964.
After the Song of Circles project of the mid-1970s, Ramachandran did create no less than 50 children’s books, both within and outside and country. The spread of the geography also ensured that the artist tried varied genres of art — in tune with the local ethos.
Hanuman, which Ramachandran completed a couple of years before Song of Circles, too was a big hit in Japan, where publisher Tadashi Matsui helped him a lot. Even so, the schools he adopted for the two were completely different. The story on the monkey-god was illustrated based on the Madhubani paintings of Bihar, while the other bore a Far-East style.
“It was so interesting to sketch and paint in various styles,” he says. “The last one I did was in 1983.”
Looking back, Ramachandran says it was the copyright from those books that brought him good money even as his fame lay in the world of painting and sculpture. “Till the early 1990s, art wasn’t exactly a money-making profession.”
Ramachandran says children’s books have to evolve as a serious genre in India. “Here, mediocre artists sketch and paint school textbooks. The tragedy starts from there,” he adds.