Fifty and counting!

Going strong The CBT bookshop at Nehru House in New Delhi

Going strong The CBT bookshop at Nehru House in New Delhi   | Photo Credit: Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Milestone Children’s Book Trust turns 50 this year. SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTYtraces the journey of this ground-breaking institution started by the legendary Shankar Pillai

It was his school teacher sleeping dead to the world that gave famous cartoonist Shankar his first idea to caricature life. Though the young Shankar got an angry earful from his headmaster for this classroom mischief, it helped his uncle spot his genius.

Fuelled by this talent-spotting in his formative years, Keshav Shankar Pillai grew up to shine as a political cartoonist when India was in its new dawn. His high-on-humour “Shankar’s Weekly”, published from New Delhi since 1948, not only won him high-profile fans including Jawaharlal Nehru, but also produced cartoonists like Abu Abraham, Ranga and Kutty, etc.

The story about how a Hungarian diplomat’s thoughtful gift (a doll!) to Shankar gave him the idea of setting up the International Dolls Museum in the Capital is today over 55 years old. And well, many of that litter of children who took part in Shankar’s on-the-spot painting competition, which he started in 1952, are 52 years old today!

Yet another endeavour of this Kerala native, the “Children’s World” magazine, was but an extension of the Children’s Book Trust, his pioneering work in the field of children’s literature, established in 1957. This year, this ground-breaking venture of Shankar is rounding up 50 eventful years. But silently.

Says Navin Menon, Editor, Children’s World, “There is no special celebration for the 50th anniversary of CBT, simply because we have always celebrated childhood. We want our everyday actions to speak, not a mere valedictory function.” True to her words, nowhere in the CBT office at Nehru House, which also houses the Dolls Museum, will you spot any anniversary posters, announcement, etc. Life is as usual here. If someone is quietly sorting out child contributors’ poems, short stories and letters for the next edition of Children’s World, some others are giving final touches to their illustrations to colour the next CBT book. Menon herself would be found going through a pile of storybook ideas.

“We bring out about 10 to 12 titles every year,” she says, a huge stack of kids books behind her bearing testimony. She flips through some of them to show you how beautifully illustrated they are. “Our artists sometimes take two to three months to do illustrations for just one book,” she adds. Most story ideas pour in through a competition, an annual practice by CBT since 1978. However, it has now been put on hold as there is a backlog. “We are clearing the backlog of 2005 now. The response to this competition has always been tremendous. We have suspended it for some time as we feel it is not proper to approve of their ideas and delay the final publishing,” says Menon.

The first stories

But things quite didn’t start this way at CBT. Recollects Menon, “Shankar himself penned the first stories. Then he felt it didn’t quite reflect well on the organisation to have just one writer. So he started publishing his stories in the name of his family members. By and by, he looked for stories by outsiders.” What have not changed since then are CBT’s core principles. “We have never compromised with our aim of entertaining and educating children and being a part of their growing up.” To reach more and more children, they have, though, always compromised with the books’ pricing. “Shankar had a heart of a child. He was quite adamant like a kid. We would tell him that the price set by him was lower than the cost price and yet he would not listen,” she says.

To keep the yeoman service going, CBT’s Indraprastha Press, located in the building’s basement, takes up outside work too. Besides, it takes orders from the state governments to translate CBT books into regional languages. To cut costs, it sends out books to international book fairs through the National Book Trust and its network of 1500 distributors.

But in the age of Harry Potter, the CBT books, born of marvellous home-grown ideas, are not much talked about. All this half-a century-old storehouse of fantastic kids’ tomes needs is an effective marketing strategy.

Says Menon, “We are very bad at blowing our own trumpet. We don’t know how to do it. But in today’s strategy-driven market, we need a dash of it.” Wouldn’t it be a small price to keep such a heritage alive?

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