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Picture Perfect

Parni Ray 08 Oct 2019

Traditional folk art forms of India are gaining new ground with publishing houses choosing to work with local, indigenous talent for picture books for the many stories a single image can hold. Edited excerpts from the story.

Page from the book Hambreelmai's Loom, illustrated by Kalyani Ganapathy (Tulika Books, 2014).

Recently, at one of those snazzy, sprawling bookshops in a shopping mall, I searched for picture books on shelves set against a space I figured was the ‘Children’s Section’. There were stacks of books, many with pictures, on colourful shelves bent like a lazy ‘C’, but despite poring through them I could not find any picture book that really caught my fancy. 

Most picture books are attractive things. They usually beckon you from bookshelves and table tops and window displays in ways books filled merely with words often don’t. They come in varied shapes, sometimes open up in folds, pop out in three-dimensional shapes, can be cut up in parts to reveal other parts. There is little a picture book cannot do. Even the texts in them are less reserved about font and formatting. Sometimes the texts are pictures in their own right, composed of squiggly lines and curves and loops, frolicking with the images and the reader’s sight on the flat plane of the page. The combination of words, of narratives and images, is so very different from stories, read or heard, and even pictures seen by themselves, that they compel you not only to delve into a word, a poem, a story but also to see, to really look at the accompanying images that unfurl what is being said, or perhaps something more.

A page from the book The Fox and the Crow adapted by Manasi Subramaniam, illustrated by Cupleo's Fox (Karadi Tales, 2014).

For ease of use, many establishments and individuals classify books with pictures according to perceived notions of complexity and, thus, in terms of age. The ‘simplest’ books with pictures are associated with children, who do not yet have a grasp on reading written language, and the more ‘complex’ ones with adult readers. Such a sequential mode of differentiation, which relies heavily on a developmental model of reading, is of course grossly inadequate, especially since not all ‘adult’ readers can read and ‘simple’ books are often not simple. 

At the moment though I wasn’t squeamish about classifications; all I wanted was a book with pictures, anything that would make me want to read.

Cover image of the book I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail, illustrated by Ramsingh Urveti (Tara Books, 2012).

And then I saw it. Peeping from atop one of the stacks was a blue book, with what appears to be an eye, through which a peacock looks out. It is a slimly bound, hardcover book called ‘I saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail’, illustrated by Ramsingh Urveti. I recognise the title as a poem we were made to learn and recite in school and pick it up. Amid Urveti’s carefully detailed drawings and Jonathan Yumakami’s distinctive book design (consisting mainly of fuss-free cut outs that poke holes into the pages) the sparse verse became fragments of the image. The cut outs emphasised Urveti’s figures, of trees, birds, ants, fishes and other finite and infinite things, and allowed the text to be read in multiple ways. Taking on from what the book described as the poem’s ‘trick verse’ the lines were split in the middle, scattered through the pages and introduced, in this bisected form, peeking through the cut outs. There was no separating the text from the image or the image from the text; they screamed and whispered together, mottled in light seeping in through the punctures on the page.

A page from the book Bhimayana by Srividya Natarajan and S.Anand, illustrated by Durga Bai Vyam and Subhash Vyam (Navayana, 2011).
Parni Ray is a writer based in Kolkata. To read the full article, click here.

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