Recently I was gifted Sita's Ramayana written by Samhita Arni and illustrated by Patua Scroll artist Moyna Chitrakar. This book in comic form folk art is bright and exciting and the images were nothing like I'd seen before. What struck me was that it was a great way to introduce children to Indian folk art forms such as Patua, Mithila, Kalighat, Bhil, Phad, Warli and Gond. Soon I began digging around and discovered Indian publishers such as Tara Books, Tulika, Pratham and Children's Book Trust have published several titles using folk art illustrations.
Some of these books are handcrafted and exquisitely made. Others have abstract designs and could give Dali and Picasso a run for their money. Each of these books has one thing in common, though - they are breathtakingly beautiful. It's art that tells a story. Here are some folk art based children's picture books that you could introduce to your child.
1. Patua Pinocchio
Originally written by Carlo Collodi over 130 years ago with the message for children not to be naughty, the classic tale of Pinocchio has gone through several versions over the years. Perhaps the most interesting version is the Patua Pinocchio. I was drawn to this book because this foreign tale was recreated and Indianized by Bengali village artist Swarna Chitrakar - proving that stories have no boundaries. This book looks strikingly different, yet tells a familiar tale. You can buy Patua Pinocchio for your child and also get hold of different versions of Pinocchio. One can compare the illustrations and ask the child what he thinks of each version. You could also discuss how culture influences stories and art.
Patua art is a traditional art form called Patachitra/Patua Art from Bengal where the painters sing the story as they unfurl their scrolls. Other titles you could look for Biju Spins Some Magic, Sita's Ramayana and The Enduring Ark.
2. A Curly Tale
Touching upon the disparities between the rich and the poor, writer Vayu Naidu and illustrator Mugdha Sethi bring to life a folktale from Bihar. The tale is about a poor cobbler who is famous for making curly footwear but tired of the fact that it never fetches enough money to make him rich. Mughda Sethi's illustrations done in the beautiful Mithila or Madhubani style of painting lend that earthy touch and is sure to perk up a child's curiosity to learn more about this folk art. Typically Madhubani art adorned the inner walls of households in Mithila, Nepal and in Bihar, India. This ancient art form is said to date back to the time of Ramayana, i.e about 5th to 4th century BC. The story goes that King Janaka ordered the kingdom of Mithila to decorate every home with paintings during his daughter Sita's wedding and the tradition have continued.
Other children's books I would recommend with Madhubani art are Following my Paintbrush and Hope is a Girl Selling Fruit, Panna and The Monkey King.
3. That's How I See Things
If your child is a fan of the strange animal illustrations of Dr. Seuss, give Sirish Rao's That's How I See Things a try. The story is about Siena Baba, an artist who sees the world differently. He decides to paint his room with some animals and the result is some ‘anatomically unorthodox' creatures. The creatures come to life and are unhappy with themselves and their creator. Illustrated by Bhajju Shyam, this beautiful book is done in the Gondi style of painting. This is a style that predominantly uses dots and dashes to create the art. It is largely inspired by nature and social customs and originates from Madhya Pradesh.
Other titles to look out for are The London Jungle Book, Alone in the forest, Nightlife of Trees and Bulli and the Tiger.
4. Tree Matters
This picture book features the ancient artwork of the Bhil people of Central India. The illustrations by Gangu Bai, explores the intrinsic role of trees in the lives of these people. The artwork is similar to Gond art and looks deceptively simple, mesmerizing and is usually inspired by nature themes. Painting is like a prayer for the Bhils, and it is said that each dot and dash in the pattern invokes an ancestor for the well being of all forms of life. Some of the Bhils trace their ancestry to Eklavya, who was more skilled as an archer than Arjuna, the hero of Mahabharata. A great book to start conversations about the environment with your kids.
Other books with Bhil art are A Bhil Story.
Every now and then, comes a children's book that is so exquisitely handcrafted, that will make you wonder, will little kids appreciate this work of art. Do by Gita Wolf is one such treasure, and I assure you children will love it. An action-oriented book with minimal text such as ‘grow', ‘cook' and ‘play', complemented beautifully with typical Warli style of white triangular figures on brown recycled paper. The book is silk screened by hand and has an earthy texture which children will enjoy handling. The figures are dynamic and there is always something going on. The book is a great starting point to learn about verbs, village life, to copy and draw their own Warli figures or simply to look and enjoy. A must buy.
Other titles include My Gandhi Story, Folk Tales in folk Art, Where's the Sun.
This list is by no means complete. A beautifully illustrated picture book can speak a thousand words and evoke a thousand more emotions. So be drawn into the impossibly imaginative and colorful journey of Indian folk art inspired children's books and make discovering books an exciting journey for you and your child.
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