I met Uma a long time ago when I was just starting out. She is also from Chennai, my home-city and I was privileged that she illustrated my chapter book A Dollop of Ghee and a Pot of Wisdom, Walker Books.
Uma Krishnaswamy (And yes, she has been asked many times – she is NOT the author Uma Krishnaswami with an I at the end of her name, who lives in the US and is also from Chennai), has been illustrating since the 1980s and currently teaches Visual Studies and History of Art.
1. What is your view of India’s children’s book art in comparison to the rest of the world?
Children’s literature in India, in the now-understood format, is relatively young if compared to other traditions like the West. We must keep that in mind when we judge or more importantly make comparisons. India’s and the world’s oldest children’s collection of stories, the Panchatantra, has been illustrated by the greatest of miniature artists to sculptors in Indonesia. Long before the present book format came into being. So art is very intrinsic to our literature at the folk and classical levels.
In the past, we’ve had brilliant illustrators of children’s books like Shankar Pillai, Pulak Biswas, Mickey Patel who largely drove the CBT, NBT books. The ease with which they mixed the new format and techniques with images that actually matched the flavour of the soil, laid a solid foundation for the industry.
They introduced the Indian language idiom, which today has been taken far by innumerable talented artists. This has ensured that Indian books, especially those that emphasise Indian-ness, read folk art traditions, make a mark on the world market.
But having said that, I will add, that a certain edginess, pushing at the boundaries, and visual daring is lacking.
Perhaps our late entry into the field, quite a wide disparity among the targeted audience and definitely much lower exposure to world of images (visual literacy), are some reasons.
- As an illustrator what are your challenges when you are working with international publishers – like do you have to compromise style or do they want you to work on only Indian books and don’t give you western mainstream books to work on?
Personally speaking there hasn’t been any compromise on style. But I’ve never been asked to work on a western mainstream book.
For all their attempts at inclusion and multiculturalism they are unable to cross their self-drawn barrier.
It may work if one lived abroad and periodically approached the publishers. But I was told several years ago, quite categorically, that western children wouldn’t quite be able to identify with the visual language that I chose to speak in. Of course conveniently forgetting that ‘other cultures’ have had their stories illustrated in a distinctly western style, and had books sold or distributed in those regions. The question of confusion or unfamiliarity obviously doesn’t apply to the other cultures!
- Do you think Indian artwork can challenge the status quo in the western world?
It most certainly can and should. India’s amazing and unique diversity in all spheres, including the visual traditions, and its endless ability to absorb new influences and recreate, can breach any borders. Not just India, any visual language from any region should be given that space.
A powerful image requires no translation.
4. Do you see a difference between European and North American views of Indian books?
Regional histories, influences, considerations and environments will subtly, if not overtly influence the character of a story.
- As an illustrator what support do you think Indian governments and other bodies should do for Indian children’s books?
National Book Trust, a Govt of India body, has been publishing quality books for children for many decades. Featuring some of the best authors and illustrators these subsidised books are translated into several languages. Very affordable, they should reach a large pool of readers. Together with the state governments, who should have their own publications, they should play an effective role.
But with the concept of school and public libraries being given such low priority, even in the private sector, I’m afraid the reading is confined to textbooks !
If this one concept is given sufficient push we will see good results, and governments can certainly ensure that in schools.
But the onus cannot be put completely on the governments, there has to be public participation.
Parents / family / society should nurture reading.
Given that we probably have one of the largest collections of folk and classical stories in the world, it is a contradiction that we give so little importance to it!
Thank you Uma, it was great to understand the illustrator’s view and your thoughtful comments about Indian illustration were quite thought-provoking.
You can read Uma’s interview to Saffron Tree here.
If you have a view and you want to discuss, join me on Twitter on 24th Apr 2015 (Friday) at 6 pm GMT with hashtag #storiesfromIndia