Apart from author Gita Wolf, the two books by Tara have little in common. One is a children’s introduction to Pithoro, a Rathva ritual art form; the other is a DIY book for children on traditional toys. Yet, such a reduction would be unfair to the two books. In the grand scheme of things, both the books are about the joy of creation, about our everyday reality and using material from quotidian life in the act of creation. It would also be unfair to reduce the two books to a single sentence because of the earthy illustration of Harsingh Hamir and funky graphics of Priya Sundaram. It is difficult to translate the complexity of a Pithoro in words.
For any person who has witnessed an original Pithoro, it is difficult to imagine the miniature figures in earthy reds, black and brown to be representative. However, once one realizes that this is a picture book for children who may have very little understanding of the lifestyle of Indian villages, much less the world of the Rathvas of Gujarat or Madhya Pradesh, the entire perspective seems to change. We understand that Gita Wolf is using Hameer’s illustrations to describe the complex world of Rathva imagination. The book follows a simple plot, in fact, Wolf seems to have been inspired by the vrata katha tradition for her plot line:
The village wakes up to prepare for a feast.
It is a grand celebration.
The next morning the village wakes up to a disaster with dried wells, sick people and dead livestock.
They consult the village elder, who reminds them that must have omitted the worship of their village deities, Pithoro & Pithori, in the form of horses.
The villagers rectify the error by making a grand Pithoro.
Life comes back to normal.
The beauty and the wonder are captured in the art and the details, for truly Pithoro is an encapsulation of the Rathva life. Each frame captures the earthy nature of village life in its myriad contours—we see a scared cat on the roof; the drummer forcing a shocked guppy-like look on the face of a tiger; the grand feast with the sacrificed cockerels and people bingeing on mahua—in fact the double spreads just open up to a polyphony of village voices and activity. The comic-book-like interspersed text helps create the illusion of this polyphony. It is to his great credit that Hamir’s images capture and propel the narrative rather than the accompanying words. We realize the incomplete nature of life, with ailments, diseases and death and are asked to reflect on this with a frame of ‘broken’ and ‘peeling off’ Pithoro. The book invites the reader to contrast this incomplete art with the beautiful centrefold of a grand Pithoro. There is a bit of magical folding that captures the essence of Pithoro on the reverse of the folded page and captures the illusion of the frames of the narration.
After all, Pithoro is an art that captures in multiple frames aspects of everyday life of the Rathvas. In fact, in some of the newer Pithoros one finds anachronistic references to helicopters landing, vehicles plying, people with guns hunting game, seamlessly merged with the pristine forest life of tribal Rathvas harking back to a few centuries. In fact, modern Pithoro painting captures India’s inherent anachronism, like few other art forms. Not much of this finds its way on the pages of the book, but then it is a picture book for children.
In the spirit of all picture books, it all ends well for the villagers in the narrative and the last two pages of the book allow the reader a glimpse of how a real Pithoro looks on a wall of a Rathva home. It also mentions why and how artists like Hamir are branching out seeking livelihood in a modern world.
The joys of Khanna, Wolf and Ravishankar’s Toys and Play lies in the simplicity of the crafts and the simple step-by-step illustrated instructions to make them. This is a book for any child and for parents who wish to keep their pre-teens engaged in a world of creativity away from mobile games and YouTube videos. Like the engrossing toys, the book is also for parents, who might wish to spend some quality family time with growing children or even read through the last few pages of reflections to arrive at some of their own understanding.
The book is divided into two major sections with an engaging pictorial index. The first and the main section is the making of toys from everyday materials like thread, paper, clay, sticks, etc. This section is divided into five sub-sections: ‘toys that make noise’, ‘toys that dance’, ‘toys that play tricks’, ‘toys that move with the wind’ and ‘toys that need skill’. Each sub-section has its own pictorial index with images of the specific toys. Every chapter (one per toy) has a predictable graphic communication structure with a set of tags:
‘You will need’ for materials required;
‘How it is made’ for the step-by-step process;
‘What it does’—the outcome described in a sentence and
‘When it doesn’t’ for what could possibly go wrong and solutions for the same;
A game-play instruction with a catchy tag name like ‘The Penguin Game’ explaining the game; and
A knowledge box with scientific explanations and possible extension activities and explorations.
The second section (tucked away in the bottom corner of the graphic index) is clearly a section meant for adult readers. They are page-long reflection articles based on the authors’ experience at various workshops. Their findings and realizations do make us think and ponder about the decisions we make every day on behalf of our children. What is touching and engaging about these essays was the keen eye of a social psychologist, a parent and a design analyst all blended in one. The authors comment of the levels of hunger for exploration and ability to digest failure in children of a certain social class. Each essay also dwells on the need for reviving the traditional and more importantly the culture on making perishable toys in a world inundated by heaps of cheap plastic and cast alloy toys that mostly thrive as junk. I found serious merit in their reflection on the need for teaching the value of the process or the journey, to children, in the art of toy-making. The joy is in making and even unmaking and re-making the toy rather than just playing with the completed product—this is so far removed from the present culture of click-swipe-order-throw culture of online gifting or purchase of toys. The greatest lesson perhaps is in learning about the principle of ‘affordance’ that design schools so emphatically teach in India. Charles Eames used the metaphor of the Indian ‘lota’ to talk about the range of activities a humble tumbler allows one to accomplish—from worship to ablution, from quenching thirst to potting plants. Such too is the beauty of the toys mentioned here, the same paper, clay mould, sticks and string can be recycled to make other toys—such grand recipes of mindfulness about nature and survival should not be taken lightly.
Both the books from the house of Tara remind us, as adults, what we need to expose our children to, what certain choices could mean, the essence of humility and most critically the celebration of the process, and the lost joy in a world of perishable things which could be re-made and re-enjoyed. For children, well, they are hardbound packages of joy and discovery.
Debasish Chakrabarty is Faculty, Department of English, The Doon School, Dehradun.