If history’s not your thing, be prepared to feel totally defeated. India Unlimited is a quiz book series that seeks to “help you unlock your own potential to learn, which is indeed limitless”, as the series editor’s preface tells us. This first book in the series, Where Stupas Meet Skyscrapers, focuses on India’s art and architecture over the years.

Organized as units of questions around a specific time period, the pithily titled chapters lead into the topic with a crisp introduction. This is followed by the answers and further explanations of some of them. So, for instance, you have a chapter called ‘Super Oldies’, which covers pre-Harappan sites and artefacts. The introduction tells you that the Indus nurtured one of the earliest known civilizations and draws attention to the fact that there were settlements older even than Harappa and Mohenjodaro. There are no questions in this particular chapter, only fill in the blanks, and ten of them. You have: The Mehrgarh site, said to be one of the earliest pre-Harappan settlements, is in the ________ region of Pakistan. Fill in the blank. Turn the page, and you have the answer: Balochistan. A couple of things among the answers are flagged, among them a note on Bhimbetka, which talks about the serendipitous discovery of these rock shelters.

In some sections you have straightforward questions; in others there are crosswords, word games and multiple choices. Perky line drawings liven up the pages. The answers and some explanations follow.

There are 400 items in all, covering a wide spectrum of art and architecture, from sites to stupas to temples to forts to miniature paintings to monuments and cities. There’s Mauryan art, South Indian temples, the art of the Guptas, the Delhi Sultanate, the Deccan, of course there’s the Taj Mahal, the Bengal school, some cities, mosques, feats of engineering… It’s a neat mix that gives a glimpse, at one go, into the richness and diversity of the creative spirit.

But not being a quizzer, and not being particularly bright on the art, architecture and history front, I was at first daunted. I couldn’t imagine running my eyes over question after question without having the answer to a single one – which I didn’t, until I hit ‘Histori-city’, about Chennai, my saving grace! But it did feel like going blank in the examination hall. Then I went back to the series editor’s preface and found clues about how to ‘read’ this book: “…each of those questions can propel you on a flight of discovery. If you wish, you can select a theme at a time, read about it from various sources including your school books, and test yourself with the relevant set of questions”. That made better sense and, in any case, the target audience for the book is certainly better equipped to know more (than me, I mean).

At first I thought the quizzer types would be drawn to this series. Then I realized, no, that’s not true. They would go directly to the original sources. This is for the more relaxed but curious types. It’s also interesting the way the themes have been organized, named and constructed. The section on Rajput forts and palaces is called ‘First Resorts’, the urbanscape of Chandigarh is ‘Future Perfect’, European influences on India is ‘Continental Drift’… I really like that. Clearly, the compilers, the illustrator included, have taken a great deal of trouble and have had a great deal of fun putting stupas and skyscrapers together.

So, consumed in small doses and not taken as a test of lack of knowledge, this book could be a great way of learning. The trick is to enjoy it and have fun, like the creators did. And look forward to the rest of the series rolling out. Basically, amending the sentence with which this review begins, be prepared not to be totally defeated. After the fact.

By Sandhya Rao

Authors: Adittya Mubayi and Kunal Savarkar
Illustrator: Pooja Pottenkulam
Series Editor: Mudita Chauhan-Mubayi
172 pages
Price: Rs 175.00
ISBN: 978-9351031369
Scholastic, 2013
Subject category: Non-fiction/Quiz/Series

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