Folktales take us back to our roots, to ancient wisdom, often to common sense. Some memorable versions of Nani’s or Ajji’s tales illuminate the trail of Indian children’s publishing over the past two decades, such as Gita Wolf’s A Very Hungry Lion, Vayu Naidu’s A Curly Tale, and Shobha Vishwanath’s The Blue Jackal. Retold with finesse, each has an inbuilt rhythmic narrative that is in sync with the spoken word, a grandmother’s way of evoking time and place.
A Bhil Story, in a nutshell, is about how the parched village of Jher in Madhya Pradesh searches for water. Its dramatic personae include Sher Singh, wise Bhuri Bai, a rooster with a flair for drama, and the local badwa or shaman, who can divine water sources.
The book was sparked by a workshop at the Industrial Design Centre at IIT, Mumbai, and supported by the Tata Centre for Technology and Design. As a follow up, filmmaker- illustrator-animator Nina Sabnani led a team to Jhabua district in Madhya Pradesh, in the footsteps of Bhil artist Sher Singh. The tale was first realized as an animated film, voiced by the villagers. It was later reborn as this book.
Sher Singh’s pithora paintings – akin to prayers in the Bhil community, with each dot evoking an ancestor – are bright, tantalizing, deeply evocative. Each dot or line is a call to the imagination as they morph into a person or an animal; each frame is infused with movement. For the reader, his is a call to explore, to “read” the pictures and between each frame. The relationship of visual to real life grows richer once we realize that Sher Singh, as a child of seven, learnt to paint from his mother Bhuri Bai. (Is hers a common name among the Bhils? Is this a true story from their lives?) By fifteen, he had graduated from walls to canvas, and evolved an individual colour palette.
As I read this book through four times over, my eyes danced with delight over Sher Singh’s images. In one corner, two wild-haired heads look goggle-eyed into the text. Across another spread, meandering villagers with pots move towards a little bird that symbolizes hope. They follow a ribbon of water till they find an overflowing pot under a badwa with a dholak. His advice to the villagers is simple: go home and paint trees on your walls.
That, according to the Bhils, is how the tribals began to paint – and how they had enough water ever after. This origin tale points to sound environmental logic: with enough trees planted, we can save the parched earth and ourselves.
Within the Bhil community, we know that sacred pithora paintings signify happiness, peace and prosperity. They are a must at weddings, childbirth and festivals, doubling as a visual spell to heal sick children or cattle. The local badwa, when called in to mediate with Pithora Baba, often suggests a painting as an offering.
Sher Singh’s art teems with life. It is pristine, primal, yet sophisticated, dancing to a secret rhythm. If only the folktale retold here had responded to its call. Instead, lost in translation, the text proves lacklustre, even bordering on the pedestrian.
This sparked a slew of questions: Was the text a literal translation of the Bhil tale from Jher village? Could editorial intervention have enhanced its rhythm to bring it alive in English? Why is the story less playful than its latent humour suggests? Would the use of more local Bhil words with Word Bird notes as in earlier Tulika books have helped? Would creative use of typography have proved the right match for Sher Singh’s singing pictures? Could a better designer have worked magic? Such dynamic visuals, we realize, could have told the tale on their own.
This book is disappointing because of how exceptional each of Nina Sabnani’s earlier books for Tulika are. Remember Mukand and Riaz, Stitching Stories and My Gandhi Story? In this case, between the art and the story falls the shadow. No matter what the answers to these questions, this is a far cry from the best of Tulika.
By Aditi De
A BHIL STORY
Author: Nina Sabnani
Illustrator: Sher Singh Bhil
Tulika Publishers, 2015
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction/Picture Book