'art & sOUL
Learning from images

A recent children's book tells the story of Hanumana, simply and with conviction, through images taken from a series of paintings of the Ramayana. It teaches children how to let their imagination soar

Yaavad raamakathaam vira shroshye aham prithivitale
Taavat sharire vatsyantu mama praanaah na samshayah

The words are from a section of the Ramayana by the sage Valmiki, and are addressed to Rama by the greatest of all his devotees, Hanumana. Meaning, roughly:"Valiant Rama, as long as I keep hearing your story told by anyone, anywhere,till then, and only till then, life will not leave my body".

These come to my mind because of a fine new book put together by two friends: Saker Mistri and Mamata Mangaldas, both from Mumbai. It tells The Mighty Tale of Hanuman - that is the title - and is, like some earlier books by these friends, intended for children: or, shall one say, for young readers. Most engagingly, the entire story is put as if it were being told by Hanumana himself. "My whole life changed the day I met Ram", it begins. "I was sitting on the peak of the Rishyamukh Mountain with Sugriv, the exiled ruler of the vanars, when we saw two hermits drinking the cool, clear waters of the silvery lotus-filled Pampa Lake."

And then, it takes off: the friendly hand extended by Sugriva to Rama and Lakshmana, the search for Sita by groups of vanaras led by Hanumana, the leap taken by him across the ocean, his finding Sita in Lanka and the fact being reported back to Rama, the building of a bridge across the waters, the subsequent invasion of Lanka by Rama and his army of vanaras and bears, the triumph over Ravana, and the return of the exiled princes, together with Sita, now recovered from captivity, to Ayodhya.

Nearly everyone knows the story but it is told here, simply and with conviction, with the help of images taken from a series of paintings of the Ramayana - mingling, I am tempted to add, with other great series and manuscripts housed there - in the Mehrangarh Museum at Jodhpur. Episodes come alive; characters get established; excitement keeps building; you see yourselves as if in the midst of all action, and almost certainly want to turn to the next page, quickly.

What the book does, apart from telling the story - this might well have been the intention, and is certainly for me of critical value - is to teach children how to see: in other words, not only to follow the action visually, but to free their imagination. And then soar. I follow children's books - few as they are in our land, and of such mixed quality - whenever I can, and have occasion from time to time, to see children's 'art workshops', whether held by schools or by NGOs. And I am most often appalled. Especially so when 'awards' are given to works that are clich`E9d, dry as dust, copied from somewhere, or 'frozen' as it were in time: the same views of lakes with mountain peaks in the background, palm trees at the sides, and some sail boats on the water; the same brickwork houses with gabled roofs; the same confused-looking lions roaming in forests. There is barely a spark of creativity, any freshness of approach that one gets to see. Age-old, uninspiring formulas are pressed into service, for it is considered 'safe' to work within given lines, follow in well-worn grooves.Not un-often, but on a regular basis - for it must be giving them the satisfaction of doing their bit for art - newspapers devote half pages to reproducing 'selected' works of students of a particular school or group. Surely, the intention is to encourage them or their teachers; but, sadly - at least as I see it - all this is corrosive. Instead of doing some good, I believe that it harms the very cause it is meant to promote. For, in the process, bad or poor art keeps getting perpetuated. Surely everyone - students, their teachers, the publishers - must be getting into a self-congratulatory mode, and draw some satisfaction from all this. But, come to think of it, to what end? Where does it land art? Or creativity? Or fresh thinking?

Fish and other aquatic creatures in the ocean. Detail from a painting in a 19th century Ramayana series from Jodhpur. The Mehrangarh Museum, Jodhpur

Our problem seems to be that we do not encourage our children to think for themselves, to keep their eyes peeled for seeing different ways of doing things, to dare and take a leap into the unknown. To go back to the illustrations in the Ramayana book that I began with - and I am using it only as an example, essentially to make a point - surely a child will be able to see in it how differently people at an earlier point of time thought, or saw, or rendered.

The clouds that appear here are not the clouds that one can see with the naked eye; the fish and other creatures in the waters of a great lake or the ocean come more from imagination than observation; the forest foliage or the mountains have a freshness that we do not get when we paint the kind of pine trees that we routinely paint or render sharp-peaked mountains with the sun emerging from behind them. There are lessons to be learnt here, for na`EFve as some of the paintings in this book might look, there is in them the vigour of thought, the willingness to dare and go beyond triteness of approach. And to be able to brush against these things while 'listening' to a great tale can only enrich the mind.

There is a story about the great painter, Picasso, who had been invited to open an exhibition of art made by children. As he was leaving, the organiser thanked him, greatly and a bit apologetically, for sparing so much of his time for coming to a simple children's show. At which the painter is reputed to have turned towards the organiser and said: "Not at all, Monsieur. When I was young, I could draw 'like the gods'. It has taken me so many years to be able to think and draw like children."

Surely, however, Picasso did not have in mind the kind of hackneyed work that most children in our schools are generally encouraged to produce.

A bank of clouds

Clockwise from above: A bank of clouds; The rain of flowers sent down by the gods from the heavens; Wild animals in a forest setting, and a scene of an ashrama. These are details from paintings in a 19th century Ramayana series from Jodhpur. The Mehrangarh Museum, Jodhpur 
The rain of flowers sent down by the gods from the heavens
a scene of an ashrama Wild animals in a forest setting