A royal retelling for kids
CHENNAI: Last year, photographer G Venket Ram recreated Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings as photographs with famous south Indian actresses for the 2020 calendar. Shruti Haasan as ‘Radha in moonlight’, Shobhana in ‘There comes papa’, Ramya Krishnan as ‘Damayanti listening in rapt attention to a swan’ one could hardly tell the difference between the photos and paintings. That probably speaks of how the master painter looked at women around him as his muse.
While Venket Ram's photos may or may not have caught the attention of children, Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan’s illustrated novel Prince With a Paintbrush: The Story of Raja Ravi Varma is sure to keep them hooked. With colourful renditions of the life of the father of modern Indian art by Rayika Sen assisting the story, as seen through the eyes of an eight-year-old protagonist, readers can trace Ravi Varma’s journey in 36 pages.
What about Raja Ravi Varma intrigued you to introduce him to children?
A pedagogical mindset has informed all my books in some way or another. In fact, my writing for children has always had a dual purpose: to entertain and educate. There’s so much to rediscover in India’s heritage, and sharing the story of an artist whose art is so magnificent and detailed, and whose style is so prevalent in so many aspects (calendars, fashion, jewellery) in the public sphere today, and yet who remains unfamiliar to children, was a narrative worth telling.
When were you first introduced to his works?
The first paintings I saw of Ravi Varma were prints of his art in our tharavad (ancestral home) in Kerala. There’s a bedroom in my grandmother’s home that is filled with art that represents stories from the Indian epics. I remember pictures of ‘Shakuntala’ and ‘Jatayu Vadh’ that were a springboard for storytelling sessions at home when we were with our grandmother and aunts. Those pictures were not just vivid and colourful, but also so detailed in their descriptions. These were not flat illustrations, this artist’s images seemed to jump out of the page.
Most of the deities’ images that we see are a replica of what Ravi Varma painted. Do you think children can connect these dots with the story you narrate?
Yes, I think children will be able to connect the dots, and if they do not, the adults in their life will make the connections for them. The book mentions that Ravi Varma’s paintings were mass-produced in his printing press. I’ve framed the book in such a way that the child who discovers the artist is also drawing conclusions about the effect of Ravi Varma’s style and creativity on contemporary art. He/she sees the parallel between the vibrancy of the colour in the paintings, and the dramatic exposition of Ravi Varma’s technique, in Bollywood posters and Amar Chitra Katha comic books.
What kind of research was required to sync the words and images?
I gathered information about Ravi Varma’s life from articles I read and from an Internet search. Since my preparation and research was for a children’s book and not a scholarly treatise, I needed to think about an interesting way to frame the book as much as I needed to adhere to historical fact and accuracy. Since this is an illustrated biography of a well-known artist whose art is in the public domain, much of the images in the book are images of Ravi Varma’s paintings. In addition, Rayika Sen’s illustrations complement the artist’s work.
How was your experience working with Rayika Sen?
Rayika’s art is excellent and expands the narrative just as it’s meant to do for a picture book. We worked on different continents and had never met, but she understood from the start that her illustrations were meant to complement the artist’s art and her illustrations for this book do just that. She took elements of Ravi Varma’s imagery and embellished pages of text, she illustrated the narrator in a style that supported the questioning tone of the young girl.
What are the challenges you face when you write for children especially when you write about popular personalities as we live in a digital world?
Yes, today information is just a Google search away, but a book is much more than a list of details or facts. Prince with a Paintbrush: The Story of Raja Ravi Varma is a captivating narrative told in an engaging manner with pages filled with art and illustrations that will make readers return to the book again and again. I have framed the biography from the perspective of a young narrator who seeks information so that children can see themselves on the pages as well. The questions the girl in the book asks, and the excitement she feels, are the questions and the reactions that the readers will ask/feel themselves. The book is an entertaining story of a well-known and well-regarded artist from the 19th Century. I’ve also added a page of ‘fun facts’ for readers to enjoy.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a number of projects. I’m developing a book of stories that comes from personal, folk and classic traditions. It will be a treasure trove of teaching tales for children. I have also recently signed a contract to write a book on an inspiring octogenarian whose life journey will be an inspiration
Make ‘em think
The book mentions that Ravi Varma’s paintings were massproduced in his printing press. It is framed in such a way that the child who discovers the artist also learns about his effect on contemporary art.