From time immemorial, reading stories, understanding the different layers and soaking in the various world views has been important for children to achieve their developmental milestones. However, over time, this culturally entrenched engagement has seen a slow decline, pressing pause on a child’s access to conceptual thinking.
Born out of the need for more illustrative literature for children in India, Riyaaz Academy for Illustrators -- set up jointly by the Parag initiative of Tata Trusts, Eklavya, Bhopal and illustrator Atanu Roy in 2015 -- has been providing a comprehensive learning platform for budding artists, helping them enhance children’s learning abilities through visual imagery.
Swaha Sahoo, head of Parag Initiative, and Sushil Shukla, director of Ektara Trust, and Riyaaz talk about how creatives at the academy are trained to understand a child’s psyche and inject life into stories through illustrations. Excerpts:
It’s been five years since Riyaaz Academy was established. How was the idea born and how has the journey been?
Sushil: Ideas are born out of the experiences. In 2010, I was a part of the Dumroo project initiated by Tata Trusts at IIT Bombay’s Industrial Design Centre (IDC) in 2010. The wonderful responses of students to poetry such as ‘Maruti’ by Arun Kolatkar were encouraging. I was at Eklavya at that time and realised that there was a lack of visuals to support such work. This inspired me to start work on Riyaaz. We already had a relationship with illustrator Atanu Roy and this, slowly, transformed into a skeleton for Riyaaz. At that time, we didn’t believe that anyone would support such a course financially, due to the prevailing scenario of illustrations at that time. However, over the years, a lot has changed -- thanks to the combined efforts of Tulika Books, Pratam, Eklavya, Tata Trusts, Room to Read, Katha, and Arvind Kumar.
How important is the use of relevant and relatable visual aids to enable a child’s growth and development?
Swaha: Children learn to read pictures before they learn to read words. Hence, good quality and contextual picture books are an excellent way to introduce children to reading. Since many children in government schools come from families with no exposure to print-rich environments, pictures gently introduce them to stories and help build narrative skills. Through diverse styles of illustrations, children make sense of the story, connect with the story; with the help of a facilitator, they also connect the story to their lives and social context. Illustrated picture books are children’s first introduction to art and this helps build an aesthetic sense.
There is a dearth of quality illustrative books and pictorials for children in the Indian market, while the existing ones often do not cater to children from all walks of life. Why do you think there is a gap?
Swaha: Good quality children’s literature with original and contextual stories and illustrations are expensive to develop and produce. Hence, many publishers in India prefer to reprint the same old Panchatantra and fairy tales. In a study that Parag commissioned in 2013, we found that lack of awareness and training for authors and illustrators was a major reason for low-quality books being published. The Riyaaz Academy was set up by Parag to fill such a gap.
With the representation of the marginalised being bleak in children’s books, how can this be addressed? How important is it to make these books available in local languages?
Swaha: Literature plays an important role in society and life. It gives pleasure and informs the reader. It introduces people, places and times different from our lives and broadens our perspective and understanding of issues. It also helps us to reflect on our lives. Illustrations can subtly help in creating spaces for these to happen. For example, including disabled children in a park or school setting, showing children of all skin tones and social backgrounds (including different religions) while depicting characters and breaking gender roles, can be brought into illustrations if the illustrator is sensitive and aware of this. It is well established that children learn best in their mother tongue and finding stories and literature in their language gives children the most joy. They also connect easily to books in their local language and with local contexts. So, it is important to make available good quality children’s literature in local languages.
How are illustrators at Riyaaz Academy encouraged to approach a narrative from the child’s point-of-view?
Swaha: Students are encouraged to look at illustrations from a child’s point of view and be sensitive to the fact that children in India, today, are growing up in a multilingual and multicultural world. The contact sessions at Riyaaz are rigorous and long. Students are encouraged to read the text, visualise and conceptualise illustrations that reflect the different layers of the text, bring out the background of various characters, add richness and detail that moves the story forward, fight stereotypes and be socially inclusive in their approach. There is focus on the discourse around children’s literature, reflecting multiple perspectives, the balance of theory and practice, and engagement with the industry.
Sushil: Children’s books at Riyaaz are made through thorough real-life interactions with children. We encourage students to study children’s films, books, observe their behaviour and reconnect to the experiences of their childhood -- to understand their worldview. While the world is changing rapidly, some core experiences like happiness, sorrow, dreams, struggle, relationships, our relationship with nature, togetherness, and love change very gradually. Which is why children can relate to feelings expressed in stories, irrespective of the setting. We try to foster multiple worldviews by creating inclusive stories. We aim to leverage innate human qualities into our stories; create illustrations that are important for everyone to foster open and inclusive dialogues keeping children in focus. We also believe that the experiences of children and adults are not mutually exclusive, but can be weaved to form an enriching experience in stories catering to children.
How do the faculty at Riyaaz shape the worldview of the students?
Sushil: Our faculty consists of Atanu Roy, a well-renowned illustrator who is often considered among the top 10 illustrators in India, Taposhi Ghoshal, Sujasha Dasgupta, Vandana Bisht, Nina Sabnani, Priya Kuriyan, Raja Mohanty and Chandramohan Kulkarni. Having such esteemed faculty helps us shape our students’ worldview to be more liberal, saving them from rigidity, opening multiple pathways for producing high-quality work. We constantly aim to bring faculty from top schools in India like NID (National Institute of Design) and IDC (IDC School of Design) not only for their experience and impressive work portfolios but to also amplify the discourse around Riyaaz. Additionally, they help make illustration an integral part of the courses offered in fine and applied arts in these institutions.
Has the rise of social media helped illustrators further their reach? What kind of responsibilities and challenges are they posed with while delivering content?
Sushil: Visuals are beneficial because they have a universal language. It would be viewed the same way across the world. At Riyaaz, we aim to give these visuals more colour and shades, making them plural and inclusive while keeping them simple. The absence of a term like ‘illiterate’ when it comes to visuals makes it universal. There are several digital platforms for illustrators these days. We are seeing a decrease in the work produced by hand and paper. We train our students to start with work using their hands, while also allowing enough space to explore digital illustrations. We would want our students to seize multiple opportunities that come their way, but we see their role as catalysts in the children’s illustration space, which is still relatively unexplored. While digital opportunities will help illustrators sustain, we are working to strengthen the quality and output of illustrations for children’s literature.
How have students channelised their creativity and learning into the real world?
Sushil: When we showed the first batch of Riyaaz multiple books around children’s literature, telling them about the kind of work they would be able to produce, the students were apprehensive. Yet, by the time the year ended, over 200-250 illustrations had been published by them. This motivated us to keep improving every year. Recently, we have moved beyond illustrations and are encouraging students who have ideas for stories to create the entire book -- right from the manuscript to the illustrations and design. This gives them the experience of integrating text and visuals and maintaining the balance. Approximately 25 students from Riyaaz solely depend on illustrations for a living and do approximately three to four books per year with publishers such as NCERT, National Book Trust, Eklavya, Pratham, Room to Read, Ektara, Tulika Books and Duckbill. Some work as art teachers and bring something different to the table, promoting art as a form of freedom, creativity, and imagination; they are also a part of multiple forums that curate discussions around illustrations. It makes me happy that young people are now taking up illustration as a career. Seeing a youngster can serve as a motivation for many aspiring young people in the audience and this makes me hopeful.