Monday, February 28, 2011

Making Sense with Sensibility

Tulika editors Sandhya and Deeya visited the American International School to see how the Tulika Panchatantra books had inspired the children there to create art and 'engage in new ways' with old stories. Sandhya Rao tells us all about it...

When Padma Srinath, educationist and teacher of long experience, invited us to see what her little ones at the American International School, Chennai, had done with Tulika’s Panchatantra stories, we were excited and curious. Padma is an old friend, a Tulika well-wisher and a wonderful interpreter of how children read. Whenever a book works in a special way, or if it doesn’t, she always shares her insights and observations. What makes it even more relevant for us as editors and publishers of books for children is that the children she works so closely and lovingly with are drawn from different cultural backgrounds.

As we stepped into the open courtyard of the AISC, and walked towards the little ones’ room, we were greeted by a lovely display of the tree of life and, there, above it, the question: If he had a brain would he do this? The pictures were in the style made famous by the Gond people of central India, the style used in the book, The Lion and the Fox, a Panchatantra retelling by Deepa Balsavar illustrated by Amrita Kanther.

As Padma opened the door to the classroom to let us in, she told us how her children had actually been introduced to the Panchatantra through a retelling of the story of the musical donkey but had been horrified by a picture in that book showing the donkey coated in blood. Children tend to stereotype, she pointed out, and the picture led to the thought that the farmer was so mean, which then could lead on to ‘Indians are so mean’… When she found Tulika’s version of The Musical Donkey retold by Niveditha Subramaniam and illustrated in the patachitra style from Odisha by Namrata Rai, she saw it as the perfect counterpoint. Here,  a garden of cucumbers first feed the donkey and then are driven crazy by his ululations… the children, comprising ten different nationalities and cultures, were delighted. They completely identified with the cucumbers running to the farmer for help, as they themselves would, to their teacher! We understood all over again how an old story can enchant and engage in a completely new way.

There was plenty of evidence of this delight on the walls of the classroom, as you can see too. They drew freehand the rabbits from The Rabbit in the Moon (retold by Indrani Krishnaier and illustrated in the Pithora folk style of central India by Harsha Nagaraju). They understood that just as the big elephant was king of the elephants, the little queen of the rabbits was the leader of the rabbits, and so must be respected in the same way as the large king elephant. When they coloured the elephants themselves – and the best one got to be king! – the Pithoraness of the Pithora style entered their consciousness. What better way to celebrate India Week, Deeya and I thought. Quietly. Unconsciously. Indelibly.

Then Padma took us to the wall across the room to look at a whole lot of little white books handwritten and hand-drawn… the story of the Four Friends (retold by Kala Sasikumar and illustrated in the patachitra style of Bengal by Proiti Roy). Padma had also adapted this story into a bilingual song about the Vedan (hunter, in Tamil) and from then on, as far as the children were concerned, it was not a hunter, but Vedan. Look closely and you will find Vedan, as also ‘oru gudisai’, a hut. Easily, effortlessly, the children, coming from homes speaking languages very different from Tamil, made words like vedan, gudisai part of their essential vocabulary. Also, since the deer was their class mascot, the deer of Four Friends became their deer. Clearly, making connections makes sense, and sense sticks along with sensibility.

Deeya, who loves asking questions, wanted to know how children had reacted to the prospect of animals eating a man’s brains (The Lion and the Fox) because she said she herself had wondered about it as an editor, and grown-ups had reacted in some horror wondering how children would respond to it… Not these kids, responded Padma. It’s a delicacy, for one thing, brains… and children have the stomach for some things. In fact, some of them were disappointed the man didn’t get eaten! For another, the fact that the man didn’t have brains or else why would he have chopped down the forest, that resonated. Like the mural in the corridor asked: If he had a brain would he do this? The children’s question also shows how well the author’s environmental twist went down.

Well, these little ones and their inspiring teacher sure have brains, that’s why they did all this with the Panchatantra stories. Now they will never forget.

-Sandhya Rao

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