Monday, October 1, 2012

Folk Art and Craft in Tulika's Picture Books

Pictures have been integral to storytelling in many oral traditions of India. Phad or patachitra scrolls unroll as the story unfolds, just like pages in a picture book. 

Tulika has explored this natural connection between folk art and stories almost from the very beginning – from AndLand Was Born and the Under theBanyan series way back in 1997-8 to the recent Where’s the Sun? and It’s All the Same

The use of folk art in books has become increasingly common. But how can we make folk art meaningful in books for children, not merely exotic pictures that decorate pages? This can happen when the creative process becomes intensely collaborative – between the artist, the writer, the designer and the editorial vision of the publisher. It happens when art and story adapt to each other with an integral purpose, and come together to create a distinct cultural identity, even a contemporary one.

The understanding and insights we have gained from our own explorations of using folk art in picture books is summed in this presentation by Radhika Menon, while the list below does a quick recap of the range of styles we’ve used so far.

Eyes on the Peacock’sTail
(Under the Banyan, 1997) – A folktale from Rajasthan illustrated by Mugdha Shah in the Rajasthani phad style.

Magic Vessels (Under the Banyan series, 1997) – A folktale from Tamilnadu illustrated by Mugdha Shah adapting the local Ayyanar sculpture form.

A Curly Tale (Under the Banyan series, 1997) – A folktale from Bihar illustrated by Mugdha Shah in the style of Mithila (Madhubani) paintings of Bihar.

Hiss, Don’t Bite! (Under the Banyan series, 1997) – A Bengali folktale illustrated by Mugdha Shah adapting the Kalighat paintings of Bengal.

And Land Was Born (1998) – Illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy. It is based on a film that shows Guna Baba, a Bhilala tribal from Central India, painting on the walls of his hut while telling this creation story.

All Free (Under the Banyan series, 2002) – A Gujarati folktale with pictures by Srividya Natarajan based on the painted paper scrolls used by Garoda storytellers in Gujarat.

Mazzoo Mazzoo (Under the Banyan series, 2002) – A Kashmiri folktale with illustrations by Srividya Natarajan that use traditional motifs from Kashmiri embroidery to give ambience.

Sweet and Salty (Under the Banyan series, 2002) – A folktale from Andhra Pradesh, in which pictures by Srividya Natarajan derive from the form and colours used for making wooden Kondapalli toys in the region. 

Wrestling Mania (Under the Banyan series, 2002) – A Punjabi folktale with pictures by Srividya Natarajan that have phulkari embroidery elements to capture the flavour of Punjab.

It’s Only A Story (2006) – Uma Krishnaswamy’s illustrations follow the chain form of Warli art to visually depict the sense of continuity in this traditional chain story.

Dancing on Walls (2007) – A fantasy story of how Warli art may have been born illustrated, naturally, in the Warli style by Uma Krishnaswamy. Warli paintings typically depict daily activities such as cleaning, pounding, grazing, ploughing, singing and dancing, many of which little Shirvi does in the story.

Mukand and Riaz (2007) РNina Sabnani transforms her film into a book, with visuals that are in keeping with the memoir-story of Partition and also reflect her passion for collaborative work. The pictures are collages of appliqu̩ embroidery, practised by women on both sides of the border, while the use of textile itself is a tribute to her father whose story this is and who worked in a textile factory. Nina interacted intensively with the embroiderers, giving them the outlines which they cut out and embellished.
Watch the film here.

Hanuman’s Ramayan (Our Myths series, 2009) – Nancy Raj adapts the style of Mithila paintings with quirky humour, reinforcing that the energy of traditional folk art comes from evolution and perspective just as in the tradition of oral telling of myths.

Home (2009) – Kaavadiyas of Rajasthan open panels one by one of their wooden kaavads to tell stories. Nina Sabnani uses the same form and technique to take the idea further in this brilliant stand-up book that is perfect as a storytelling tool and holds as many stories as you can tell – around the concept of homes and families and identities.Watch a video on the making of Home here

Panchatantra stories (2010) – Just as the familiar and age-old fables themselves have been retold by different writers in different voices, the pictures have different styles of folk art that illustrators modified in their own way. So we have patachitra from Orissa, patachitra from Bengal, Gond and Pithora tribal styles from Central India, kalamkari from Andhra and the Chennapatna style of toys from Karnataka. The success of these books has shown how old stories can engage in a new manner.

Patachitra from Orissa
Patachitra from Bengal
Gond from Central India
Pithora from Central India
Chennapatna toys from Karnataka
Kalamkari from Andhra Pradesh
Stitching Stories (Looking at Art series, 2011) – Based on another film by Nina Sabnani, Tanko Bole Chhe, this again uses Kutch embroidery, was created through collaborative work, and dramatically tells another story of exile and rehabilitation. Tracing the personal journeys of the embroiderers, the book works at many layers – one of which is to draw close attention to the craft of embroidery as an art.

Where’s the Sun? (2012) – Artist, designer and publisher came together in this unique project that was inspired by the range of detail on a Warli canvas. In an unusual chain of production, Warli artist Janu Bhiva Ravate made a huge painting to encompass a story that came out of his earlier paintings seen online. Parts of this canvas were then extracted to create the book. A reduced size print of the entire painting comes with the book to give children a sense of the original.

It’s All The Same! (Our Myths series, 2012) – Working with kaavad artist Satyanarayan Suthaar, Nina Sabnani focuses on a different aspect of the kaavad tradition – mythological stories. Based on yet another film, Baat Wahi Hai, she comments on the nature of myths and their telling – how there is no one story about anything, and it doesn’t matter, it’s all the same!Watch a video on the making of It’s all the same! here.


  1. It is remarkable how the books allow readers to look at these images not as craft but as illustrative art. Like Stitching Stories, all these books resonate the idea that Folk and Tribal art do not follow a prescriptive form but can be renewed each time, with a new story.

  2. I love these illustrations! The colors and various styles are truly amazing!


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