Vishaka Chanchani is a well-loved illustrator with a Masters in illustration from MS University, Vadodhara. She has written and illustrated many books for children and is also an art educator and workshop facilitator in Bangalore. Her book – The House that Sonabai Built published by Tulika, won the Darsana National Award for Excellence in Book Production. In an interview with Hippocampus, Vishaka tells us about what inspired her to write for children instead of adults and also names a few of her favourite books among the ones she has written.
What inspired you to write for children rather than adults?
Difficult to say. Didn’t do this consciously.
Maybe I have a knack for it, it’s because the kind of writing that comes to me is really simple, direct, and has generally been inspired by things around me. Characters and situations that have struck or stirred me in some way, real or fictitious. There’s a lot of stuff that I’ve written for schools, and for my nieces and nephews as they were growing up, mostly unpublished. Some of them are reinventions of stories I heard from my mother when I was young, oral folklore handed down to me with song and rhyme. Gujarat has a lot of that. So though I did not really grow up in the land, I inherited some of the folklore passed down to us.
Also, I grew up with my older sisters and cousins who directed a lot of plays during holidays all within the family with props and costumes, and invited all the neighboring children to watch.
All this might have become part of my mirch masala of writing which became writing for children!
And now, even as an almost 60 year old ‘adult’ I still collect and like to read children’s books, especially of the pictorial kind.
How ‘Stones Lost their Hearts’ was the first book that you had written and illustrated. Could you tell us what led you to it?
Simple, an assignment in college, which was the Faculty of Fine Arts, MSU, Vadodara.
I had taken up illustration for my Masters, and we were supposed to come up with books. Of course in those days, making books wasn’t based on technological inputs.
There were no laptops, no computers, everything was executed by hand. We had to create ‘dummies’ and then rework them and make final illustrations. Mostly, I couldn’t do that, as often when the breakthrough happened, my illustrations were not copied from my dummy pictures, but came straight from the heart and the hand on to the page, at one go. However, I did take some time developing the character, in this case a witch, and remember vividly detailing her hair! All this was in pencil, which is still one of my favorite tools for drawing.
I happened to show the artwork to the editor at Children’s Book Trust, and he okayed it and it became a real book, much to my surprise!
Could you name a few contemporary authors who you feel children should be exposed to?
Well, my reading for children now is mostly limited to varied picture books, or stories that have been illustrated. I could recommend ~
Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories; the later edition has astounding illustrations. It’s a contemporary fable, with characteristic Indian elements, not very sweet and pretty, but full of life, wit, and fantasy and fun.
Then there is the already popular and touching little novel, The Little Prince, or books by Gerald Durrell many of which are illustrated by Quentin Blake.
My all time favorite has also been Dr. Seuss, not the beginners’ books, but stories like Bartholomew Cubbins and his 500 Hats, King on Stilts, the verse of ~ Mc Elligot’s Pool.
Amidst Indian ‘picture’ books, there are some that do not grow old, some of CBT or NBT classics include Mother, Maya of Mohenjo-Daro, both with rich and subdued illustrations by the late Pulak Biswas; I like some of the Puffin old time tales like the Crab and the Crane, for its tiny format, and especially the way it has been affectionately picturized by Taposhi Ghoshal. Then, for a collection of short stories there is the Twist in the Tale, by Aditi De, selective folk lore retold in refreshing ways with Black and White illustrations by Uma Krishnaswamy.
Today there is lots of great mixes happening, and many contemporary Indian publishers have broken conventional formats to make exciting forays into children’s book publishing; for me it’s also Tara Publishing that really made the gallant leap in India…braving challenging scripts, new approaches, and daring to make books valuable, aesthetic and a treat to handle.
What are some effective ways in which you think schools can promote reading for joy?
Now that’s a real question. In one of the Schools I was working in, many years ago, and one I still fondly revisit, an enterprising and genuine librarian completely changed the way one looked at libraries and books. She made it very child friendly, opened it up by taking books out of the shelves and relocating them in fun ways, made it more dynamic, with book talks, and book auctions…and took a personal interest in children, offering them books that were not typical, yet that seemed to resonate with the child’s interests.
I think even today, we lack a perspective on what constitutes good books for children. Is it about a cute story, heavy literature, a nice plot, being a best seller? And to address the larger questions, don’t we need to even seriously think about why we should find interesting books only in the library?
Do we need the divide between the academic book, recommended for the curriculum, and the book as entertainment, past time, for lighter reading? I have seen many children enter the regular school library only pouring over coffee table kind of encyclopedias, despite the shelves being full of all kinds of children’s literature. Does reading become synonymous today with boredom, especially as there are so many sensational ways to attract us, and as visuals and sounds become louder than words?
To break out of some of these moulds, all the teachers of the school, and not just librarians, need to look at what constitutes good reading, what is the current material available today, how can diverse and different books enter the classroom, or how can storytelling or even theatre become part of many more subjects, and not just for an end of the term cultural event.
Can students participate in the act of reading and writing without being marked or assessed in harsh ways? Schools can also become hubs for celebrating stories, enriched with workshops; interactions with writers, illustrators can bring in fresh perspectives as they work with both teachers and students.
Tell us about a book that you loved as a child and that you revisit even today.
I liked Heidi, perhaps because it was connected to a girl who found herself in the mountains with a lovable gruff grandfather and animals around her. I liked to pour over a picture book called Chendru, an adivasi boy who made friends with a tiger cub he found in the forest. This book was full of real lavish photographs.
I liked Leo Tolstoy’s unusual stories for children, poignant tales with black and white graphite drawings.
I still have a copy of the book…and read and share it when the need arises.
If you could become any book character for a day, whom would you choose to be?
Maybe a character from Haroun, the Hoopoe who carries the protagonist on his feathery back, across the skies to unpredictable landscapes.
I might even venture into the kingdom of cards, Tagore’s absurdly relevant Tasher Desh, or don one of the extraordinary hats of Seuss’s Bartholomew Cubbins.
Do you have a favorite from among all the books that you have written? Why?
I have quite a few, but not all have been published! But I like all my vendor stories, be it Chashmuddin Chashmewalle, the spectacular spectacle man or Beeju, the vendor of seeds.
Perhaps this is because, as a person on the streets or around the railway scene in India one cannot but help being confounded by the vendors around, stoically displaying their wares and advertising them in absurd and playful ways, making language and picture come alive. Men and women sell stylish spectacles, false moustaches, a pile of brooms on heads; vendors with carts or without them, they arrest us with their calls, and we stop right in our tracks.
I particularly like Beeju, I think the Hindi verse has worked well, and because here’s a whimsical guy who sells seeds and his stories of seeds ~ without charging any fees!