Sunday, October 14, 2012

Tales of Kanchil the Trickster

The five-year old looked up to see my Ikat saree, brightened up as much as the saree itself, and said "this is very nice, Amma". It was a happy moment for me – not just because he appreciated my purchase (that too, of course), but because the kid seems to have aesthetic sense. All those trips to art galleries, museums, temples and handicraft exhibitions have paid off. Wait, did I leave out the fabulous illustrations in books?! While the others are done on occasion, many books are devoured every day, so credit is due to the creators of these beautiful books. What better way to keep these old (folk, tribal and traditional) art forms alive than to instill a love for them in our little ones? Tara Books has been doing precisely that, by working with Madhubani, Kalamkari, Gond, and Patachitra artists.

I sat down with the three books in the Kanchil series brought out by Tara Books.

It took me some time get over the visual bonanza - the illustrations done in Orissa Patachitra style in ‘The Sacred Banana Leaf’ are exuberant and striking, with a lot of detailing and finer touches. The more subdued Kalamkari in ‘Mangoes & Bananas’ is exquisite and elegant. I was introduced to the Mata Ni Pachedi style in ‘The Great Race’.

When I was done going gaga over the illustrations, I got to work reading the books. Kanchil is a trickster character in Indonesian and Malaysian folklore, a small mouse deer who uses his wits to survive. As I read aloud, I felt I was “telling” not reading, something I greatly enjoyed doing. The text lends itself beautifully to interaction with the audience. The words, the tone, the drama...  it was as if someone was talking to me. Not just anyone, but a seasoned storyteller, and that is what Nathan is.

The afterword talks about trickster tale traditions, and describes the art form used in the book. The abbreviated ganjifa game in ‘The Sacred Banana Leaf’ is a nice touch, as is the note inviting readers to come up with their own Kanchil tale.

The stories themselves are amusing, and have been refreshingly retold by the author.

Mangoes and Bananas
Retold by Nathan Kumar Scott
Art by T. Balaji
Tara Books
Ages 3-6

Kanchil and his best friend Monyet plant a garden as a means to get food without having to look for it. After the fruit is ripe and ready, Kanchil realises he can't climb trees, how is he going to harvest the bounty? He strikes a deal with the monkey. When Monyet doesn't play fair, Kanchil resorts to using his brains. Hilarity ensues.

Kids who have heard the story of the monkeys and the cap-seller will find the plot familiar, but this one has a fun element to it. The chemistry between the friends leads to cackle-inducing dialogue, making this book the resident five year-old’s favourite in the series.

The Sacred Banana Leaf
Retold by Nathan Kumar Scott
Art by Radhashyam Raut
Tara Books
Ages 3-6

Another familiar situation (think 'Fox and the Goat'), but a delightfully fresh take! Kanchil the deer is prancing in the forest with rice cakes wrapped in a banana leaf, when he falls into a pit. The quick-witted deer invents a prophecy. Along come the slithering snake Ular, Babi the boar and Harimau the tiger. Read the book to find out how clever Kanchil makes his way out of the pit!

The Great Race
Retold by Nathan Kumar Scott
Art by Jagdish Chitara
Tara Books
Ages 3-6

This is a tale of a small creature outwitting a larger and more powerful animal. That explains why the child fell in love with it at first read! It has been read and re-read countless times. Perhaps as many times, I have been asked rhetorically "how can a snail be faster than a deer". Each time, I have also been supplied with a different idea.

As for me, I couldn't bear the suspense, and I wasn’t disappointed by the end! Those who know the story of the tortoise and hare are in for a surprise, for this tale has a terrific twist!

Stories and art both seem to have travelled across the seas. Either that, or people all over the world, however different, are essentially the same. How else would one explain the striking similarities - between Australian aboriginal art and tribal art in India. Or between the Panchatantra, Aesop’s fables and Indonesian folk tales! Similar and yet different, with each geography, culture and people adding their own unique flavour.

[Images courtesy Tara Books]  


Choxbox said...

Very nice Arundhati, its great to see these forms of art in books, isn't it?!

Arundhati said...

Yes Chox, and given the richness and diversity of Indian handicrafts, the end product = incredibly beautiful books

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