Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Bhil Story

A Bhil Story
Sher Singh Bhil and Nina Sabnani
Tulika Publishers
Ages 5+

A Bhil Story, Tulika’s latest  picture book, is based on a traditional origin myth  of the Bhil tribe from Jhabua, central Madhya Pradesh. Released just ahead of  World Water Day –which is today, good reader – it makes a striking addition to Tulika’s collection of water-themed books, and the inventive collaborations writer/ illustrator Nina Sabnani  has struck with various folk artists.  It also introduces its  readers to Pithora painting, a folk tradition  kept alive by tribes in central Madhya Pradesh. Pithora, for its exponents, isn’t art so much as a sacred ritual, and each colourful daub of paint is said to represent an ancestor invoked to bless and safeguard the community. Originally executed only on walls, Pithora has (like Gond art and Mithila painting) made a smooth transition  in recent years to  other media, thanks to the work of artists like Bhuri Bai and the efforts of  institutions like the Manav Sangrahalaya and the Adivasi Lok Kala Academy.

The rooster’s throat is so parched from thirst, he can scarcely do his job – announcing daybreak in the village of Jher. But what little water remains in the pond is being fought over by the other residents of the village – human and animal – and poor rooster finds himself tossed aside in the melee. Wise old Bhuri Bai suggests they find a badwa , a priest or wise man, traditionally approached for help  during times of water scarcity, and who usually initiates a sacred pithora, that is believed to draw rain. After a false (if hilarious) start involving an imposter, they are led to a badwa  - but will he help? Will the people of Jher succeed in finding water? And what of our poor rooster  - will he wet his throat, only to lose his life as a sacrificial offering?

Pithora artist Sher Singh Bhil’s art is vibrant, brimming with simple but intricately decorated forms . Each page is beautifully composed and packed with colourful detail  that I quite enjoyed poring over. In fact, the lack of variations in the patterns used (dots and lines against dark backgrounds) actually works in the book’s favour -  as the book has been laid out digitally,  the densely patterned art has been scaled down and collaged in several instances, making each page a stunning visual experience. I suspect this wouldn't work as well with Gond art or Mithila painting, where the detail is everything.

A Bhil Story combines humour with lots of action. It reads as simple enough, yet I discovered layers to it over several readings. The story’s  message for water conservation is obvious; it also emphasizes the importance of learning from nature – birds, snakes and turtles are critical characters in the book, leading the villagers towards water and ways to hold onto it.  No creature is too small or insignificant - brave rooster grows, through the course of the story, from a timid and fearful bird  into a community hero, offering his life for the greater good.  I was also struck by the story’s quiet stance against blind faith – the imposter talks of rituals and appeasing gods for their favour; the real badwa silently shows the villagers how to take control of their own lives and environment. In a very contemporary stroke, Sher Singh Bhil writes himself and his mother into this origin myth too, a la Alfred Hitchcock!

A  Bhil Story is a good book to use, to introduce  a variety of environmental themes and concepts to young readers . Much like its art – small strokes and simple lines, combined to make a stunning whole – it underscores the powers of collective action to make a change in our lives, and the world around us. 

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher - the opinions expressed in this review, however, are my own.

Saffron Tree had also sent a few questions to Nina Sabnani on the making of  A Bhil Story that she promptly answered...

1.How does the collaborative process work, especially with an artist with no prior experience of the print media? 

Collaborations can be and is beyond know how. The artist is well versed with image making on paper exercises full control on how he imagines the situation or the elements concerned. So our process involved working with images already created by the artist on various themes. The usual imagery of their paintings includes festivals, rituals, specific characters and objects, environment and activities. On our part we composed the elements together adhering to the artist's aesthetics of space, counter space etc. When we shared the composed image with the artist he was excited and also made valuable suggestions and modifications that we incorporated. He adapted to the technology very easily and suggested changes in size in an image in Photoshop rather than repaint it.

2. Is the story inspired by from traditional folktales of the region ? What came first - the story or the drawings, or did they evolve together?

The story is inspired by an origin myth recounted to us by the artists. They paint because it brings rain and therefore the act of painting is revered as a prayer, for a good and peaceful life and to honor the ancestors. The images and text evolved together but the story was the starting point for the book and film.

3. There is a Bhuri Bai mentioned in the book, and on the back cover as the artist's mother. Is this the famous artist Bhuri Bai ?  Did she have an influence on the book's creation?

There are two Bhuri Bais and Sher Singh's mother is not the famous one from Pitol, our Bhuri Bai is from Jher. She is equally gifted and articulate but we chose to work with Sher Singh because his art had a refreshing feel untouched by fame or fortune. Secondly, in our effort to collaborate we wanted an equal participation from the artist, to be able to tell us off if and when needed. Sher Singh was comfortable arguing, sharing and participating. We traveled with him to Jhabua, to all the places he holds dear and sacred and which then found their way into our visualization. This may not have been possible with his mother, I am not sure though. But Sher Singh could travel easily with us around Jhabua and then came to us in Bombay so the level of collaboration was a desired one.


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