What is a wily but lazy jackal supposed to do when he’s hungry? According to a Rajasthani folk tale, he gobbles up a crane. And then he goes on to make a meal out of a slowpoke tortoise, a cheeky squirrel and pretty much most of the forest. They all end up inside his tummy. This humorous oral trickster folk tale, which subtly throws in themes of greediness and the perils of being idle, is now rendered lavishly in Tara Books’ latest offering, Gobble You Up! Adapted by Tara Books’ founder Gita Wolf in rhyme, the handmade book has been illustrated by Sunita, a Rajasthani Meena tribe artist. The book uses an art form called mandana, which is traditionally painted by women on the walls and floors of their village homes. “We make a paste of khadiya (chalk) with lime, and paint with our fingers using a cloth,” said Sunita, over the phone from Sawai Madhopur, where she lives with her husband Prabhat and two children.
Sunita’s style is fluid and each page is filled with striking illustrations. Since the mandana art form has nature as a recurring theme, Gobble You Up! also has bold yet intricate nature drawings. The richest image is that of the swollen jackal, his tummy full of a forestworth of animals. Sunita and her husband first met the people at Tara Books when the publishing house was creating Nurturing Walls, an art book based on wall paintings by Meena women. “We invited Sunita for a workshop on women’s everyday art in Chennai in February 2011,” said Wolf, over email from Chennai. “We were inspired by her art, and began to discuss a project. The theme of pregnant animals (one inside the other) as well as animals and their young is a common theme in Meena art, and helped to guide the direction of the project.”
Turning Sunita’s art into a book wasn’t easy. “The first challenge was to build a visual narrative sequence from a tradition which works predominantly with static images,” said Wolf. “The second was to retain the original feel of the wall art on a different (and smaller!) surface.” For that, Sunita squeezed diluted white acrylic paint fingers on brown paper. The book is also printed on the same kraft paper, since it “mirrors the mud walls of a traditional village setting,” said Wolf. To define the details of the animals, book designer Rathna Ramanathan split the images into two colours – the jackal is rendered in black and the creatures he swallows are in white. It’s all in the details – a modern Gotham typeface was used to complement the contemporary quality of the art work and the book was hand silkscreen printed in two colours and then hand-bound. For Sunita, this is the first time she’s stepped out of Rajasthan to work on an international publication. Sunita grew up in Ramsinghpura and learnt mandana from her maternal grandmother and cousin sister. “The women in our village would practice mandana especially during festivals like Diwali,” said Sunita. “I was fascinated by it and started learning from them.” Sunita and her family are excited about her book. “We get happy when we buy new clothes, and this is a book,” said Sunita. While this is an art book, Gobble You Up! is meant for children. “When you are working with art forms which are normally not used for children’s books, the balance has to be struck between retaining the essence of the form and communicating the story to children,” said Wolf. “We worked intensively with Sunita so that the essence of the story, and the sequence of images is easy for the child reader to comprehend.”
Gobble You Up! Tara Books, Rs850. Ages 3+.
By Bijal Vachharajani