To bee or not to bee

Interview: Karthika Naïr & Joëlle Jolivet

Young Zubaan’s latest book is a stunning blend of prose and art

It’s a day like any other in the picture book, The Honey Hunter, as the story unfolds in a neighbourhood not far from where the reader is. There’s a discussion of some importance on at a dinner table, about honey. A child wants more honey, but the last of the summer honey is over and the bees don’t make any during winter. That leads to another story, one about a land of 18 tides, where three rivers meet, and gazillions of honeybees gather golden honey. Thus begins a beautiful story within a story written by poet Karthika Naïr and illustrated by French artist Joëlle Jolivet.

Naïr, a poet and a dance curator based out of Paris, weaves a lyrical tale that is riveting and thought-provoking. The story was earlier written as part of the script of DESH, a dance-drama produced and performed by UK choreographer Akram Khan. It subtly shows how climate change is impacting the mangrove forests and islands of the Bay of Bengal, wreaking havoc with nightmarish cyclones and unruly tides. Shonu lives on one such island with his family and finds himself constantly displaced in the wake of the changing weather. Food is hard to come by and Shonu craves honey. He sets off in search of honey, even ready to raid the beehives. However, Bonbibi, the guardian deity of the Sundarbans, has a pact with the demon king, aka the defender of the forest, aka He-Whose-Name-Must-Not-Be-Taken, that she cannot save anyone who harms the forest. What follows is a fascinating narrative of hunger, greed, the environment, kindness and indigenous beliefs.

The book is not only a delight to read but also to hold and savour for readers of any age. A big-sized book, roughly the size of a table mat, The Honey Hunter is probably one of the most gorgeous tomes to have been published this year. Jolivet, who has studied graphic art and advertising at the School of Applied Arts in Paris, usually works with lithography. Her illustrations are phantasmagorical – from the intricate renderings of the characters and the Sundarbans forest, to the pop of colours like gold and neon pink. Each page is a beautiful painting, delicate with detail, yet boldly rendered. Over email from France, Naïr and Jolivet told Time Out about their collaboration and the kind of research that went into this picture book.

Tell us how The Honey Hunter came about?
Karthika Naïr The Honey Hunter exists primarily because Anita Roy – senior commissioning editor of Zubaan Books – read the first pages of the story (then written as part of the script of DESH, Akram Khan’s dance production) at a dining table in south Delhi, and decided it had to be made into an illustrated children’s book. I was in India on a short trip after an intensive phase of workshops with Akram and about a dozen actors in London, where we had been testing out different rough drafts of tableaux forDESH, and we had decided that one of the tableaux to develop from the various openings I had written was “The Boy, the Bees and Bonbibi” (the working title of what has become The Honey Hunter). Well, Anita dropped in at my friend’s place, read the story I was working on, and asked me to complete it. By the time Anita came to watch the DESH premiere six months later, we were in the thick of the “Great Hunt for the Illustrator”. But that’s just the beginning: it took another two years for the story to become this book.The book uses indigenous art with some really pop colours.

Tell us about the illustration process.
KN This one is really Joëlle’s territory, though I must add that she did about six months of research to make sure she got all the details right – the topography, the costumes, the physiognomy, the iconography of Bonbibi and Dakkhin Rai. This was not easy because there are few formal photos: we see them mostly through street theatre and temple shrines, or local festivals – and that is one of the many reasons it has been so synergising to work with Joëlle! Her attention to detail – both in the text and the real “environment” – was so impressive, even as she adapted it into her visual language and the signature style I adored the very first time I had bumped into one of her wild animals.

Joëlle Jolivet When I work on a new project, in a new cultural background, I’m always curious about popular art, graphics, designs, anything that can feed my inspiration. My usual media is linocut, but for this book I quickly realised that it would not be the right tool. I needed something more spontaneous, more moving. So I decided to use ink and brushes, with black lines and a few strong colours. Blue-green for water and forest, yellow for bees and honey, and pink, because for me, India is shiny pink (Indian pink, of course). As the project evolved, I softly twisted these colours, to get something less obvious. Yellow turned to ochre and pink to neon pink. And Karthika showed me patuas and patachitra, which have something in common with comics. Their narrative streak helped me conceive some of the trickiest pages in the book. To get shiny and deep tones, the book was printed in solid colours. I worked on tracing paper, with black ink, one sheet per colour.

How difficult was it to adapt a script into a children’s book?
KN To be honest, I didn’t think of a young audience at all. Initially, I wrote it as part of the script of a dance piece and that defined the process considerably. Akram and I had discussed the sequence in detail, and how he wanted to stage it – without words, with animation and abhinaya – even before he knew what the story would be. My primary audience was Akram, and Yeast Culture [the animator], who needed to picture a full-fledged world from the text, a world they could transmute it into their respective languages (animation/movement). And even after the story went into “children’s book” mode, I didn’t have to change that approach.

My publishers – Sophie Giraud of Editions Hélium in France and Anita Roy of Zubaan Books – were both quite amazing. They never asked me to “make it more child-friendly” or to change the ending, which is not exactly in the happily-ever-after mode. We did have a lot of discussions about the two-person/dialogue format because it was unusual for children’s fiction in France: there was some initial hesitation about breaking away from an accepted pattern but Sophie was really committed to retaining the spirit of the story (also in publishing, so much text in an illustrated book – that was another instance of going against the norm), and all she asked me to do was add an introduction, so that a child, on reading it, would have a context, a sense of being moored. As you can see I have done that, but without specifying location or time, because I really wanted it to be a tale that could begin anywhere, in any urban household, in any part of the world.

The Honey Hunter narrates a story that delivers many messages without being didactic. How difficult is it to write something like this?
KN I think the intermeshing of myth and quotidian modernity, of proximity and the distant sources of things we take for granted (like honey) in our urban drive for immediate, unthinking consumption is just a reflection of our lives today, anywhere in the world but perhaps more so in an Asian context where millennia-old beliefs drive our lives as much as the new flashy trappings.

What kind of research went into the book?
JJ I met Karthika totally by chance. I received her text by email, in English, and forgot all about it for quite some time, until she called me. Ashamed, I finally read the text and was completely enchanted. I called her back and that’s how Karthika and I met and decided to do the book together. Our respective publishers joined forces and decided to bring it out together in France and in India. During the following months we met often, and I showed her my sketches. Karthika helped me a lot to understand that culture. I did a lot of research on the Internet, never having been to either Bangladesh or West Bengal. I also looked at a lot of regional iconography of Bonbibi and Dakkhin Rai. My imagination is also fuelled considerably by actual, existing details.

KN I did about five months of research before our R&D trip to Bangladesh in November 2010, and then the core creative team was in Bangladesh for about ten days. We travelled from Dhaka to Jessore, Gopalgunj and Khulna, to towns and rivers, and visited the docks and Drik, listening to Shahidul Alam’s [Bangladeshi photographer and human rights activist] accounts of the Dhaka Blockade, and met migrant workers from Bihar and child labourers who were building mammoth ships. We spoke with activists and otter-fishermen, textile conservators (Bangladesh had the largest repository of natural dyes in the world – an industry that was ruined by colonial British import policy, but committed people like Dr Ruby Ghuznavi have made it their life’s work to revive it, to sustain the practice), NGOs, singers and dancers and filmmakers. People were incredibly generous in sharing their experiences.

And then, of course, Joëlle did a huge chunk of research for the visuals. We would have joint sessions whenever we could, where she would show me everything she had found, and I’d add as much as I could to that, or suggest possible sources. She would show me the drafts of the pages, and they were such complete, exquisite worlds in themselves, I was often just dumbstruck at how brilliantly she had morphed the images in my head into something so much more phantasmagorical and vibrant.

The Honey Hunter, Young Zubaan, R395.


By Bijal Vachharajani on April 25 2014

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