Amplifying unheard voices

Using illustrations and text, Shrujana Niranjani Shridhar’s book, Aamu’s Kawandi, tells a subtle story of the Siddis, the people of African origin in India


In the year that President Barack Obama was re-elected, Shrujana Niranjani Shridhar came across a story in The Hindu (January 21, 2013) about the Siddis celebrating the victory. The Siddis are people of African origin who have been living in India for centuries. “That was really how I found out about the Siddis,” says the Mumbai-based artist.

As a student at the Srishti School of Art, Design, and Technology in Bengaluru, Shridhar got the opportunity to work on a picture book on the Siddis for her final diploma project in 2014. “We had a choice between many different communities and I went with the Siddis,” she says. “Indian society is very racist and casteist, and one can only imagine how marginalised an Indo-African tribe would then be. I thought it was important that the new generation have the chance to learn of India’s pluralism and all the different kinds of ‘Indians’ who struggle to survive.”

Patchwork stories

The result is Aamu’s Kawandi , written and illustrated by Shridhar and published by the Delhi-based Katha. The story is about a little Siddi girl, Aamu, who flits about the pages of the picture book, introducing the reader to her friends Chinni and Jojo, her family, and her community that lives in Mainalli in Karnataka.

Aamu’s mother makes beautiful patchwork quilts called kawandi , and so the little girl decides to make one as well, but out of paper. “Siddi women traditionally make one big quilt, or even a baby quilt, out of scraps from everyone’s clothes. Aamu’s mother also makes quilts, and like most little girls, she’s very proud of her mother and imitates her, which is why she also makes a kawandi ,” says Shridhar.

Her prose is exuberant, taking you on a whirlwind tour of Aamu’s life. Her illustrations are bright and happy, just like the colourful patchwork quilts, with myriad textures and hues popping up all across the book. At the same time, she manages to talk about some of the struggles the community faces. “It was difficult to introduce concepts of identity, poverty, pride etc. to children in a storybook,” she says. “We’re not used to reading about stories like these, so even as an author, one found it challenging to fit it into the framework of a storybook. Children are very intelligent and pick up on small subtle things.”

Shridhar says one of the aspects that she struggled with was explaining that most Siddis used to be bonded labour. “How do you explain that to a child?” she asks. “But I just had to subtly state that Aamu’s grandmother used to work on someone else’s land and that now her mother works for herself. A little boy who read the book identified that the grandmother might not have been treated very well, and was very curious about what ended up happening to her,” she recounts.

Grappling with complexities

Shridhar began her project by researching dthe Siddis. “At the start, I didn’t draw anything. Just read a lot,” she says. “I read works by sociologists on the African diaspora, I read some of Margret Mead’s work. I even read [Jyotirao] Phule’s Slavery (which he had dedicated to the African-American slaves); basically, everything to help me understand the general situation.”

When they went on their first recce, the book team met Obeng Pashington, a scholar in African diaspora studies who has worked with the Siddis for many years. It turned out to be an inspiring experience for Shridhar, but for her, most of the observations happened while sitting around sketching the village and its people casually, or through conversations with them.

Of course, it wasn’t easy to translate all that she observed into a picture book. “After a couple of us went on-field for the first time, I was totally devastated,” says Shridhar. “I couldn’t connect anything I had read to what I had seen. Every time I’d come back home from a visit to Mainalli, I would be in a daze. I wanted to explore some very complex subjects like the identity of politics or gender segregation that I didn’t have a total grasp on myself. But one day after I came back from a trip to Mainalli, I realised that if I had to present my culture to someone new, I’d do it from a place of pride, and that sense of pride set the tone for the story,” she adds.

Building character

One of wonderful things about Aamu’s Kawandi is Aamu. She’s boisterous, adorable, and a complete loveable child. “I loved designing Aamu’s character,” says Shridhar. “The children I’d spend time in Bangalore were obviously very different from the ones at Mainalli. The children at Mainalli were very active and physical children because they have that kind of physical space. For Aamu, I thought of everything from how her mother would tie her hair to what her favourite colour was. There were details about her character that obviously wouldn’t be part of the story but it helped in forming it. In fact, once I had Aamu down, the story just fell in to place.”

Since her graduation, Shridhar has been trying to merge her art with activism, to amplify unheard voices. Aamu is just the start. “I believe firstly, as humans we don’t exist in isolation and so naturally nor does an artist,” she says. Adding that, “All our ideas that we attribute to being our own come from the world around us and that’s why my work is a reflection of it. I believe in standing by people because that’s where you come from, I mean we have only one home (for now at least) and we only have each other. Art is just a medium for me.”

The author writes on education for sustainable development, conservation and food security. She’s the former editor of Time Out Bengaluru

The story is about Aamu, who introduces the reader to her friends Chinni and Jojo, her family, and her community

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