A pair of eyes peer out from the cover of Eye Spy Indian Art by Khoda & Pai. The book, which recently bagged the runner-up award for the best printed children’s book at the Publishing Next Awards, is a window to India’s modern art movement.
Beautifully produced, Eye Spy looks at the evolution of modern art history and introduces young readers to prominent artists of that time. “In this book, we highlight elements of art, perspective, size and proportion, and symbolism, through featured works,” says Vanita Pai, who co-authored the book with Ritu Khoda, founder of the Art1st Foundation. “We bring in conceptual thinking. It is interdisciplinary. It is written for middle school kids who already study Indian history and are old enough for offline and online research,” she says.
What makes the book unique is not just the amount of research that’s gone in, but also the way it has been interpreted through design. Each chapter is crafted thoughtfully; you have to find different keys and guess what art movement you’d be reading about. Pages need to be opened carefully as they reveal hidden information, reproductions of artwork are produced vibrantly, and questions are posed in a manner that encouragesc hildren to think, explore, and marvel at the works before them. “Children enjoy tactile activity,” says Pai. “So, we build in a great number of flaps, foldouts, stickers, and die cuts, besides drawing and painting exercises.”
For instance, to get children to appreciate the quality of line work by Nandlal Bose, right atop the painting Untitled (Esraj Players) is a tracing paper where budding artists can trace the figure of the musician.
In Untitled (The Village Cow), readers have to flip the transparency sheet on top of the painting to understand how adding or removing strokes can alter an artwork.
And Gulammohammed Sheikh’s Alphabet Stories II is cut into layers, and as you turn each flap, the writers pose questions about your perception of the painting. Each caption also reveals the material used, the size of the work, and the year in which it was created.
Play is the central idea in both their books, Eye Spy and Raza’s Bindu: Art Explorations. “We want our books to be fun,” says Pai. “We pushed our designer to go with the final cover of Eye Spy Indian Art, which does not carry a title , only die-cut sockets with a pair of eyes peering through. We were convinced kids would love that.” Pai says that the minimalist cover became a talking point; one parent wrote to them saying that his child was pretending the cover was a mask.
Designed by Ishan Khosla Design, Eye Spy Indian Art has been edited by Meera Kurian. Psychology professor Tanu Shree Singh, the founder of Reading Raccoons on Facebook, helped analyse design elements from a child’s perspective. Deconstructing artists isn’t an easy task, but Pai and Khoda are very much up to the challenge, collaborating with experts, wading through tonnes of research, and organising workshops with children. “We begin work keeping in mind our objectives: generate awareness about Indian art and artists, enhance visual literacy, help develop a language of art in our audience, and this process of discovery should be fun and not a chore,” says Pai.
The authors said that their books, so far, have focused on modern Indian art. For the Art Explorations series, which focuses on artists, they plan to feature abstract artists Ram Kumar and Ambadas Khobragade in the future. “We have had the privilege to meet [S.H.] Raza saab and Ramkumar ji ,” says Pai. “India’s modern artists witnessed the struggle for Independence and the turbulent aftermath. Their art reflects a search for identity, a return to roots, and evolved accordingly. Their life stories are very inspiring. Raza, as you know, passed recently and this has been our foremost concern. Very few modernists remain and it would be a pity if their art goes unappreciated by later generations. We started with Raza because his vibrant art greatly appeals to children, and also because when you bring pen to paper, what emerges first is a bindu,” says Pai.
The series stemmed from a mutual concern shared by the authors that despite learning art in school, most children don’t know the names of Indian artists or enough about Indian art. “We decided to make books that would instil a sense of pride and heighten awareness about our rich visual art heritage,” says Pai. “So all our work is interlinked. Through our art education programme, we are trying to change the way art is taught in schools, and through our books, we aim to increase art awareness among Indians.”