Nerves of steal

Get ready to be spellbound by Sarah Prineas, author of The Magic Thief series, who will be in Mumbai this fortnight (Sadly, Sarah fell ill and didn’t make it to Mumbai. But she did sign me a copy that too in her secret language).

sarah prineas, magic thief, Books, fantasy books, bookaro festival

Sarah Prineas’s three-book series, The Magic Thief, tells the story of Connwaer, an orphan who lurks in the alleys of the magical city ofWellmet, picking pockets and steering clear of the Underlord and his goons.Conndiscovers he’s  a wizard when he steals the wizard Nevery’s locus magicalus (a magical stone). As Nevery’s apprentice,Connbegins studying at a magic school and starts investigating why the magic in their city is dwindling. The trilogy has some fantastic characters, including tough-guy Benet, who loves to knit, and bakes scrumptious biscuits. This fortnight, children will have a chance to meet Prineas, who will be signing books in Mumbai at Crossword Bookstore. She’s inIndiafor the Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival which is being held inDelhithis fortnight. She spoke toTime Out about books, baking, and writing for children.

What was the inspiration behind The Magic Thief series?
The first lines of The Magic Thief are “A thief is a lot like a wizard. I have quick hands, and I can make things disappear.” I kept those lines in a file on my computer for a long time, but I had no idea who said them. Finally I started wondering. What kind of character could be both a thief and a wizard? Immediately,Connleaped into being, completely himself, and ready to get into trouble and jump-start the story. The inspiration is that I’ve read loads of fantasy, and I wanted to write a book with all my favourite fantasy things in it: magic, adventure, wizards, dragons, peril, biscuits and bacon.

Connwaer is extremely believable, even though he lives in a magical world.
Connis so incredibly fun to write, because he’s a true protagonist – his actions make the story happen. He’s completely himself, so I always know what he’s going to do in any situation. He’s also full of contradictions: he’s a thief who never lies, he is smart and yet he does unbelievably stupid things. He is stubborn and he is brave, he thinks a lot but says very little.

How difficult was it to create the magical city of Wellmet?
When I first started working on the Wellmet world, I was inspired by nineteenth-century maps of London, with the twisty streets and dead-end alleyways with funny names, like “Mouse Hole” or “Cutpurse Lane”. Pretty soon, the setting started growing into a distinct place not like anywhere in our world. The concept of “balance” became important. Wellmet is a city that depends on balance, the run-down, dangerous Twilight on one side of the river, the wealthierSunriseon the other, and the wizard’s houses on islands in the river itself. One of the big questions thatConnhas to deal with is how to bring the various parts of the city back into balance with each other.

Tell us about tough guy Benet.
Benet was a funny character to write because he started out as a minor character, a simple tough guy bodyguard. Then I started thinking, “What do bodyguards do?” Well, they take care of people, usually by being tough and knocking heads together. But what if this bodyguard took care of people in other ways? So Benet started baking biscuits and knitting sweaters and scarves, and he became a much more important character, really the centre of Conn’s new family.

Can we expect a fourth book in The Magic Thief series?
I have written a fourth Magic Thief book, though I don’t know when it will be published. My next book starts a brand new series, the first book is calledWinterling. It’s a fantasy story that begins in our world and goes into another, magical world, and the main character is a girl.

By Bijal Vachharajani on November 26 2010

Tale spin

Time Out listens in to some city storytellers

Coomi Vevaina loves to tell children the story of Beeblebean and Beebleboo, a poem about a stone wall built between the two kingdoms with those names. “It’s a story about walls that exist between people,” said Vevaina, who heads the department of English at the University of Mumbai. The last time Vevaina recited the poem, the young audience had many things to say about imaginary walls. One child said that a wall exists between his mother and grandmother, while another pointed out that there’s a wall between India and Pakistan. The reading that triggered this discussion was organised by Word-fully Yours, an association that is trying to promote peace and conservation through stories.

Traditionally, our storytellers have been our grandparents, our parents or our teachers. They first introduced us to Indian folklore, myths and fables. But the upsurge in professional storytellers – Word-fully Yours is just one of many groups that organise storytelling sessions – suggests that the activity is moving beyond the realm of home and school. “Oral traditions are best passed down the family, but with nuclear families this is getting to be a bigger challenge,” said Vijay Prabhat-Kamalakara, the managing director of Storytrails, a Chennai-based group that conducts outings replete with stories. “Professional storytellers are an alternative,” he added. “For example, our stories are not the kind that grandparents would tell. How many times have you heard the story of Martha Benz and the first cars or the story of Operation Fortitude from grandparents?”

Prabhat-Kamalakara said that Storytrails was born out of the idea that almost every activity, however mundane, has a story behind it. “We attempt to research, script and creatively present such stories through theme-based trails,” he said. “Storytrails has trails for different age groups – some indoor and some which take kids through bakeries, cinema studios and car service centres.” This summer, Storytrails organised workshops at the Landmark bookstores in Mumbai, through stories, role play, songs and dance, kids learnt about countries, inventions and book characters.

If the storytellers and the narratives have changed, so has the telling of the story. It is no longer limited to reading aloud from a book. While voice modulation, song and dance have always been part of the tool kit, storytellers are increasingly using aids such as drama, costume and sets to enhance the experience for young listeners with short attention spans. Vevaina, the president of Word-fully Yours, said that her team blends storytelling with drama, puppets, art and craft. “We weave in these forms to consciously create a story,” she said. “For us, stories are a powerful form of passing on the right values in this shrinking and rapidly threatening world.”

For others like Blue Fun Umbrella, storytelling has translated into a profit-making venture. Started three years ago by Meenakshi Kishore and Sonu Mehrotra, Blue Fun Umbrella’s clients include Disney, Crossword Bookstore and Hamleys. Kishore said that they combine story-telling with concept building. “One of the concepts we try to instil is about saving,” said Kishore. “We have a pig puppet who tells the kids that he wants to earn money. He takes the kids to imaginary shops and to a bank where they have to save money.”

Blue Fun Umbrella also organises performance-based sessions. They have narrated the story of Beauty and the Beast, complete with a castle, live music and actors reading from the book. Activities are part of the session, where kids need to solve puzzles in order to get the key to a forbidden castle. In a storytelling session to promote the film Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, kids got eye patches and bandanas.

However, some like Storytrails don’t believe that they need to put on different voices or make faces to engage children. “The first step is to choose an appropriate subject that would be of interest to the age group being addressed,” said Prabhat-Kamalakara.

Another challenge is building a team that can work with a varied group of children. Most groups devote a substantial amount of time training their storytellers. Kishore said that Blue Fun Umbrella mainly hires professional actors for their sessions, but Storytrails draws upon a motley crew of travel writers, architects, lawyers, teachers, engineers and students who have a desire to tell stories to kids in their spare time. Word-fully Yours trains its members to conduct storytelling modules. “What’s really important is having a passion for storytelling,” said Vevaina.

By Bijal Vachharajani on June 23 2011 6.30pm
Photos by Tejal Pandey

Minor accomplishments

Time Out looks back at 2010 and realised that it was the year the kids held the reins

children's Books, dvds, art 4 all, Suar Chala Space Ko, aria panchal, jalebi ink

What happened in 2010? Hundreds of children’s books, tons of toys and dozens of DVDs lined the shelves of bookstores. Over the year, puppet plays, film screenings and clowns entertained kids as well. A study by the TV channel Nick India threw up disturbing results: only 25 per cent of children across six metros actually played outdoors on a daily basis. While there was lots of activities for kids, 2010 was really the year when children held art exhibitions, wrote books and even worked on a commercial play, with a little help from adults, of course.

When he was just 15, Christopher Paolini began writing Eragon, a story about a boy who takes up a quest along with his pet dragon. The book became a bestseller and was even turned into a Hollywood movie. Bollywood isn’t exactly enthused about signing movie deals with children, but this year two books written by children found mainstream publishers. Anshuman Mohan, 15, wrote Potato Chips (Harper), an earnest work about Aman Malhotra, who switches schools to join the prestigious St Xavier’s and tries desperately to fit in. Written with almost frank brutality, the book is packed with adolescent jokes and teen angst.  Another author, the 17-year-old Arun Vajpai, teamed up with Anu Kumar to write On Top of the World (Puffin), an account of his expedition to Mount Everest. Vajpai is the youngest Indian to have climbed the mountain.

At Jalebi Ink, a media company for young adults, children got a chance to air their views about their neighbourhood, the environment and the world around them. In October, young reporters from Jalebi Ink’s Green Squad published Junknama, a newspaper about the environment. They wrote about garbage disposal, water woes and the diminishing green cover. They also visited Dharavi to witness waste recycling, interviewed environmentalists and covered programmes such as the Carter Road Car-Free Day. In a story titled “Trash Troopers”, the reporters  pointed out that Mumbai produces more than 6,500 tonnes of garbage every day, “roughly equivalent to17 fully loaded Airbus A380s”. On October 10, the children distributed copies of the newspapers to evening walkers at Carter Road in Bandra and marched holding solar lanterns.

At Dreammakers 2010, students of Art 4 All managed to do what most adults haven’t. They displayed their paintings at Chemould Prescott Road Art Gallery and even sold some. “Mumbai through the eyes of children” featured iconic landmarks such as Flora Fountain surrounded by Gothic buildings and hoardings, the Bandra-Worli Sea Link and Rajabai Tower, all painted by children. Images of traffic jams, petrol pumps and fishing colonies were rendered in bright colours. The kids were understandably excited about their paintings being displayed, but a few were concerned that if someone other than their parents bought their work, they wouldn’t be able to take it home.

When director Shaili Sathyu wanted to produce a children’s play this summer, she delved into a pool of ideas generated by kids. The result wasSuar Chala Space Ko, a quirky play about a smelly pig who travels to space. “The play is based on a puppet play originally written by children during a workshop that I conducted in 2001,” said Sathyu. “The play developed in an organic way, with children thinking of different plots and putting them together. The title of the play was conceived by the kids.” In May, Thespo, a youth theatre initiative from Q Theatre Productions, conducted “Dramabaazi”, a children’s workshop. The result was The Mighty Mirembayanna and the Prisoners of Peace, a play about peace and war. Toral Shah of Q Theatre said that they thought the workshop was a great way for kids to experience “what it’s like to go through a rehearsal process, learn lines, get into costume, wait in the wings for their entry and have an audience”. With most plays for children being written and performed by adults, this summertime was a welcome change.

By Bijal Vachharajani on December 23 2010

Ashoka the Hero

The animated movie combines the past and the present

gaurav jain, movies for kids, ashoka the hero, bal ganesha, indian cartoons

In the third century BC, Emperor Ashoka went down in history as an enlightened ruler who embraced peace over war. The monarch continues to have a presence in our lives – from the Ashoka’s Pillar engraved on rupee coins to the Ashoka Chakra on the Indian flag. Now it is the emperor’s medallion that makes an appearance in Gaurav Jain’s new animation film, Ashoka the Hero.

The film is about a schoolboy, Ashoka, who idolises his father, a brave police officer who dies in a bank robbery. On his deathbed, Ashoka’s father tells his son to be a good person. Easier said than done. The boy wants to be like his father but doesn’t quite know how to go about it. Then, an old man called Masa entrusts him with Emperor Ashoka’s medallion, which confers on its owner great powers. But like all good things, this one comes with a catch – the medallion’s powers go away if they are abused in any way. Of course, there is a nasty villain to be defeated and Ashoka’s the super hero who is called on to help. The film is mainly about Ashoka discovering that a super hero isn’t necessarily one who has great strength and super powers.

“It’s a kids-oriented film,” said Jain, the writer and director of the film. “The story is along the lines of a Western super hero film.” Jain conceptualised the story three years ago and decided to make it a 2D animation film, rather than a 3D one. “Technology moves rapidly,” said Jain. “If you look at Toy Story 1, 2 and 3, there’s a world of difference in terms of the technology.” While Toy Story 1 was a 2D animation film, the third installation was released in 3D. Jain elaborated, “If you look at a Tom and Jerry cartoon [done in 2D animation], it has essentially stayed the same over the years. It’s all about the visual experience that 2D animation offers.”

Ashoka the Hero also breaks through the clutter of mythological animation films that have become staple children’s fare. Movies about Hanuman, Ganesha and the Ramayana have previously catered to kids. Some like Bal Ganesha attempted to give a contemporary spin to mythology but don’t always  capture the audience’s attention. “I wanted to do something that’s different from a mythological film,” said Jain. “InIndia, kids are only watching foreign films or Western shows. I grew up on serials such as Indradhanush [a sci-fi serial on Doordarshan]”. Only a few filmmakers, such as Santosh Sivan who made Halo and Malli and Vishal Bharadwaj who made The Blue Umbrella, have managed to make quality children’s films.

Since Jain is from Mumbai, the city serves as the backdrop for his film. Watch out for a plane that lands in the middle of the iconic Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, an action sequence atop the Rajabai Tower and the film climax, which is staged at the Bandra-Worli sea link. When Jain began writing the script, the sea link was still under construction. “We kept hoping that the sea link would be done in time for the film’s release,” said Jain. “Luckily, it did.”

By Bijal Vachharajani on January 06 2011 

Finding Neverland

The boy who wouldn’t grow up is coming to the Mumbai stage

peter pan, kids play, Theatre, Faezeh Jalai, neverland, prithvi theatre,

This fortnight, Mumbai kids will have the opportunity to visit the fantastic world of Neverland and meet such eternally popular characters as the mischievous Peter Pan, his arch enemy Captain Hook and the jealous Tinker Bell. The magical story of Peter Pan, the boy who refuses to grow up, is being staged by Akvarious Productions as part of the Summertime with Prithvi festival.

In the play, Peter, Wendy and the Darling children fly off to Neverland and join forces with the Lost Boys to take on the nasty Captain Hook. “They will be fighting pirates, flying and meeting crocodiles,” said director Hidaayat Sami.

Since Peter Pan is all about flying fairies and magical lands, it’s a challenging story to adapt for the stage. Sami has wanted to mount a production of Peter Pan for a long time, but JM Barrie’s classic story isn’t easy to adapt for the stage. “Like how will you show the flying and how will you match foreign production values,” Sami said. Despite the budget constraints and the lack of technical assistance that discourage Indian directors from attempting fairy tales, the director and his crew thought long and hard to come up with some tricks.

The children in the audience can expect to see the actors do nifty rope tricks and mallakhamb, or Maharashtrian-style gymnastics performed on a pole and with a rope. Faezeh Jalali, who acted as a fairy in Tim Supple’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, plays Peter Pan. The petite Jalali is an obvious choice for the role – she learns mallakhamb at Shivaji Park in Dadar and can shimmy up and down ropes in a trice. Jalali has acted in several plays and movies, including Rohan Engineer’s Ursula, but this is the first time she will be playing a boy. “Traditionally, in a lot of items, Peter Pan has been played by a woman,” said Jalali. “In musicals, no matter how old the woman is, she can sound like a boy. And I don’t think of it as playing a boy or a girl. It’s about playing Peter Pan, who wants to be in this world of play and make believe.”

In addition to rope tricks, Sami’s cast of 22 has learnt fencing from theatre director Bijon Mondal and dance from actor Shivani Tanksale. Actors Anand Tiwari and Trishla Patel have been coaching the cast on how to behave like children. “There’s a very thin line when an adult is playing a child,” said Sami. “It could look crazy. Then even the child in the audience wonders why is the actor behaving so strange. We’d rather have them play young adults than do funny antics.”

Many children’s plays have a standard formula : throw in some Bollywood music for the kiddies to dance to, add some slapstick humour and get the cast to jump, fall over or perform outlandishly. However, Akvarious Productions are usually a departure from these clichés. Most of their children’s plays are adapted from storybooks. The group has previously staged The Shehenshah of Azeemo, an adaptation of L Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of OzThe Mystery of the Pantomime Cat, which was based on one of Enid Blyton’s Five-Find Outers and Dog mystery: and The Adventures of Tintin, their first-comic book adaptation.

Peter Pan was chosen because it is Sami’s favourite story and he is looking forward to presenting it to both children and adults. “Peter Pan is a subject which even grown-ups would want to see,” said Sami. “I have a lot of grown-up people telling me that they want to watch it.” Jalali is excited about the children’s play too. “I love children as an audience, I think they are amazing,” said Jalali. “While adults are more reserved, the kids get so much more involved with the play. Which is why it’s actually amazing to have children in the audience.”

By Bijal Vachharajani on April 29 2011 7.08am
Photos by Parikshit Rao

Green light

A new initiative puts Mumbai’s environmental services on the map


navdanya products, eco food guide, emc's map, green map of mumbai

Mumbai on Google Earth looks like a jagged slice of grey speckled with green; this is a city of few natural spots but plenty of environmental problems. Now all things green about the city – from gardens to environmental services to organic stores – can be seen at a glance on the Environmental Management Centre’s Green Map of Mumbai.

The idea, according to Prasad Modak, executive president of the eco-consulting group EMC, is to create “a social mapping platform to connect citizens, subject experts, researchers, service providers and social workers who aspire for a better environment in their neighbourhood.” Laxmikant Deshpande, who is leading the project, said that while a typical green map would only show the city’s wetlands and gardens, the EMC map serves as a visual directory to a host of environmental services and institutes. These include organisations that work on issues related to solid waste management, biodiversity and sustainable transport such as the Bombay Natural History Society and the National Solid Waste Association of India, as well as lifestyle services including ecotels like Orchid and Rodas and shops that sell eco-friendly and organic products such as Navdanya and Fabindia.

Currently, a PDF version of the map can be downloaded from the EMC’s website along with a resource guide. But Deshpande said that the map is very much a work in progress. More services need to be added. The next step is to put the map on an online platform, where users can network and learn about environmental solutions. This effort will be based on the Ekovoices application that was used for a pilot project the group worked on in Maharashtra. Ekovoices, said Modak, enabled citizens to report on environmental issues in their neighbourhood by pinpointing them on a map. They could then join a discussion group to air their grievances and also connect with subject experts for help.

Deshpande said they hoped to replicate that model in Mumbai, so communities could use the Green Map to solve neighbourhood environmental issues. “If someone has a solid waste management issue, he can visit the map and maybe find another user who is working on vermicomposting close by,” he said.

The EMC also has a carbon footprint calculator you can use to figure out your personal impact on the environment. If the results horrify you, go to the green map for solutions.

Visit www. download the EMCs Green Map

By Bijal Vachharajani on June 23 2011 

Dino more

History repeats itself at the Nehru Science Centre

 nehru science centre, musuems for kids, brachiosaurus, dinosaurs, science

A giant Brachiosaurus plant-eating dinosaur cranes its neck and nods benignly at visitors. In another corner, a Baluchitherium, a hornless rhinoceros, munches leaves from a tree. A Pterosaur, a giant flying reptile, is suspended mid-flight. There’s rarely a dull moment at the Prehistoric Life Gallery at the Nehru Science Centre in Worli. This recently renovated gallery has 35 prehistoric animals that will grab the attention of students as well as dinosaur devotees.

The exhibition models may not be as well-crafted as the ones in international museums, but there are plenty of things for children to discover. The displays focus on the evolution of early life forms – one-celled organisms in the sea, invertebrates and vertebrates. Apart from dinosaurs, there are models of the Neanderthal man, land scorpion, lemur, woolly mammoth and sabre-tooth tiger. Children will love the animatronic dinosaurs that dip their heads to lap water from an artificial pool while swishing their tails, a musk ox that shakes its mammoth head and a giant squid that’s constantly rolling its huge round eyes. All this is set to the background score of growls and screeches – sounds that the creatures are believed to have emitted.

Each diorama is equipped with a well-lit information display in both English and Hindi that flashes information about the prehistoric animal’s height, weight, food habits and habitat. There is also useful trivia, such as the fact that the dragon fly lived three crore years ago, and the Dimetrodon , a predator that lived during the Permian period, weighed 250 kilos.

By Bijal Vachharajani on June 09 2011 6.30pm
Photos by Amit Chakravarty

Child’s play

Is children’s theatre finally growing up?

(Or in which I finally interview Naseeruddin Shah)

Naseeruddin Shah, arms and the man, kids play, Theatre, motley, bernard shaw

Actor-director Naseeruddin Shah remembers seeing Arms & the Man, George Bernard Shaw’s satire on war and heroism, when he was six years old. “I was lucky enough to be exposed to a lot of theatre early enough in school,” said Shah. “I was studying at St Joseph in Nainital when I think I saw Shakespeareana [Geoffrey and Laura Kendal’s company] performing the play. Of course, I didn’t understand all of it, but I loved the funny bits and it stayed with me. It’s possible that it created my love of English language.” This fortnight, Shah will stage Arms & the Man at Summertime with Prithvi, the Juhu theatre’s annual kids festival.

For years, children’s play producers have been loosely defining their audience as ages three and above. But this year things are set to change. During this season of plays at Summertime, young adults can move beyond banal offerings of song, dance and slapstick humour typically meant for younger kids. They can catch Bijon Mondal’s Wonderland, which fuses the story of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland with Cervantes’ Don Quixote; Chandan Roy-Sanyal’s Two Blind Mice, an adaptation of Samuel Beckett’sWaiting for Godot; and Manav Kaul’s Mamtaz Bhai Patangwale, a story about a child obsessed with flying kites.

Shah looks at Arms & the Man as an attempt to move kids’ theatre away from mindless comedy. He was appalled by the quality of some of the plays staged at Summertime last year, he said. “I don’t believe in underestimating children’s intelligence,” said Shah. “As it is, children are treated as morons all the time and I think they should be given something which challenges their intellect a little bit.” But, Shah added, Arms & the Man is also easily comprehensible. “The plot is not complicated,” he said. “It has beautiful language, charming characters and funny situations.” It’s a shift that Sanjna Kapoor, the director of Prithvi Theatre, is excited about. “Two years ago, we realised that we were finding it tough to fill Summertime workshops for children between the ages of 14 and 16,” she said. “Most of our focus had been on the age groups of six to 13 year-olds. We can’t expect teenagers to enjoy the same plays as younger kids.” Kapoor said that it was Shah’s experience at Summertime last year that made her think about an older audience. Accordingly, Prithvi has also tweaked its membership plan. Children between the ages of 6 and 11 are entitled to watch children’s plays free of cost for a year. Additionally, young adults, aged 12-16, will get a card that allows them to see any play (children and adults) through the year.

Kapoor has also asked producers to focus on age-specific plays for children this year. Mondol’s Wonderland, for instance, is for kids above the age of eight. “I am trying to create drama that educates and at the same time introduces kids to the grandeur of theatre, Mondol said. Similarly, Roy-Sanyal tweaked Godot to make it more appealing to children. Protagonists Vladmir and Estragon are ten-year-old boys, rather than old men, who play games while waiting for Godot. “A lot of people questioned me about doingGodot for children,” said Roy-Sanyal. “But I think it would be interesting to see how the kids react to it.”

Earlier this month, Aasakta, a Pune-based group staged Junglenama, a sensitive portrayal of the man-animal conflict prevalent in Indian forests today. At the beginning of the play, director Sarang Sathaye announced that the story was originally written for adults and that children might find it difficult to follow at times. But that didn’t deter Aasakta from adapting the story to stage. “Children today are more mature at a younger age and get the subtle nuances of a play,” said Ashish Mehta, the group manager of Aasakta. “You don’t have to tell everything explicitly in a play.” Shah agrees that the distinction between children’s plays and adult ones is overblown. “Kids seldom go to see children’s plays alone,” said Shah. “They are usually accompanied by adults. I remember seeing Peter Pan and Nagin at the age of three or four and the adults enjoyed it as much.”

By Bijal Vachharajani on May 12 2011 6.30pm
Photos by Tejal Pandey

Hero worship

When it comes to films and books for children, superheroes rule, finds Time Out

darsheel safari, zokkomon, children, satyajit bhatkal, film, superhero,

In the book iBoy, an iPhone falls on 16-year-old Tom Harvey’s head and soon the embedded device gives him the ability to surf the internet at will. He uses this ability to take revenge on his friend’s rapists by accessing their personal information. In Joe Craig’s Jimmy Coates, the 11-year-old protagonist discovers that he is only 38 per cent human while the rest of him is robot. As part-robot, he is expected to aid the state’s dictator. In Gaurav Jain’s movie Ashoka, an eight-year-old boy has to ditch his homework to battle a mad scientist with powers bestowed on him by Emperor Ashoka’s medallion. And this fortnight, child actor Darsheel Safary stars as India’s first flying superhero in the Disney film Zokkomon, which has been directed by Satyajit Bhatkal.

Superhero books and movies have always been popular with children. But whereas in the past, one was more likely to read or see stories about adult superheroes such as Spider-Man and Superman, children are now increasingly donning the capes – metaphorically and literally – to save the world. Zokkomon is an adventure story about Kunal (Safary), an orphaned boy whose uncle [Anupam Kher] abandons him in a large city, said Satyajit Bhatkal. “Kunal is alone and friendless,” Bhatkal said, “In this situation, when he is most down and out, Kunal draws on his inner strength. Despite being small and without resources he manages to discover that you are as strong as you believe you are.”

The latest trend of child superheroes started with Harry Potter, said Sudeshna Shome-Ghose, an editorial director with Puffin, which has got books like iBoy and the Percy Jackson series to India.“Each new series tried to differentiate its hero from the earlier ones in specific ways,” she said, adding, “These books are all commercial fiction and a lot of thought would go in from publishers and authors on creating characters that are unique.”

And they are unique. Tom Harvey of iBoy by Kevin Brooks can pluck information off the web by just thinking about it but his nemesis is a no-network zone. Author Rick Riordan had a bestseller in his hands with the Percy Jackson series, a story about a boy who discovers that he is half-human and half-god. While Riordan’s story is about Greek gods, he sets his story in New York, explaining that with Western civilisation moving to America, Olympus followed suit.

When it comes to creating Indian superheroes, most publishers and filmmakers stick to mythological heroes. However, some are trying to think beyond Hanuman and Bal Ganesha. Kunal in Zokkomon will be India’s first flying superhero, Bhatkal said. Recently, Hachette India published The Fang of Summoning by Giti Chandra. The story intersects between Iceland and Gurgaon, where six cousins discover startling gifts – a toddler can bring her childish doodles to life while her older cousin can play music that causes metal to materialise out of thin air.

Another Hachette India book, the Taranauts series by Roopa Pai, focuses a fictional universe called Mithya, where three kids have to find the 32 stars that light their eight planets. All of them of course have their own set of superpowers. Vatsala Kaul-Banerjee, editorial director for children’s and reference books at Hachette India, said, “Both [books] deal with how ordinary young people come to terms with their own extraor-dinary powers, and learn that powers work effectively and with more impact when they work as a team, and for the greater good.”

The Taranauts series stands out as one of the few books with strong female protagonists – Zvala and Zarpa. The lone boy Tufan is the subject of some good-natured ribbing. But Zarpa and Zvala are the exception. Usually, girls use their special powers to help the superhero win. Shome-Ghosh said that it’s a shame that there are few female characters with powers, but pointed out that graphic novels often have strong girl protagonists.

All these books and movies have one common thread – they are about ordinary children who have powers but are still grappling with problems like acne or homework. “The creation of teen superheroes is a result of the popularity cult around these characters,” said Kaul-Banerjee. “What could appeal to a teenager more than reading about a character of a similar age group with similar growing pangs —only blessed with super powers!”

By Bijal Vachharajani on April 14 2011 

Just asking

Curiosity won’t kill the cat in Kyun Kyun Ladki

The why-why girl, Books, childrens play, kyun kyun ladki, bharatanatyam

“Why, what, when, where, how”. These words can most often be heard from two sets of people – journalists and children. While reporters use these words as a professional tool, for children asking questions is a way of exploring the world around them. Moyna, the protagonist of Mahasweta Devi’s book The Why-Why Girl, is an inquisitive tribal girl brimming with questions like “Why do I have to walk miles to the river for water?” and “Why shouldn’t I study too?” This summer, Moyna’s story will be adapted for the stage in a children’s play called Kyun Kyun Ladki.

Director Shaili Sathyu said that the play is an attempt to capture the basic human curiosity about the world. “A child’s capacity to question should be celebrated,” she said. “In fact, it’s a trait that’s becoming more and more undesired by parents who don’t want to engage in answering questions.” Sathyu pointed out that a lot of parents often stifle a child’s questions. “But if you don’t question, how do you evolve”, asked Sathyu, adding that she hoped parents watching the play would realise that they can enjoy this aspect of their child’s growth.

While the book’s story is firmly set in tribal land – the author had based the story on her work with tribal groups in Jharkhand and West Bengal – Sathyu has kept her play’s setting deliberately vague. “We are not harping about poverty,” said Sathyu. “Through Moyna, I am telling the story of all children.”

For the last few weeks, the actors have been training under Bharatnatyam dancer Hamsa Moily and learning how to blend mime with rhythm. Their actions will be set to music, which will be belted out by a live band on stage. “There will be flute, violin, percussion and vocal,” said Mithila Lad, the music composer, adding that they chose these instruments so that they could introduce kids to music beyond electronic sounds.

Sathyu’s group, Gillo Gilheri, has previously produced Suar Chala Space Ko, a nonsensical, delightful play that fused together science fiction, mime and shadow play. This time around, the audience can again expect mime, poetry and music but what they won’t get is a linear narrative. Apart from Moyna, the rest of the actors transform from playing children to adults to animals and even objects like a door frame. Sathyu, who is an education consultant at Akshara High School in Kandivali, said her work has made her realise that a child’s thought process is very nonlinear. “It’s beautiful how children think,” she said. “I wanted to challenge myself to capture that process.” While Sathyu is uncertain about the audience’s response to a nonlinear narrative, the one thing she is sure about is that the play will make children ask “What is the story?” Sathyu said, “To that, we’d be happy to ask back, ‘What did you see?’”

By Bijal Vachharajani on May 12 2011 6.30pm
Photo: Parikshit Rao