Reading has to be an end in itself

Chintan Girish Modi

Amrita Sher-Gil: Rebel with a Paintbrush, written by Anita Vachharajani and illustrated by Kalyani Ganapathy, is one of the most gorgeous biographies I have seen and read. Published in 2018 by HarperCollins, this book introduces children to the life and work of painter Amrita Sher-Gil, a woman of Indian and Hungarian heritage. She was born in 1913, and died in 1941; during this brief lifetime, she created some magnificent work that continues to be fondly remembered.

This book could serve as a precious resource for art teachers who want to give their students a glimpse of her artistic journey, and also reflect on their own pedagogical approach. The author informs readers that as a child, the artist used to resent correction and interference with her work; she liked to draw and paint by herself without being given suggestions about which colours to use. This need for autonomy can be distressing for teachers who expect compliance.

Friends or relatives who wanted to bring her a gift did not have to think too hard. Everyone knew that she loved receiving paint boxes, drawing paper, coloured pencils and picture books. Such details make the book relatable and interesting for young readers. She does not seem like a famous personality resurrected from the past but someone who was very much like them. Art teachers can take a leaf from this book and tell stories about the childhood experiences of other famous artists.

The biography also acquaints readers with the personal experiences, historical events, social circumstances and geographical settings that had an impact on the artist’s mind and style. She benefited from travel and training, and from close interactions with poets, musicians, scholars and actors. This was possible because her mother was an opera singer and her father was a scholar. They were always surrounded by people involved in various art forms.

Once every two years, the International Board on Books for Young People publishes the IBBY Honour List with a selection of outstanding, recently published children’s books from IBBY member countries. It honours writers, illustrators and translators from all over the world. Amrita Sher-Gil: Rebel with a Paintbrush has made it to the IBBY Honour List 2020 in the writing category from India. On this special occasion, we bring you an interview with author Anita Vachharajani.

Question: How do you feel about having your book Amrita Sher-Gil: Rebel with a Paintbrush included in the IBBY Honour List?
Answer: I am absolutely delighted! This is because only one book from the entire country gets recommended in the writing category every two years. Given the high standard of children’s literature being created in India these days, I feel lucky and honoured to have my book chosen. For me, the most delightful part is that my book gets to permanently be on the shelves of seven international libraries in cities like Munich, Zurich, Bratislava, St. Petersburg, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur and Tucson.

What were the exciting and excruciating parts of working on this book?
I have no training in art, so discovering and learning about art and art movements that influenced Amrita was exciting. I was also a bad student in school and had no clear memory of world events. Revisiting historical events to give this story a sense of time and structure was a great opportunity for me.

The most excruciating part was ensuring that we had permissions to use each and every image that is there in the book. That meant not only seeking permissions for each of Amrita’s paintings, but also for each of the paintings we used as references for the background art history. When I described Vincent Van Gogh’s influence on Amrita, I could carry a small image of his painting too. But ensuring that we got permission for each painting, and followed each museum’s processes in doing so was challenging. Luckily, most international museums like The Metropolitan Museum of Art and others have very kindly made a part of their collections free to use in a smaller format – with due citations.

Amrita Sher-Gil: Rebel with a Paintbrush is like walking through a museum. Could you please share with our readers the kind of archival work this involved?
The more I read about Amrita’s life, the more I found myself stumbling on the art history references and technical terms. I had to look up and understand each movement, and then look at paintings belonging to that movement. I wanted to shorten that process and give my young readers an immediate reference within the book itself. That’s the reason why there is so much art in the book – apart from 40 of Amrita’s own paintings. I have to thank my publishers, HarperCollins India, for wholeheartedly supporting me in this attempt.

The other thing I grew conscious of is how much world events impact our tiny, individual lives. I saw this in how Amrita’s family was not allowed to return to India from Hungary because her father had written some articles for the Ghadar Party’s magazine that critiqued British economic policies in India. I found myself including notes on history that were pertinent to her life as well.

I felt that we could layer the book and create something unique if we set our minds to it! I didn’t want to simply say that ‘Amrita loved Indian miniature paintings and was influenced by them’. I wanted to give a bit of a context about these paintings, so that readers could get a sense of their long history, the variations across the country in their styles, and see visual examples as well.

Why did you decide to have a ‘How to Read this Book’ section at the beginning of your book? How have readers responded to it?
It is a layered book. It has Amrita’s story, her paintings, Kalyani’s illustrations, some photographs, bits of world history and notes on art movements – a total of five elements. We felt we had organized this well, after taking many responses from readers during the designing stage. However, to make sure that no one gets confused, we decided to have a how-do-you-read-this section before readers go into the book itself. We felt that, if it’s at the beginning, readers know it’s there, so if they don’t read it but later feel confused, they can always come back to the page at the beginning of the book. I know that readers seem to love the book and the multiple things it covers, and I do hope we’ve done a good job in keeping things clear.

What makes Amrita Sher-Gil an artist that children in India should know about?
What I admired the most about Amrita was how seriously she took art. She was brave in that she had a vision for art and was determined to pursue its execution. She was ready – perhaps with the heady confidence of youth – to even antagonize people in order to educate them in what she believed was good art. Her courage as a student, an artist, a woman and an individual, is what I want to highlight to children. And her determination to push herself to work harder, to learn more and more.

How did the process of working on this book affect your own ideas about art and art education?
We tend to present artists or thinkers or writers or scientists to our children as ‘givens’. It’s like we are saying, ‘This person was a great artist. And you have to accept that because I say so.’ But rarely do we pause to show or tell children what experiences, thoughts, failures, events and influences went into making the whole of the person.

I think it is important to present people not as monoliths, but as individuals made up of different experiences and parts. I would rather show the person’s journey and leave the assessment of the greatness or otherwise to my readers’ own opinions or analysis. I feel that that would be a more humane way of talking about people – as mixed bags rather than as pillars of ‘greatness’.

We tend to educate in silos – this is art, this is history, this is science, this is geography. Actually, lived experience shows us that all of life is interwoven. This can be great when humanity works together as we see with medical advancements, or it can be terrifying and paralyzing as we are witnessing with the pandemic.

We need to teach kids that ecological destruction can and does impact humans as well, that human rights abuses affect us all, or that technology can impact our mental health – these are all related issues, and are not separate events.

Since you were writing a children’s book about an artist whose life choices challenge conventional notions about respectability, morality and sexuality, how challenging was it to stay true to who and how she was while addressing your target audience?
Because my reading was random and extensive, I had read a lot of salacious gossip about Amrita along the way. After a point, her lifestyle choices stopped mattering to me. I felt that, whether she slept with lots of men or with one woman, or with no one, honestly, it should not be a big deal to me simply because it was not a big deal to her. To me, Amrita’s romantic relationships seemed almost like an interesting sidebar to her life. Her main focus seemed always on her art and her personal growth. I found this refreshing. Honestly, I felt that her sexuality was an integral part of Amrita’s being, but Amrita was about more than just her sexuality!

In the beginning, I fretted about how to write about her sexuality in a book for young readers. Then I realized that I could showcase and describe other aspects of her life which seemed equally important to her – her practice, her dedication to her craft, her painting, her writing, her music, her friendships. If I were writing about a male artist, would his sexuality be so important to me? Probably not. Then why was it so important that I engage with hers? This was a question I kept asking myself as I went along. Is the lens we use to view female artists different from the one we use to view male artists? Amrita led a feminist life, full of her own agency. To be really true to her, would be to celebrate that agency she had. That’s what I felt at least!

Yes, Amrita played Bridge, danced and had love affairs, but she also worked very, very hard. She died at 28, and from the ages of say 17-18 years through to 28, she left us with 175 beautiful canvases. She wrote articles on art, she wrote long letters to friends, she maintained a diary, and she travelled extensively. For me, the bigger things are her determination and work ethic, and that is what I wanted to focus on.

Some choices I did make though – for example, I have not included any of her nude paintings in the book. Adults have the final say in what books come into the home or the school and I thought it made sense to not have nudes in there. There were so many other paintings of hers that I could use any way.

I think that people who make decisions, financial and otherwise, about the books children get to read are often more enthusiastic about stories with didactic intent rather than stories that encourage curiosity or critical thinking. What do you think of this?
I know! I notice this as a consumer as well – parents in bookstores, for example, looking at a book a child might have chosen will often ask, ‘But what will you learn from it?’ or ‘But what is the moral?’ or ‘You have so many books at home, finish those first’.

We need to understand that reading has to be an end in itself. It will broaden horizons and stretch the mind, but you cannot expect a ‘return on investment’ on the books you buy. No matter what the child chooses to read, the important question is, does he or she enjoy the experience of reading? That should be our main concern.

My way of making peace with it is to write books that are layered. While the book might serve up information, it should also – through the devices of art and language – emotionally engage and entertain the child.

If you could get a whole day with Amrita Sher-Gil, how would you like it to be?
I’ve often thought about this. What would I do if I could spend time with Amrita? I think I’d like to be a fly on the wall and just observe her so that I could put more of her in the book than I currently have!

The interviewer is a writer, educator and researcher. He can be reached at [email protected].

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