It’s all in the pictures

Siddhi Gupta

The first time I read folk stories I felt something was amiss. The characters were a bit different and there was no evil god mother or monster that had to be killed, and in some cases, there was no happily ever after either. Or at least there were no carriages that took off and no major battles won. I enjoyed this departure from (what I thought was) the obvious as I read different authors, almost never able to guess where the story was going and how it would end. This tryst with folk stories was sparked by an interest in understanding indigenous visual narratives. It was a constant to and fro between what the stories are and how they are represented.

It was the folk artist as the author and illustrator that I was most interested in, who brought their world of words and visuals together on a page. I often read these books multiple times, first a skim to get excited, the second time I read the words first and then observed the accompanying visuals, noticing how particular phrases were represented. And, often a third time, purely dedicated to appreciating the rich visuals, which felt as if they belonged in a museum.

As a visual arts educator, these voices often enter my classroom in different formats. Bhajju Shyam’s London Jungle Book is one of my favourites. Created as a response to his first trip to London, the book simultaneously introduces its readers to two worlds, literally and imaginatively. First, to London as experienced by the author, and second, to the author’s own world, where he lives. Through juxtapositions and contrasts drawn between the London bus, a fox, the earthworms, and the underground trains, all elements that exist in the real world, Bhajju creates a fantastical world that enchants its readers. In a classroom, this book becomes my way of encouraging students to observe their environments and life, to record their day-to-day and value their experiences. And above all, in engaging with Bhajju’s unique perspective, the students are inspired to respect their own, and they feel empowered to tell their own stories.

Another book that I deeply admire, published by the same publisher, Tara Books, is Sangita Jogi’s The Women I Could Be. Bright and energetic, Sangita’s words and visuals make you dance and sing, travel and cook, laugh and fly. The narration is bold and spaced out, interspersed with intricate visuals that can keep you engaged for hours. In the classroom, this book becomes a great tool to question stereotypes and reflect on their understanding of roles in the world. Sangita’s aspirations for herself become universal, collective, and shared as you unpack the pages with the class.

Bhuri Bai presents her life growing up as a visual narrative in Museum of Art and Photography’s (MAP) online exhibit called ‘My Life as an Artist’*. Simple yet evocative, the story doesn’t exaggerate or create any suspense or get into the details of each episode. When shared in a classroom, the students are attracted to the unique visual sensibility. They are curious about the ways in which trees, animals, humans, and objects are visualized, especially the dots! Bhuri Bai belongs to an adivasi community called the Bhils, and dots are a part of their collective visual vocabulary. Instead of sharing Bhil paintings without any context, Bhuri Bai’s narrative invites questions from the class, which leads to a dialogue. For a student going to an urban middle class school, a new dimension of the world is added to their imagination, painted by Bhuri Bai and her dots. As a follow-up activity, I often ask students to create a painting for Bhuri Bai as a response to her story and in most cases, these visuals are made with lots of dots! Without any instruction students relate and imbibe the form.

I often complement this introduction to Bhuri Bai with Nina Sabnani’s animation Hum chitra banate hain (We make images). Told playfully, the narrative follows the folk story of how Bhil began painting. The twinkling dots painted in bright colours pull you into the story’s world which is not very worldly, but magical. The dots come alive and every Bhil painting you see thereafter evokes the same jhilmil! The narrative sets the stage for us to look beyond what we know. It transports the students to another world, where anything is possible. Older students pick up cues about the context. Who are the Bhils, are they a matriarchal community? What is their relationship with animals and plants? What happened after this? Where do they live now? The visual narrative opens a Pandora’s box, which is often not possible to do with just text.

Manoranjan Chitrakar created an impactful story scroll as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic highlighting the precautionary actions expected from each individual. In a video^ capturing this visual narrative, he slowly opens the scroll frame by frame, accompanying it with a song. It has all the elements of a masterful performance: striking visuals, a catchy song, situated in a phenomenon felt by the whole world, contextualized to his visual and verbal vocabulary. Each element works individually and plays its part in bringing the whole performance together. The scroll is wordless, and yet it communicates all the information it is supposed to without the song. The song works on its own too, but sung with the scroll it captures all your senses. As we rely more and more on the written word, Manu’s song, reminds us of the rich oral storytelling traditions that are a significant part of our culture. Some directions in which the class progresses is to look at stories from our everyday lives and how they are communicated. Can there be new ways of presenting the news, what news is presented when, where and why, and so on.

While these are some of the visual narratives I rely on, I asked my colleagues about their intentions and experiences of bringing visual narratives by folk artists to the classroom and I received some insightful anecdotes. Alaka Kavallur shares, “In the words of GN Devy, the linguist, ‘Every language reveals a distinct perspective.’ Likewise, different visual languages capture varied perspectives and experiences. In the pages of Bhimayana, illustrated by Gond artists Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam, traditional folk art introduces profound layers of experience. Such artwork possesses the ability to offer fresh critical insights to viewers from entirely different backgrounds. Rooted in a holistic existence, their art mirrors abundant life experiences and perspectives, intricately conveyed through their adept craftsmanship and creative minds.”

According to Devangana Dash, “…bringing these materials inside the classroom is an attempt at listening to a language that is rich in its vocabulary of signs, motifs, and metaphors. I often rely on The London Jungle Book by Bhajju Shyam as a resource to share how one’s native language is a tool for sense-making and building empathy for another person’s experiences. In a visual journal approach, the author-illustrator takes us through his first foreign journey, introducing the reader to the motifs from Gond art. Books like these open up new ways of seeing and building a visual vocabulary that is beyond the dominant used language and holds space for interpretations.”

Sudebi Thakurata shares an experience where she had taken her students to the shadow puppeteer communities, Tholpavakoothu and Tholubommalata in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh to understand the many retellings of Ramayana. She shares how the multi-layered episodic narrative which is often associated primarily with a religion assumes multiple interpretations and different functions in these contexts. It is supposed to pass down intergenerational wisdom through the epic, not only in terms of the stories but the telling and the teller and their inter-relationships along with the modes and media of storytelling, the material, message, and meaning. Further, how it is not about religion but how the narratives and their forms of telling can metaphorically represent so many facets of our lives. She highlights that since the narrative is shared orally, visually, and through material, each generation is able to add a different meaning and interpretation to it, making it contemporary and contextual; making it timeless and ever-relevant. This creates space for dialogue and discourse to understand the connections between the tellings of Ramayana and how it becomes a way of meaning making, subversion, dissent, and a segue into understanding multiple perspectives, like a Dalit Ramayana, a Muslim Ramayana, a feminist Ramayana not feminist Ramayana in the 21st century but even in the 16th century, there are so many different tellings or retellings or versions of it and the whole politics of versions. Anchoring the experience in the visual narrative practise of the shadow puppets, stories take a critical turn as students question the politics of the authorship while learning about the telling through material and medium from these intergenerational artists. They further explore the politics of reducing an artform and artists from being a keeper and conveyer of meaning to a mere entertainer.

Literature classes in school chime between narratives and rules of grammar, vocabulary, classics, and so on. Building a world view often gets lost in this focus on being able to read, write, comprehend, and articulate. In learning how to respond; imagination and wonder sometimes take a back seat. Visual storytelling is not a new format in India, it is old and it varies across regions. We are lucky that we are able to access them today wherever we are and share them with our students as rich sources of learning. This also calls for an acknowledgement of the efforts of editors, publishers, museums, funders, animators, directors, researchers and their teams, the fruits of whose efforts these multimedia resources are. In this article I only scratch the surface of this huge repository. The indigenous visual narrative practices are special because they blur the boundaries between language, visuals, society, geography, and politics with ease and candour. In their specificity to context, they make space for students to reflect on their own environments and build agency to voice these reflections. I hope the readers will build on the few examples shared in this article and find their own favourite voices to bring into their classroom. Voices whose perspectives and stories will enhance how their students make meaning of the world around them, and are empowered to share these views with everyone.

*https://map-india.org/exhibition/bhuri-bai-my-life-as-an-artist/

^https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjum5OU_bOE

The author is a designer, educator and researcher working at the intersection of culture and communication. She currently teaches Visual Communication and Creative Education at Srishti Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology and regularly collaborates with JusticeAdda, Femlab.co and NalandaWay Foundation and can be reached at siddhi.gupta@manipal.edu.

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