Children’s book illustrators Kanato Jimo and Pankaj Saikia are bringing the Northeast to life with their stories

Moving away from fairy tales and legends, the duo shows children navigating mundane everyday issues

Moving away from fairy tales and legends, the duo shows children navigating mundane everyday issues

I don’t remember learning much about the Northeast in school. There may have been an indication that the contiguous states were called the Seven Sisters (eight now, including Sikkim). I may have been asked to locate iron ore mining in India and to draw a star near Meghalaya. This was him.

I didn’t think much about this until I became a parent and started reading about the role of diversity, representation, and inclusion in children’s books. Research paper published in 2014 in Journal of Applied Social Psychology It was reported that young people who read the Harry Potter series and got to know the main character were less likely to be prejudiced or prejudiced against minority groups. (Yes, one can see the irony here, considering the author’s own social media posts about the transgender community.)

It is important to remember that diverse and comprehensive books do not exist solely to form a majority mindset. Authentic representations of minority communities that transcend codes send an important message: that their stories matter. As a medium, picture books are ideally positioned to do so with humor, warmth, economy of words, sympathy and above all beauty.

true stories

It’s something illustrators Kanato Jimo and Pankaj Saikia do with self-confidence: create books in the Northeast that show children navigating ordinary issues: their first wiggling teeth, showing the new kid at school, playing pranks on each other. It should be noted that most of the children’s books prepared in the region were largely fairy tales or legends and there is little that depicts contemporary life.

While both feel the need to preserve folk and oral heritage, Saikia, 32, The context is important says: “Folklore retellings are often purged of the social and cultural information embedded in them so that they are more appropriate for children. Also, when children’s books are largely derived from folklore or mythology, we deprive children of the opportunity to read stories about their life experiences.”

Jimo, 39, admits this while working on a picture book with no words He told! (Pratam wrote) For his final year project at the National Institute of Design, his first ideas were centered around folk tales. “They are a huge part of our upbringing and culture,” he says. “But then, through discussions with other editors and illustrators, I began to think of more universal themes.” It is located in Nagaland, He told! It finally became a book about two brothers who go into mischief while their parents work abroad.

Since there are very few children from the area who appear as characters in the books, I wondered if Jimo and Saikia had seen themselves reflected in the books they read as children.

Jimo, who grew up in the small town of Zunheboto, several hours from Kohima, did not have a library at his school. “Most of what I read was borrowed from my siblings and from an informal distribution library among children in my city. We would read books and pass them on to others. This way I read chimeAnd the ghost and short classics like The Swiss Robinson family. “

local and global

Saikia, whose father was in the army, was constantly on the move before the family settled in Guwahati. He also had a library network with his cousins, and he fondly remembers Assamese children’s magazines dovetailed And the Akunir Agradot, which contained stories that captured life in a small town in Assam. “It was easy to see myself in those stories because everything was so familiar,” he says.

As we might imagine, they both loved drawing as a child: Jimo filled the back pages of his notebooks with doodles, and Saikia’s parents provided him with a constant supply of cheap drawing paper to keep his interest. Although they veered off to different paths as adults, where Jimo studied theology and the history of Saikia, both eventually returned to their childhood passion: painting.

What drew them to comic books though? As for Jimo, it was going through Oliver Jeffers How to catch a star While Saikia has always enjoyed telling stories through comics and illustrations. As picture book makers, they are both committed to creating stories with strong narrative appeal and approaching the process with curiosity. when working on He told! Jimo kept asking himself, “How much do I want to try to reflect my culture in this book?” He shares that he came to learn to focus on the story, not the setting, the place, or the underlying political message. “If you want to explore these things as a reader, that’s fine, but for the creator, the priority should be the story.” You can see how this thinking plays out He told! Where the reader is drawn to the drama of spontaneous haircut. The fact that it was placed in Nagaland seems accidental, as shown by the detail in the art: hand-woven modasAnd the jholas Hanging on hooks, shawls are worn in a framed picture.

Saikia, who has published four picture books so far, says it took nearly four years of trial and error and a few unpublished picture books to understand this medium. During the COVID-19 lockdown, he began experimenting with local storytelling rooted in everyday life. Saikia feels that children need to see their surroundings in what they read, and be able to relate to it.

growing up

This includes childhood difficulties as well. in When we are at home Written by Priyadarshini Gogoi and illustrated by Saikia (Pratham Books), two children displaced by floods remember their home through sensory memories: the smell of sesame betha And the copa flowers, and the sound of their father’s snore, and their mothers looming at work.

But my favorite book by Saikia is ghost theater, where a group of children walk through the lanes of their village at night to a local theater and a dance show called a bhuna. Every time I read ghost theaterI feel the same sadness as I watch it My friend Totoro by Miyazaki. Both offer a version of what childhood could and should be – in the open, in the company of friends and nature. Saikia acknowledges that some might say he was influenced by Miyazaki, but he also cites the work of painters Jean Giroud, Marjan Satrapi, and Dave Makian. “I keep coming back to McCain’s work because of his complex configurations,” he says.

As for Jimo, who has served as art director at Penguin Random House and Pratham Books, it is difficult to say exactly what his illustrative “style” is. “I tend to rely on the approach that will work best for the story rather than sticking to the signature style or medium,” he says.

While He told! Uses traditional paper, pencils, gouache and watercolors, in format I love gray (Pratam Books), uses shapes and a more coherent approach to striking effect. Jimo loves to experiment, drawing from his cultural roots and from the work of other painters he admires, such as Jon Klassen.

in Asamo! Is this you?He collaborated with artist Ogin Nayam to tell a story that fantastically subverts the metaphor of monsters in the dark. Armed with a torch, young Yamam searches for her friend Asamu in the dark. You have come across a number of monsters, including Pheicham from Mizoram and Titi-ribi from Arunachal Pradesh. “Many of these monsters only have names and no visual references, so we were free to explore how we could depict them,” Jimo shares. Here Linocuts and a palette of mainly yellow, red and black are used. “The decision to choose red and black was conscious, as the colors are used so powerfully across the Northeast in textiles and antiques.”

Read to find out

Does the “Northeast Photographer” sign carry any burdens, especially since these are eight different states with diverse cultures? Jimo is saddened by the way narratives of such diverse region are often grouped together as one or when one story is made representative of all. “But, as an artist, one has to put things in place so that there is more conversation and engagement.”

Saikia feel that creators from the region carry a certain cultural baggage and tend to fall back on pre-existing forms of narrative as a point of reference or inspiration. He adds that most of the visual material available to children hardly represents their time and place. Not to mention the underrepresentation of the Northeast in textbooks. Which is why it is even more urgent to highlight characters or stories in which children can see themselves.”

Sekia is right. In the 27 years since I last taught social sciences in school, it seems that little has been done to improve the representation of the Northeast in our textbooks. Citizen and state government-led efforts to correct this are well underway, and hopefully, it won’t take another two decades. Until that happens, we can take comfort in the fact that talented artists like Canato Jimo and Pankaj Saikia are filling these gaps with their art and imagination.

The second in a series of children’s book illustrators from across the country.

The writer is the author of a children’s bookLoki takes guard ) and a columnist in Bengaluru.

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