Any intervention into the field of children’s reading in India must take into account the new investment in childhood that came following Independence. This included a major overhaul of the colonial education system, alongside initiatives such as the Children’s Book Trust, National Book Trust, Nehru Bal Pustakalayas and Bal Bhavans. Several key literary figures and artists were part of this endeavour, and a substantial number of remarkable children’s books were published. Popular initiatives such as the Amar Chitra Katha comics series also participated in this enterprise. Yet more than 50 years later, it comes as a shock to find, in book after book that came out of these projects, both protagonist and audience so obviously elite and upper caste. It took the women’s movement and activists raising questions of caste and religious community for the public to realise how systemic, and how related to the nature of power and authority, these representations were.
In India, children’s reading materials were long (and continue to be) addressed to an urban, middle- and upper-caste child in ways that reflected his or her economic resources, family relationships, beliefs, school experiences, food habits and language. They recorded and endorsed the world, the sensibility and the authority of this child, resulting in a self-assured hold over the world that was later a key enabling factor in such children’s success. Other children, however, were not provided with such psychic support. In such books we hardly ever found a child who had come to school hungry and sits there dreaming about food, for instance, or one who had to scheme in order to acquire books for class. Children from different contexts sometimes did find a place in these stories, but were generally forced to establish their ‘smartness’. A tribal boy, for instance, needed to establish that his knowledge of the forest can be valuable for his urban, middle-class classmates; a disabled girl must excel as a craftsperson. Even in the case of middle-class children, only a restricted set of situations were generally admissible, thus glossing over the fact that children often lead complex lives. We rarely encountered a child whose mother was depressed or one who was coping with a death in the family – such children lived with the knowledge that they must anxiously guard such secrets.
Recently, the Andhra Pradesh-based Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies did a study in a few government schools in and around Hyderabad, and found a disabling gap between children’s home life and the assumptions on which school culture was built. Most of the children who attended these schools shouldered responsibilities in their families, and contributed towards their economic survival; these children’s sense of worth was positively constituted through the role they played. Yet such lives had no legitimate space in the education system. In fact, set against this dominant culture, these childhoods could only appear as deficient, deprived of play, pleasure and parental guidance. Children often dropped out because the school remained a forbidding place, identified not only with abuse from upper-caste teachers but also with the absence of recognition and endorsement of themselves or their home lives.
The dominant idea of ‘childhood’ is today so firmly entrenched in most people’s minds that it is difficult to imagine it as historical. Yet around the world, this naturalised idea emerged as a separate entity only around the mid-17th century, as a result of key shifts associated with modernity. Up to that period, there was no ideological separation of the categories ‘child’ and ‘adult’. A child was simply a small adult, an apprentice rather than a full-fledged worker. In the absence of this distinction, it was impossible to publish books for a non-existent audience. With the philosophical focus on the child associated with the European thinkers John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others, a paradigm shift took place, suddenly rendering possible a branch of writing for children. From its very beginnings, children’s literature has thus assumed the responsibility of moulding a ‘national child’ and, in the process, has taken on a subtly disciplinary and more obviously normative form. The result, however, is the marginalisation of non-normative childhoods.
Different Tales, a series of children’s books developed in recent years by Anveshi (including by the writers of this piece), tries to find images and stories that mirror and dignify the marginalised childhoods of the majority of Indian children. (This first phase features books in Telugu and Malayalam, translated also into English, with the plan being to extend gradually into other Indian languages.) The stories explore conflict without pushing for secular-national or other established universalist resolutions, and mark a subtle shift from the norm as they validate the worlds of non-mainstream children. In contrast to mainstream representations of childhood as a period of innocence and vulnerability that is marked off from the adult world of responsibility and work, in these stories children take pride in working alongside other family members. Even the toys they devise and the games they play rehearse everyday routines and exceptional events of agricultural life and community living. While most of the existing children’s books address the middle-class, upper-caste child, these books speak from within other worlds.
For instance, “Braveheart Badeyya” is a story about the only boy from a Madiga (the largest of Andhra’s Dalit castes) village to go to school. He is the pride of his community, yet in school he is made to sit in the last row so that he does not ‘pollute’ the other students. After only a brief reference to this, however, the story quickly moves into his Dalit world to focus on the nurturing relationship between him and his community – one that teaches him skills of everyday living and gives him the strength to respond to injustice in a novel and creative way. Another story deals with the sensitive and growing friendship between young Anu and the local madman, who has a fetish for sackcloth. Anu’s family is struggling to cope with the death of her sister; her mother lies in bed all day, and her father has taken to drinking daily. Despite the difficulties, however, both parents and daughter find ways of connecting and caring, and they are not presented as a dysfunctional family. Unlike others who treat her as an object of pity, the sackclothman helps Anu to deal with grief.
A third story, “My Friend the Emperor”, takes the reader into the world of Adil, the only Muslim student in his class. He feels uncomfortably implicated by the teacher’s gaze during a history lesson on the legendary battle between Babur and Rana Sanga. So, he wanders into the garden of the mosque, where he meets Babur himself on a visit from history. “Hundreds of years, people, events – history! And still we ask, who was braver?” the emperor says to Adil. “We should ask – why does it matter?”
Delight, instruction, ideology
For these works, devising illustrations that could both engage and depict the non-mainstream child was more of a challenge than originally anticipated – after all, artists are typically trained to go beyond clichéd representation. But how, exactly, are these non-normative childhoods to be understood visually? The starting point was an investigation into the history of illustration for children. John Newbery, the pioneering 18th-century British publisher, introduced two features that have had much influence upon later publications of children’s books: first, the twin emphases of ‘delight’ and ‘instruction’, and second, the practice of illustration. Newbury’s approach was also rooted in the European philosophical discussions of his time, including as set forth by Locke.
It quickly became clear to the artists involved that it would be impossible to devise books for children that could simply escape a pedagogical orientation, to instead focus on play and enjoyment. This was particularly so because childhood from the the outset had been constructed as a site of ignorance of the world and of society, and that this could be rectified by knowledge imparted through training. Indeed, books for children were always part of this political apparatus, with ‘delight’ as the mode through which such knowledge was offered. Illustration, performing functions of both instruction and delight, could not be extricated from the task of pedagogy: It was not a mere embellishment to the text, but a part of an ideological structure.
With this insight, the Different Tales discussion moved to an analysis and critique of existing children’s illustrations. The artists looked at a wide range of illustrations, both from India and abroad, to try and understand the manner in which illustrations reinforced stereotypes and normativity. Much of the dialogue centred on the question of visual language and its relationship to the norm. For instance, artists looked at the choices in play in the ways in which African-American bodies had been represented, the visual language involved, the manner in which skin colour was rendered and so on. Another aspect that was discussed in detail was the relationship between the text and the image. The artist Chinnan, who illustrated “My Friend, the Emperor” for the series, spoke for the group when he said, “Illustrations, for me, mean unravelling the invisible spaces left by the text. The strategies of the visual may vary according to the subjects.” The artists figured out that it was in these ‘invisible spaces’ that illustrations could open up the text, offering possibilities and nuances that are ‘flattened’ by the text, while they could also close off and limit the potential of the text.
In addition, any illustration can only be read and, indeed, constructed against the visual repertoire that is already understood by the child. With regards to children between 10 and 15, it is important to respect the fact that they do not come to any illustration as blank slates; rather, they are already conversant with a range of visual languages, particularly the realism of film and television, commercial hoardings, advertisements, but also visual representations of print media together with calendar art. Also, in some contexts children are familiar with the language of folk art, both in the urban and rural context. With this logic, it seemed useful to try to ‘bounce’ whatever visuals were devised off of this already existing repertoire.
A look at the image from the story “Textbook” (see pic), for instance, will show the central figure trudging to school with a bag and umbrella. There is no particular mark that indicates that the child is Muslim. Instead, it is only by exploring his landscape’s details – mosque, school, grandmother rolling bidis, friends and siblings – that the viewer makes assumptions about this figure. The realist language familiarises what is a less common image: a Muslim boy whose world is constituted equally by the stories told by his grandmother, experiences at school, prayer, play. The local flavour of the buildings, the trees and plants in the picture, subtly suggest the central role of region in creating this boy’s world. The image of Adil with Babar likewise underscores the importance of regional difference in practices of Muslim community life. Invoking a clearly archaic figure that references the Baburnama (Babur’s memoirs), and contrasting it with the modern boy, the image introduces the idea of a community that might draw on history but is very much located in contemporary time. The figure of Babur carries Mughal paraphernalia, and the bond between man and boy is familial, secular – a new image of the scope of secularism itself.
Over the years of this project, it has become particularly clear that the concept and metaphor of inclusion is inadequate to address issues of marginalisation in India today. Equality and self-respect of minorities requires a rearrangement of the way that the ‘life worlds’ themselves are imagined – a process that involves a critical pulling-away from old certainties. It suggests new frameworks in which we can think about the challenge of education in a plural world, but it also involves the creation of new narrative fragments, new figures, new settings and new dramas – ultimately, a new structure of feeling and knowing, a new idiom of speech. These are radical tasks. Yet they are neccessary tasks for a contemporary aesthetic.
~ Deeptha Achar teaches English at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda and Deepa Sreenivas is with Anveshi, the Research Centre for Women’s Studies in Hyderabad (Deccan).