Tejaswi Shivanand
EDI SHIKARI by By Girish Muguthihalli. Illustrations by Pooja Mugeraya Navakarnataka, 2023, 16 pp., INR 50.00
ANEGONDU DAARIby By Usha Kattemane. Illustrations by Sheena Devaiah Navakarnataka, 2023, 20 pp., INR 60.00
November 2023, volume 47, No 11

The twentieth century was led by various prominent writers, with some like GP Rajarathnam writing almost exclusively for children while literary giants like Kuvempu (KV Puttappa) also contributed occasionally with significant pieces. In the 1970s and beyond, various other significant names emerged in this field including Anupama Niranjana, Na D’Souza, HS Venkatesh, Bolwar Mahammad Kunhi, Nagesh Hegde, Nagraj Shetty and others who extended the themes from rhymes and moral stories to a contemporary approach with tales, poetry and plays involving children’s lives and landscapes being reflected in them in stories of adventure, mystery, science fiction and non-fiction related to the environment.
While illustrated books in Kannada have been part of NBT and CBT translations in the 1960s and beyond, the closest to picture books in Kannada were translations of some Russian picture books that appeared in the 1970s. The first series of picture books published in Kannada were translations available of Tulika books published in the 1990s. Since then, Tulika has continued to publish translations to which were added titles by Pratham in the 2000s. Well-known Kannada publishers such as Ankita Pustaka, Navakarnataka have also ventured into publishing translations of picture books supported by the Parag Initiative of Tata Trusts. Yellara Pustaka, a small indie publisher, must be credited with early attempts to publish board and picture books for children in the late 2010s. However, full-fledged, high-quality picture books with original Kannada writing were virtually unheard of until the publication of Edi Shikari by Girish Muguthihalli and illustrated by Pooja Mugeraya, and Anegondu Daari by Usha Kattemane and illustrated by Sheena Devaiah.
The narrative of both books is set in the rural, monsoon-drenched landscape of the Malnad of Karnataka, a region known for its rain, hills, lush vegetation and productive farmland. Edi Shikari opens with a description of the location, and we are introduced to the protagonist, a boy named Chinkra, his dwelling and life. The story is told in third person but with a sensitivity to Chinkra’s ways of engaging with the world and his responses to it. The main plot follows Chinkra, and his father hunting crabs in paddy fields. There is a detailed description of different types of crabs, their habits and habitats, and the process of hunting them is gone into with a sense of lightness and humour. Chinkra is depicted as being empathetic to the crab’s loss of life and limb while being curious and attentive to the details of the hunt. This observation reflects deep insight on the part of the author, who appears to instinctively know and inhabit a child’s mind with ease.
Anegondu Daari tackles human-elephant conflict with a young girl, Shalini, encountering elephants on her grandparents’ farm on the edge of a forest. The story begins with contrasting images of Shalini’s life in grey and brown of Bangalore and the green and blue of the Western Ghats. It progresses to touch upon the dynamic nature of human presence in the Western Ghats ranging from a scene where the girl observes protesters against dam building to her direct meeting with elephants. The entire attempt of the story is to encourage coexistence over conflict. Shalini helplessly but perceptively states that she doesn’t have a solution to the repeated incursions by elephants but urges the adults to recognize the old pathways of elephant movement that pre-date cultivation in that location. The story is very visual, but conversation plays an equally important role in taking it forward.
The illustrations by Pooja Mugeraya in Edi Shikari and Sheena Devaiah in Anegondu Daari capture the flavour of the landscape, and the essence of the stories in great detail. In Edi Shikari, the rich tones used to bring the monsoon skies, flooded fields, crabs as well as the emotions on the faces of the various figures are the highlights of Mugeraya’s style. The ability to select the right elements of the scene to not only bring the writing to life but also do a parallel storytelling mark her approach to illustrating this story. No detail escapes her: from the house located in a vast, variegated, green and blue landscape, each individual Mimosa flower that Chinkra plays with, the details of clothing the characters wear, the perspective of being inside a crab hole looking out, to the details of utensils in the kitchen, each page is rich and stands out to tell the story. Even in a story where hunting is involved, and described, the illustrations do not highlight any scene involving violence. Devaiah’s approach in Anegondu Daari with its slightly dreamy effect, is very effective in bringing out the landscape in the hills of the Western Ghats.
Considered together, the two books present the many complex shades of lived experiences in rural areas. Edi Shikari is a story where rural children can see themselves; their homes, their food, their language and their games, all find a place in the published book. The author has avoided falling into the trap of using this book as a space to teach language and has stuck to the language of a specific rural dialect while retaining simplicity in word usage for children. This makes for a refreshing change from writing for children that can be stilted or excessively formal. While wordplay in poetry (especially rhymes and even otherwise) and some prose can involve long words, there is often a notion prevailing that stories are primarily a vehicle to teach language. Stories should first be good tales that engage, entertain and cogitate, language will be learnt in the process.
Writers, particularly those from rural and marginalized backgrounds, should come forward with more such books in Kannada, illustrated by good artistrs who can imagine and support the process of co-creating the final picture book. Publishers should not hesitate to publish such stories anymore. If there is a fear of the lack of market, then they must remember that there are active, revitalized libraries in every gram panchayat in Karnataka. They run into thousands and can house these books. Thus, the books can potentially reach millions of children living in these landscapes who are waiting to see and hear themselves in stories written for them. There are teachers and parents in these rural and smaller urban centres who will appreciate these books for their worth. It might need a generation of investment in this area which has shrunk over the years, citing the cost of producing books in colour. It is commendable that Navakarnataka is stepping forward here to publish this book, joining Ankita Pustaka and Yellara Pustaka who have published in the past and others like Bahuroopi who are waiting in the wings to publish picture books in colour for children. I would say to all the writers, illustrators and publishers: join in this journey.