This book is for those who set out to draw the moon and end up with—an omelette, perhaps. But don’t lose hope and don’t rein in your imagination. For children, this book is an excellent illustration about not losing heart or curbing enthusiasm.
That’s How I See Things is the story of Siena Baba, an artist who sees things differently, written by a mountaineer who became an author. “I was just beginning my career, taking groups out into the Himalayas, when I bumped into the founder of Tara Publishing, Gita Wolf. Tara had just got going, and she had brought together a group of writers and artists to brainstorm and come up with new ideas for innovative books,” explains 32-year-old Sirish Rao, who wrote the book with Gond artist Bhajju Shyam.
Siena Baba paints some odd creatures. A half-pig and half-peacock becomes the Pea-Pig. Then there is the Croco-Rooster, the Blue-Jion and a Monk-Upine (figure these out for yourselves). Each of his creations has one complaint: Why should I be like this? Siena Baba’s next predicament is to find a house for his exotic pets. Finally, he decides that the best place to put them together is in a book.
So, what is imagination? Rao attempts to explain: “I suppose, in essence, imagination is that which the senses cannot perceive, but the mind can. It is something that does not exist in reality, but that can be brought to life in the minds of people, or works of literature, or art, or just in the act of storytelling.”
D is for deer-oise: Tara’s books use tribal artists from central India. (Bhajju Shyam)
And what is the best way to let the child’s imagination soar? Giving the child access to pure fantasy is one way, according to the author. Rao points to a passage in Antoine de St Exupéry’s The Little Prince, where he recalls a painting he did as a child—it looked like a big hat to all the adults around him but, to him, it was a boa constrictor that had swallowed an elephant!
What sets That’s How I See Things apart is the vibrant illustrations. It won The Sunday Times Best Book for Children Award in 2007. Shyam and Rao have collaborated on a couple of other books too.
Shyam’s first book was The London Jungle Book, a visual travelogue of his visit to London, where he went to paint murals for the interiors of an Indian restaurant. Both Wolf and Rao worked with him on that book. “Shyam’s (and the Gonds) work is a form of art that’s rich in metaphor and detail, which I think is perfect for a story on art and the imagination,” says Rao, who hopes that there is a Siena Baba in each one of us. “I think Siena Baba’s voice pipes up in all of us—softer or louder, as the case may be, from time to time. I think listening to that voice a bit more makes all the difference.”
By Sirish Rao & Bhajju Shyam, Tara Publishing, 32 pages, Rs350.
That’s How I See Things wasn’t written first. The paintings came first. Shyam sent Rao a whole bunch of drawings of strange animals. “I sat there wondering what story to give them. Then it struck me that the situation I was in could well be the story itself. So, I wrote the story of an artist (Bhajju drew Siena Baba later) who creates a whole bunch of animals, and then has to put them somewhere. And, like me, he puts them in a book. I guess I wanted to show that anything can happen in a book, and celebrate the book as a place where imagination can be untied,” says Rao, whose first books were Leaf Life and a young adult novel called Real Men Don’t Pick Primroses, a humorous take on mountaineering.
The author’s mother, Seetha, a Coorgi, is a swimming champion of the over 55s, and father, Arun— a “cocktail of Mangalorean, Scottish and Burmese blood”—still goes climbing once a year. But he finds the world of books an exciting and all-consuming one.
(The writer is the editor of Heek, (e-heek.com), a children’s magazine. ) Write to firstname.lastname@example.org