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Finding pride in the familiar

Illustrators Nina Sabnani and Durgabai Vyam explore the art and craft of indigenous India — from digna to embroidered saris — to create stories with a global resonance


My Mother's Sari

In August, an art fair awarded a blue ribbon to an A.I.-generated picture. A month later, The New Yorker published a poem about cryptocurrency. The poet? An A.I. known as code-davinci-002. As someone who writes children’s books, I think about the rise of A.I-generated picture books, and what that might mean for the humans who create them. But, as I pore over the exquisite books illustrated by Nina Sabnani and Durgabai Vyam, I wonder if an A.I. will ever be able to replicate the years of artistry and soul they bring to their work.


I consider both Sabnani and Vyam, artists who have transformed my understanding of storytelling, to be trailblazers in their own right. While Vyam was one of the first women artists from her community to step outside the confines of her home to become an artist, Sabnani was instrumental in setting up the National Institute of Design’s animation programme in Ahmedabad.


For over 15 years, they have created thought-provoking books around themes like gender, caste, and acceptance. And, while they have very diverse backgrounds and journeys, artistically, Sabnani and Vyam have introduced a generation of young readers to Indian folk and tribal art through their work.


Wall art to animation


Born in Gujarat to a textile family, 66-year-old Sabnani was not interested in art or drawing as a child. But, her nose was always stuck in a book, she tells me during an interview on Zoom. She was all set to pursue medicine when a friend who was studying fine arts invited her to visit her studio in Vadodara. “I couldn’t quite believe that one could get a degree from drawing, sculpting, and painting. I decided on the spot that I would take up fine arts.” She went on to get her degree from MS University, Vadodara, and later joined NID where she was one of the first few animation film students.


Vyam was born in Barbaspur village in Madhya Pradesh. Over a telephone interview, the 49-year-old tells me that her education in art began at a very young age at the feet of her mother. “I learned digna from her. It is an art form that uses geometric patterns made with natural colours to decorate the walls of homes during festivals and weddings.” Her daughter Roshni, also an artist, is translating from Gondi to English for me.


At the early age of 13, she was married to Subhash Vyam, who is now her collaborator on many artistic projects. The couple moved to Bhopal where their uncle, the late Jangarh Singh Shyam, the force behind the modern Pardhan Gond art movement, took them under his wing. “He gave me papers, canvas, and acrylic paint, and told me to try working with them,” Vyam recalls. After her paintings began to get noticed, she was invited to participate in workshops and exhibitions at Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal. But, it was her illustrations for Chakmak magazine that caught the eye of publishers Tara Books and Katha.


I remember my first copy of Mai and Her Friends (Katha), the story of a cow that gets lost in a thunderstorm only to be rescued by a group of unlikely heroes. The Gond style was something I had seen as a child, trailing behind my mother as she attended Crafts Council exhibitions. To view them in the pages of a picture book felt surprising, yet reassuringly familiar.


When even saris tell a story

Sabnani’s foray into animation was rife with resistance — from herself! “I wasn’t interested in animation at all,” she says. “I thought it was all about Disney films and shrieky princesses.” But a UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) scholarship allowed her to travel across Europe learning from greats in the field like Roger Noakes. “He was the one who told me to draw from India’s own indigenous art forms.”


She recalls it was her film, All About Nothing, which looked at how the zero came to be used in mathematical calculations, that brought her into the world of children’s books. “Radhika Menon of Tulika Books asked if I would turn the film into a book for children. I was hesitant, as I knew nothing about picture book making, but she insisted,” says Sabnani. It was the start of a long partnership between her and Menon, resulting in a vast body of work that won her The Big Little Book Award in 2018. A body of work that includes books like My Mother’s Sari, a book that has always been special for me.


Made with author Sandhya Rao, the illustrations have been created using photographs of saris — each borrowed from a loved one — and acrylics. During the COVID lockdown, I had found myself wearing my mother’s simple cotton saris as a way to comfort myself, and Sabnani’s art beautifully captures the succour this can provide.


Vyam’s own collaborations with Tara Books and Navayana have resulted in powerful books like Sultana’s Dream,a reimagining of the 20th century feminist classic by Rokheya Sakhawat Hossain, and The Secret Life of Trees, for which she won the prestigious Bologna Ragazzi award with co-creators Bhajju Shyam and Ramsingh Urveti. Her illustrations for Bhimayana,a landmark graphic novel about the life of Bhimrao Ambedkar, will always stay with me. Written by S. Anand and Srividya Natarajan, it is unlike other graphic novels in form.


The artists — Vyam collaborated with her husband and daughter for the first time — use digna to make the panels of the book. To fully comprehend just how sophisticated their visual language is, one must pay attention to the different kinds of speech and thought bubbles used: one representing inner thoughts, and another resembling a scorpion’s tail to show the stinging words of those who continue to propagate the caste system.


Why A.I. will not match up

Mukand and Riaz

The act of collaborating for picture books is something that I’ve always been interested in, and I learn that one of my favourite books of Sabnani’s, Mukand and Riaz, came out of one too. “It’s my father’s own story,” she tells me, about this tale of friendship during the Partition. “He never spoke of the Partition until the year before he died. He was unwell, and the sharing of this story was therapeutic for both of us.”


I’ve always wanted to know why Sabnani used embroidered fabric scraps to recount it. “Cloth, like memories, fades over time, but is also wonderfully resilient,” she replies. It is a tribute to her father and his work in textiles, and amongst the fabric used are scraps of material from his old shirts. She worked with a group of refugee women artisans who embroidered the material. “When we showed them the film, they nudged each other, saying, ‘Look, your piece is there’,” Sabnani remembers.


It has been a few years since Vyam worked on a children’s book, turning her energy to other artistic endeavours. In 2018, the Padma Shri-awardee and her husband created Dus Motin Kanya Aur Jal Devata, one of four Infra-Projects at the Kochi-Muziri Biennale. Painted on marine plywood and then mounted along the walls and pillars of the exhibition area, their work narrated a traditional Gond folklore. The couple is currently working on a 200-foot tall installation that will be displayed at the State Museum of Tribal and Folk Art in Khajuraho.


My conversations with both these artists left me feeling buoyant and energised about my own work as a children’s book author. Perhaps A.I.-generated picture books will be a thing of the near-future. But to me, those won’t come close to those created with care and passion by Sabnani and Vyam. The lives and imaginations of our children are so much richer thanks to artists like them.

I wasn’t interested in animation at all. Roger Noakes was the one who told me that I needn’t look to Disney for inspiration, but to draw from India’s own indigenous art forms. — Nina Sabnani


The writer MENAKA RAMAN is a children's book author (Loki Takes Guard) and columnist based in Bengaluru.


Originally appeared in The Hindu Sunday Magazine on 13 November 2022 as part of a series on children’s books illustrators and their quintessentially Indian art.


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