The Story of Indian Art

Ambika Shaligram
Tuesday, 10 April 2018

In the backdrop of World Art Day (April 15), we speak with Mamta Nainy, who has written a book that weaves in various forms, styles and works of painters, all adding to the richness of our cultural heritage

If you want to learn more about Indian art — ‘From cave to contemporary paintings’ and all that comes in between like Ajanta-Ellora murals, Mughal miniatures, Tanjore paintings, folk and tribal art, then A Brush with Indian Art, can be your guide.

Published by Puffin Books and written by Mamta Nainy, the book is intended for school kids, but has lessons and information nuggets that could impress the adults too.

Written simply and lucidly and illustrated wonderfully (Aniruddha Mukherjee), A Brush with... has also put together art works of masters and various styles that are still surviving in different parts of the country. 

Nainy, who is a consulting editor with Katha, takes us into the world of doodles, sketches, drawings and paintings...

Your bio mentions that you doodle. Can you tell us a little about your art background and the impetus for putting together this book?
Yes, I doodle — the kind of doodles only I find funny! As a child, I would often get an earful for finding an inviting canvas on the newly whitewashed walls of my house, or would be told off by my teachers for doodling in the class. But I survived all that, and here I’m still doodling and exploring art as a medium of self-expression. That’s precisely the reason why I chose to write this book. 

Art education in schools in India is sadly lacking. Though there are the usual drawing classes, art isn’t really explored as an important aspect of human language. More often than not, it becomes a colourful distraction, a ‘free-time’ activity for children, while the paucity of literature on Indian art for young readers doesn’t do much to remedy the situation. 

When I got introduced to Indian art during a course I took in Indian art history, I realised there are so many stories, so many ideas in there. And I felt a compelling need to liberate the thought process of children by exposing them to these stories, to the wealth of Indian art, and give them a more comprehensive and inclusive idea of it. It was also important to show them how any art form or idea changes and evolves over time — thereby encouraging them to think up ideas, explore them visually and bring their dreams, imaginations and stories to life! 

I started putting these stories together, which over the course of their journey into becoming a book, shape-shifted, assumed new forms, and have now come together as A Brush with Indian Art.

Given the vastness of the subject matter, how did you write it so concisely, without making it preachy?
I believe art history is not about dusty dates, arcane concepts or obscure schools and movements. It is the visual side of history, which can be extremely exciting to explore. During my discussions with the editors at Penguin, one thing we mutually agreed upon was that we wanted to create something that would make art accessible to children — something that they would want to bite into. We didn’t want to stick to mere facts, and so the facts were fleshed out into small stories, interesting anecdotes, funny trivia and information segments. 

For reasons of pace and space, we couldn’t have accommodated all artists and artworks in the history of Indian art in a single book — so we made an attempt to include those that tell a comprehensive story of Indian art based on the time they are set in and give the readers a good perspective of the arts in general.

Did you get any feedback from youngsters/children when you were working on the book?
Well, not as much as I’d have liked. But I did test out some portions of the text with the children in the family and what I heard from them was refreshingly honest — whether the desire to become an artist after listening to a story of an artist, or asking me if I can draw like Tagore or Nandalal Bose!

Tell us about your association with the illustrator, Aniruddha Mukherjee. How closely did you work with him in bringing out A Brush with Indian Art?
Since the book is about visual art history, illustrations are a very important part of the book. Right from the start, we knew we wanted the illustrations to create in young readers a deeper level of engagement with the text and to kindle the artistic flair in them; illustrations that would encourage children to pick up a pencil or two and dive right into the world of Indian art! 

And it obviously helped in having a wonderful illustrator in Aniruddha who, apart from having an extensive background in art history and practice, can work in multiple styles. We did work closely on choosing the portions we wanted illustrations for, so as to show the variety and richness of Indian art. I have to say Aniruddha’s illustrations leap out of the page to speak to their audience — I’m sure that will make the reading experience more alive for young readers.

Which artistic era resonates with you?
I think I’m most inspired by the artists of the Bengal School of Art, primarily by the works of Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee, Ramkinkar Baij and Rabindranath Tagore. 

I think what I find most interesting about these artists is that while they had similar concerns and shared issues about the kind of art that was being practised during their time; each one of them has explored these in an extremely distinct style. With their individualistic approach, they complemented rather than followed one another, and that’s what makes their works truly commendable.

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