Would the term “Bengal School” mean anything to seven- to nine-year-olds? Would they feel any connection with Abanindranath Tagore, a critical figure in this art movement, born nearly 150 years before their time? Perhaps not, if explained through the prism of art history. However, if they were told stories from his childhood, of Jorasanko, the rambling mansion of the Tagores in Kolkata, they might want to know more.
Abanindranath’s House Of Stories, written by Likla Lall and illustrated by Eva Sanchez Gomez, seeks to make the life of this revolutionary Indian painter more relatable to children. The book is delightfully engaging, with projects and activities that draw in children (and their parents).
The first part is an immersive story of a young boy who was scared of the tricks that the massive Jorasanko, with its rattling windows and creaking floorboards, would play on him. Using the power of imagination, he started transforming fleeting shadows into story characters. Soon, the house, with its residents, employees and objects, became a backdrop for the stories his mind would weave. The first page contains little windows that open up to myriad imagery in the other sections, offering a peek into Tagore’s imagination.
The story is followed by two sections, one on paintings, the other on projects and activities. Children are introduced to some of his iconic paintings, such as Bharat Mata and Arabian Nights. The author and illustrator nudge you to notice small details and the feelings they evoke. One of the questions posed is: In the painting, what is Bharat Mata holding in her hands? And how would you interpret Bharat Mata?
The projects are derived from activities and pursuits Tagore held close to his heart. For instance, he loved to paint portraits of his family. So, children are prompted to do something similar with their own family members, collecting details about them and noting them down. Others encourage you to spin the creator wheel, containing prompts of emotions, colours that would help bring a character to life.
My favourite, however, is on the puppet jatra, or theatre. Tagore would create playful sculptures from pieces of driftwood, naming them “katum kutum”. The publishers ask children to list the things they have collected and look at them with a fresh eye to craft their own sculptures and create a jatra.
The book has been published by Art1st, an organisation that seeks to strengthen visual literacy among children and educators, as part of its Art Exploration series, together with the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and research partner Akar Prakar.
It would have been one thing to simply read about Tagore, it is quite another to follow his train of thought, understand his inspirations and influences, and then create something that contains a bit of him and a bit of you. Abanindranath Tagore would approve.