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How Subhadra Sengupta made history fun and cool for children

Children's writer Subhadra Sengupta, who died recently of covid, celebrated ordinary men and women from India's history in her endearing last book

The book looks at people, who enriched the sociocultural fabric of the subcontinent through the centuries. Illustrations: Tapas Guha, courtesy Penguin Random House India
The book looks at people, who enriched the sociocultural fabric of the subcontinent through the centuries. Illustrations: Tapas Guha, courtesy Penguin Random House India

Durga, a young girl in Pataliputra, who aspired to be the first lady vaid (healer), the son of a village temple priest who grows up to become the legendary singer Mian Tansen, and Padmalaya, who dances like a swan in the court of King Krishnadevaraya: such stories from the annals of history feature in Let’s Got Time Travelling, Again: Indians Through the Ages. These characters are from author Subhadra Sengupta’s last book for young readers, completed before she died of covid earlier this year.

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The first book in the Let's Go Time Travelling series looked at notable personalities and events, taking readers on a journey from the alleys of Harappa to Emperor Akbar's court. The new one is about ordinary citizens who did extraordinary things—craftspersons, poets, storytellers, dancers, playwrights, gardeners and cooks—people who enriched the sociocultural fabric of the subcontinent through the centuries.

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Told in Sengupta’s trademark style, full of “magic, wisdom, humour and essential humanism,” as her publisher Sohini Mitra puts it, the stories make history accessible to children. Sengupta covers a broad canvas and doesn’t hesitate from tackling difficult topics such as caste and religion. “In Western countries, artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci are celebrated, while in India, our artists have been forgotten with time—their art is not celebrated because of their caste,” she writes in a section devoted to the varnas.

Also read: A teen poet's lyrical take on the Mahabharata

This is not the first time that the Bal Sahitya Puraskar-winning author wrote about complex subjects for children. “In recent years, Sen Gupta moved on to modern Indian history, writing a stellar introduction to the Constitution of India, illustrated by Tapas Guha, which came out, coincidentally, as the protests against the controversial citizenship laws in India were gathering steam in 2019-20,” as an article in Mint Lounge pointed out.

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Told in Subhadra Sengupta’s trademark style, the book is full of magic, wisdom, humour and essential humanism. Image: courtesy Penguin Random House India
Told in Subhadra Sengupta’s trademark style, the book is full of magic, wisdom, humour and essential humanism. Image: courtesy Penguin Random House India

Also read: Beloved nursery rhymes get an Indian makeover

In this book, Sengupta weaves in and out of time periods, avoiding a linear chronological narrative. From myths about Rahu and Ketu, she moves on to the ancient Bakhshali manuscript, or the 70 scattered birch bark leaves written in Prakrit and discovered in 1881, which contained knowledge of fractions, square roots and arithmetic, to show how scientific temperament developed in India. She makes children the protagonists of the stories to make them appealing to the young readers. One delightful tale is about little Sita, a weaver’s daughter in Bengal, who wants to be featured in the design of a pallav of Baluchari sari.

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“The book was going to be nothing like the history textbooks that you have to study in school. It would have no kings or queens, no economic policy or battles. Best of all, I would ignore dates completely…,” writes Sengupta in the introduction. “When I showed my text to the illustrator Tapas Guha, he laughed and said, ‘You are being funny about history. So can I do cartoons?’”

Guha has been a long-time collaborator of Sengupta's, working with her on several books such as The Constitution of India for Children. His illustrations, together with Sengupta’s wit, encourage readers to take a lighter view of history. This is especially significant in today’s times when certain versions of history are considered sacrosanct, with no room for differing narratives. 

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“If the narrative is fun, people find it easier to read and assimilate history,” says Guha. He reminisces about the time when Sengupta would come over to discuss their books. “She was never interfering and left it to me to visualize the stories,” he adds.

Also read: The ghost in red and other spooky tales

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