An interview which appeared in the Deccan Herald of December 6, 2009
Anita & Amit Vachharajani are passionately involved with children’s literature, and the books by this writer-illustrator couple are proof of that. While Junagadh-born Amit went to the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad and later shifted to Mumbai to pursue a career in filmmaking, Mumbai-born Anita conducts writing workshops for children, helping them express themselves more freely. The couple, which has an enviable collection of children’s books at their home in Mumbai, has recently come up with Amazing India – A State-By-State Guide (Scholastic), a beautifully-illustrated book introducing all regions of the country in a style that will make them aware about India’s diversity in a fun way. The Vachharajanis spoke to Deccan Herald’s Utpal Borpujari on why it was important to bring out a book of this sort:
How did you conceive the idea for this book?
Scholastic USA had published a book called My World – A Country-by-country Guide, and our publisher, Scholastic India, felt that a similar book on India would be great. We began working on Amazing India about two-and-a-half years back. It’s a richly-illustrated description, covering everything from India’s forests and animals, to its peoples, arts, crafts, music, film-makers, poets, dancers, warriors and artists.
What were in your ‘do’ and ‘not to do’ lists while compiling the book considering that India has so much to offer?
What we did not want to do was give kids a book with a laundry list of facts that they would be tempted to memorise! We wanted to fill kids with the wonder of this large, complex land through an exciting and visually-rich book. We chose to present a mix of facts laced with humour, so that each child who looked at it – irrespective of his or her age and interests – would find it engaging.
How did you go about deciding what to include and what not to in the book?
For each state, we wanted some points on history, geography and ecology; some on monuments; some on people, arts, dance, music and craft; plus some facts and figures. We did focus a little more on ecology, because India’s animals, wetlands, forests, farms, rivers and mountains are all in grave danger. Of course, we kept it flexible – in Karnataka, for instance, we used the monuments built by powerful dynasties to tell the state’s story.
With every state having so much to offer, wasn’t it difficult to leave out quite a lot of info?
It’s incredible that in India, each region is so different from the other, and so full of its distinct species, land forms and cultural practices. Despite this, however, a lot of intermingling happened between the thoughts and practices of different peoples to create what we so easily call ‘Indian culture’ today. To give children a small but memorable peek into this wonderful complexity, we devoted two pages to each state, with a map, informative points, illustrations, a fact file and an arts and crafts section. Space was tight and it was really tough choosing what would go in.
How did you do the research? Did you make personal visits to the states or you relied on available information?
Ideally, we would have loved to experience every single thing we wrote about and drew, but given the wide scope of this book, that might have taken us a little over a lifetime to do. Researching it was like being back in school, but with the freedom to choose what we wanted to study! Once we spotted an interesting fact, the first step would be to cross-check it across different sources. Then we would go to the next step in the research, which was finding correct visual references.
How did you decide on the mix of the known and relatively unknown facts for the book?
We were constantly walking a fine line between what is obviously important and should go in, and what is well-known and so can be left out. We consciously chose to describe lesser-known or forgotten facts. While we did talk about known monuments like the Taj, Fatehpur Sikri, Meenakshi temple, the churches of Old Goa and Nek Chand’s Rock Garden, we also wrote about less-known things and places like the Living Root bridges of Meghalaya, the cave networks of Andhra Pradesh and Meghalaya, the Neolithic cave art of Kerala and Haryana’s Saketi Fossil Park, where four-horned giraffes and giant tortoises roamed millions of years ago.
The book also indirectly encourages the targeted young readers to explore more about each region. What is the idea behind this strategy?
The whole idea behind it was that kids should get tempted to go out and learn more about the places they live in and visit. We have the do-it-yourself scrapbook pages at the end so that kids can slip into an observational mode. Hopefully, when our readers travel after going through the book, they would know what to look out for and would want to preserve their memories!
The mix of words and visuals in the book is almost 50:50. How important is visuals in a book of this nature, especially when the target audience is young?
Any factual book without arresting visuals would be a drag because visuals ensure that a child is drawn in. Drawings were a great way to make the ideas concrete for children and to help them visualize what was written. Children have a pretty sharp instinct for art and visuals. So when they see good, hand-drawn-and-coloured illustrations, they are bound to feel engaged by them. That was why why Amit actually drew over 250 drawings for this book, instead of using photos or computer-generated art.
(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 06-12-2009)