Being born in the 1960s and 70s in a middle class family in India says something. Growing up was simple, safe and largely uneventful. The economy was moving very slowly and so were our lives. And the children’s literature that we could get hold of was but a reflection of that. It hardly allowed us to run our imagination wild or venture into strange escapades even in our dreams. Most of the books tried their best to keep our feet on the ground by rounding the stories up with tiresome morals. Stories centred around having pure fun, unchecked mischief or pure wonder were few to none. There were kings, queens and troubled princesses to be saved by the brave prince. So all the valour, virtue and wisdom were saved for them. Illustrations were also rare as they were either considered excesses (they added costs) or redundant as they never contributed to the underlying moral of the story as such.
It was around that time that Soviet children’s books translated into Indian regional languages were introduced to us, thanks to the friendship between India and USSR at the time. For us, it was a door that opened to a new magical world which was full of mischievous characters, different geographical zones (like thick Russian forests, Siberian snowscapes, etc.), and new ways of narrating the stories itself. These books were full of colourful illustrations, not just for supplementing the text, but to form the story. As young readers, we gorged on these books. As these books were also a small part of soviet propaganda, they were very cheap. Easy language, beautiful illustrations and engaging stories closer to a child’s heart made foreign characters like Dennis, Mikhail, Ivan and Sasha became our best friends.
One of the books which has stayed with me after so many years is “Picture Stories” by Nikolai Radlov published first published in USSR around the 1930s. Nikolai Radlov was a Russian and Soviet artist, art critic and a teacher. As an artist he was fond of satirical graphic art and experimented with many forms. Please find more information here. http://russia-ic.com/people/general/r/864. One thing is certain- the man knew about the power of visuals. Pictures never took a secondary role in his books. I read and reread “Picture Stories” as a child at least a hundred times. In fact, I don’t think the word “read” is appropriate to describe this book as one needs to experience it. It is a compilation of picture stories and small poems to accompany them. All the stories are of animals caught in very funny, yet mundane situations from daily life. They depict friendship, family relationships, pranks played on each other, ingenious ideas to overcome these conflicts and so on. Nikolai makes these animals don double hats, one for showcasing their individual animal characters, as well as for humanizing them to show our own follies in the most natural ways. So a simple hen or a porcupine is a doting mother, a small duckling is a pampered child, a kitten is a naughty kid and a mouse is an elderly and wise grandparent. You always ended up feeling that these animals are part of your family, and it made daily life more fun.
Unfortunately I lost my hard copy of the book a long time back and have been searching for it ever since. But I could download few of the stories online.
Each of these stories is accompanied by a two liner or a small poem. I read its translation in Marathi as “Chitrakatha” and it was great as well. As a child I enjoyed the stories, the humour and of course the pictures. It always brought a smile on my face every time I picked it up. Now when I see them again, I marvel at the simplicity of the stories and the pictures that kept me coming back again and again. If you don’t agree, try drawing a mother hen reprimanding her wandering chicks or a fish eager to outsmart others. Got my point?
What classifies a children’s story to be a classic? Is it the reflection of the time, or maybe the universality of its content, or their observations and dealings with basic human nature? You may take any of these as a test and this book always comes out with flying colours. So if you have a hard copy of the book, I implore you to preserve it as it is a worthy family treasure to pass down the generations.
Written by Prema Basargekar. May, 2020