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Trisha Gupta
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Trisha Gupta is a Delhi-based writer and critic. Read more of her work on her blog Chhotahazri (trishagupta.blogspot.in)

Too graphic for grown-ups? Thoughts on pictures in books

ave you ever thought about what it means that we think picture books are for children? Clearly, it's not that we think pictures are for children: visual art in other forms, whether paintings or movies, is seen as perfectly grown-up. But somehow, when pictures enter a book, they become, in the eyes of most people who consider themselves "real" readers, a form of dumbing-down.

One reason for this sort of thinking is obvious. If books are meant to be about text, then anything that detracts from the serious business of words is an illegitimate interloper, that›s managed to sneak in without the permission of the Book Guards.

As the kid who never quite got why anyone should want to read comics when they could read real  books, I get that thought. And certainly, I agree that we respond differently to narrative when the only pictures we have access to are the ones in our heads. Images might hook you faster, but they also change the rhythm of your reading. Some people might only look at the pictures. Some look at the pictures first, and then go back to read the text. Some — like me — might race through the text (and wonder at there being less of it) before realising that sometimes, pictures demand a slowing-down — quite different from the swept-up feeling that can characterise a good story.

But if placing images alongside changes our experience of text, why is that necessarily a bad thing? Who decided that books have to be about text, anyway? And that art must only hang on a wall?

I started thinking these thoughts because of three stunning publications that came out recently from Tara Books, the Chennai-based independent publisher. All three are drawn by Indian folk artists, all women. In Drawing from the City, the Ahmedabad-based Teju Behan tells, in beautiful black and white pen-drawings, the tale of how she and her late husband Ganesh Bhai Jogi went from the village to the city, and how they became artists. In Hope is a Girl Selling Fruit (2013), the Mithila-style folk painter Amrita Das draws — and draws us into — meditations on her life, the life of a girl she sees on a train, the lives of women in India. The third book is Sultana's Dream, Rokheya Sakhawat Hussain's famous 1905-fable about a world where peace-loving women rule over men, is illustrated by the Gond artist Durga Bai. The text in these books is spare and simple, but it talks about serious things. The images, though, are what one lingers over. Like the albums in which the Mughal aristocracy housed their miniature paintings, this is art between the covers.

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And certainly, I agree that we respond differently to narrative when the only pictures we have access to are the ones in our heads. Images might hook you faster, but they also change the rhythm of your reading.

started to think about these things again on a recent trip to Germany, where six Indian editors and I had been sent to meet German publishers of graphic novels, young adult and children's books. Some entered these genres for somewhat instrumental reasons. Carl Hanser Verlag — publishers of Sophie's World — said their children's list first emerged because they wanted to stop their authors from taking their manuscripts for kids to other publishers. Similarly, the venerable Suhrkamp, known for publishing theory and literary heavyweights, started its graphic novel list partly as a way of keeping all versions of their great books. So they started with celebrated Austrian artist Mahler doing a graphic version of Thomas Bernhardt's novel Alte Meister (Great Masters), and a graphic interpretation of Robert Musil's mid-century novel The Man Without Qualities. But last year, they stopped playing safe like that: they brought out the graphic autobiography of Volker Reiche, veteran of the German comics scene. Also, publishing Mahler's Musil was a radical thing to do — turning Musil's dense, thousand-page classic into a fairly slender set of pages, with barely six sentences to a page, could easily be seen as sacrilege.

And really, one part of me agrees vociferously: how can reading Mahler be the same as reading Musil?

Other German publishers we met come from the opposite side. They have not, shall we say, had to readjust their reading glasses to see the pictures. Some of these are, like Mosaik, comic publishers first and foremost, their adventurous Abrafaxe threesome dating back to the East German 1950s. Others, like Reprodukt, are part of the coming of age of the German graphic novel. Their recent Kinderland, about a seventh grader before the Berlin Wall fell, has won awards and critical acclaim from the "serious" quarters of the press.

But it was at our last meeting, with the Frankfurt publishers Edition Buchergilde, that I saw the most imaginative responses to the text/image debate. Buchergilde has long published illustrated titles for adults, and they're unafraid to tap into our most childlike forms of wonder: I saw a truly remarkable edition of Patricia Highsmith's dark thriller, The Talented Mr. Ripley, with 3-D illustrations that need accompanying 3-D glasses. More recently, Buchergilde published Arthur Schnitzler's classic  Traumnovelle (Dream Novel, the origin of the film Eyes Wide Shut)in a graphic version. What's great is that Jakob Hinrichs' graphic version is an adaptation, and says so — but Buchergilde pleases everyone — and both aspects of everyone — by publishing the full original text as an appendix to the graphic novel.

If the Tara books I spoke of appeal to the thoughtful side of children, Buchergilde appeals to the playful desires of adults. And yet you could reverse that assumption about pictures just as easily: Hinrich's images can be pretty disturbing. Anyway, don't we all need both?

 
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