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AISHWARYA  SUBRAMANIAN
LEFT OF COOL

Left of Cool abandons the respectable and the popular, and turns its gaze to the odd and wonderful.

Elephants & feminism in children’s books

ot so long ago" a King decides that he wants to know the weight of his pet elephant. Unfortunately, the kingdom doesn't have the necessary elephant-weighing technology in place, and no one is entirely sure what to do. Various groups of people try to work it out — fruit sellers and jewellers find their weighing machines inadequate while the rope makers who try to rig up some sort of pulley system find that their ropes just aren't strong enough. Bureaucrats and scientists fail. Finally a little girl comes up with the solution — to put the elephant in a boat and measure the change in water level, fill the boat with stones until the same effect was achieved, and then weigh the stones.

It's a story many of us will have come across before in some form or the other. Geeta Dharmarajan's version How to Weigh an Elephant, illustrated by Wen Hsu, names the little girl Lilavati and in doing so opens up the possibility that this is the historical Lilavati, the daughter of Bhaskaracharya to whom his Lilavati is addressed. History doesn't tell us whether Lilavati herself grew up to be a mathematician, but she has often been adopted as a symbol for women in science in India — a 2008 anthology about Indian women scientists is titled Lilavati's Daughters, for example. Dharmarajan's book ends with a section on neglected Indian women scientists as well, signalling clearly that it sees books like this one as having an important social role to play.

Both Dharmarajan and Mandana’s texts are helped by some gorgeous illustrations. Wen Hsu’s work won a Katha Chitrakala award in 2011 and uses cut paper and unlikely colours to great effect (and great adorableness). Nayantara Surendranath restricts herself to a more limited palette of browns and creams and pinks with the occasional bolt of blue.

he "twins" in the title of Kavitha Mandana and Nayantara Surendranath's A Pair of Twins share neither parents nor a species but they do share a birthday. (Human) Sundari is born on the same day as (elephant) Lakshmi, into a family of mahouts. The two babies form a lasting friendship and Sundari often pretends to be a mahout on Lakshmi's back — but in secret, because being a mahout is a job for a man. Until the Dussehra procession, when the usual elephant is unwell and only Lakshmi can take his place; with Sundari on her back, of course. A Pair of Twins is "about" gender in ways that How to Weigh an Elephant is not; a longer text for slightly older children, it addresses the harm to both masculine and feminine stereotypes. Sundari's brother would rather be a musician than a mahout, Sundari would prefer not to have to dress up as a man in order to do the job she has finally been allowed to do.

Both Dharmarajan and Mandana's texts are helped by some gorgeous illustrations. Wen Hsu's work won a Katha Chitrakala award in 2011 and uses cut paper and unlikely colours to great effect (and great adorableness). Nayantara Surendranath restricts herself to a more limited palette of browns and creams and pinks with the occasional bolt of blue. Her art is full of detail: the lines on tree bark, the print on a piece of cloth, be it part of a dress, a curtain or a howdah. Where there are no details she adds them in so that plain surfaces become unlikely things of beauty. And the limited palette serves at least one important purpose; when Sundari, having won all her battles, shows up to take her place as the leader of the parade in a very feminine turquoise blue dancer's sari (turquoise is the book's word for it but it seems a pity not to use the vastly more appropriate "ferozi") the image bursts out from the page.

It's not clear whether elephants have anything to do with the fact that these two books for young readers are strongly feminist. It's tempting to come up with a theory; popular science suggests that elephant herds are largely matriarchal societies and this might have something to do with it. As with most things, the true answer probably lies in the fact that elephants are very cute, but that needn't stop us from speculating.

 
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