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Picture literature

Last updated: 13 February, 2010

Amplified Experience

In the literate world, the word triumphs over the image. Gita Wolf on merging pictures and words, and the ever intriguing world of storytelling.

Thought is impossible without an image
— Aristotle

When you look at a newspaper article — or an advertisement — what do you see first? The words or the image? And what do you remember later? If you are like most people, the odds are that the picture — the frozen moment or the carefully constructed image — will stay with you longer. Try to remember the caption or the ad copy that accompanied the image, and you will have a harder time. This is simply part of the human condition. Artistic  experiments: Moina Chitrakar with a typical scroll.We just happen to be more visually oriented: it’s possible for us to remember an astonishing 80 percent of what we see, but only around 30 percent of what we read.
Our visual predeliction is used astutely by the advertising industry and the media. But when it comes to books and literature, pictures (at least for the adult reader) are traditionally seen as mere supplements to the text. Literature has largely come to mean the written word. There is a long and complex history behind why this is so, but the fact remains that in the literate world, the word triumphs over the image. It is a hierarchy of communication that we are familiar with, and accept as a matter of common sense. So when we think about learning, we usually connect it to literacy. Education is the ability to read and write.

This is a pity, because an image has its own language and grammar, its own rich and particular way of approaching a subject. But as readers, we think of images, in some ways, as pre-literate signs. This may have to do with the fact that in human history, communication through images preceded writing by a long way.
The earliest true writing is dated around 3500 BCE, whereas the earliest cave paintings go back to 30,000 BCE. But even without knowing this for a fact, common sense takes it for granted that we advance from looking at pictures to reading texts. We have a tacit — largely unexamined — bias towards the written word. It tells us a lot about what we think literature should be.

This is most obvious when we consider children. In children’s literature, we assume that it is the very young child who enjoys picture books. The older a child gets, the more she is lead towards reading ‘proper’ books. Children typically graduate from the visual to the word. Seen another way, it is implicit that those who can read well will not spend too much time on a visual account of the same thing.

We forget that when a subject is rendered visually, it will not be the same thing. The way we construct meaning from an image is through our perception of line, colour, form, depth and motion. Even with all this, our perception of the image as a whole is still more than just the sum of its parts. ‘Image’ resonates with the possibilities inherent in ‘imagination’. When words and images work together well, they don’t just say the same thing in two different ways. They amplify each other, creating an experience that is an altogether distinct and expanded organisation of meaning.

Combining pictures & words

Delving into what this special experience could be has been a key project with Tara — the publishing house I’m part of — for the past decade. We’ve experimented with picture books not only for children, but for readers of all ages, trying to widen the experience of literature, given our fascination with visual communication.

The incredible wealth of pictorial art and storytelling traditions in India has sparked many of our conversations between image and word. The Indian picture storytelling tradition is very flexible, and its very unclassifiability is its greatest strength. We’re interested in connecting these older forms of painting and telling stories with a contemporary reader’s sensibility — without losing the essence of the original structure.

Recently, one of our most exciting dialogues has been with Patua artists from Bengal, and our interaction with them illustrates our approach well. The Patua form is a mixture of performance, storytelling and art. It is an essentially pre-literate, largely oral folk practice. The story is recited or sung as the narrator holds up a painted scroll, pointing to the image that goes with the words.

As with most folk traditions, it is neither for children nor for adults — it is for both. The narrator tailors his rendering to suit the audience, and his repertoire ranges from traditional myths to more contemporary subjects.

New approaches
The contemporary factor is important for us — it means that the Patua form is a living tradition, unlike similar practices in other parts of the world. These talented artists and storytellers are not part of history — they are our contemporaries. With energetic art and an intuitive grasp of narrative, they are constantly looking for new stories and ways to take their work forward. So keeping in mind the way the art is structured, we thought of the most productive paths we could take.

The first book we published with the Patuas was called Tsunami. Created by Joydeb and Moina Chitrakar from Mednipur in Bengal, the story is a moving dirge in memory of the devastating tsunami of 2004. We translated the original song into a written text, and created a fold-out handmade book, in the form of the scroll. To make the experience complete for the reader, we uploaded a video of the artists singing the song and showing the images on YouTube.

The second experiment was a longer, more adventurous one, in which we decided to come up with an altogether new approach — by nudging the artists in the direction of graphic novels. Given the way the sequence of images in a Patua scroll unfolds, we thought it was more than halfway towards the structure of a graphic novel.

The definition of what makes up a graphic novel is becoming more elastic with time. It is basically a form where text and picture work together to tell a story, and not just for children. From its humble beginnings as comics — which were frowned on by adults when I was growing up — it is rapidly turning respectable, even literary. There is really no consensus on what kind of visual story qualifies to be included. The only thing to be kept in mind is that the images are sequenced — they are ‘read’ one after another.
We felt that for our purposes, a graphic novel was probably easier to define in terms of format, rather than genre. The art would have to be divided into panels, read sequentially from left to right rather than top to bottom, and the story would have to be written down, not just recited. To work at creating a graphic novel of a respectable length with Patua artists involved a range of people and skills — from researchers to authors to translators and designers. That is another story.

But several months of intensive and pleasurable work with the artists have now begun to show results, and we are ready to launch a series that we have called ‘Patua Graphics’. The best part of the process was the chance to indulge our fascination for visual possibilities. As for the result — we’d like the reader to be the best judge of that.

(The author is the publisher of Tara Books, Chennai)

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