Manu Chitrakar, 38, a Patua artist from Naya village, 160 km from Kolkata, had never heard of Martin Luther King. So when Gita Wolf, publisher of Tara Books, narrated the story to him over two days in Chennai, he was mesmerised. When he returned to his village, he spent nearly three months sitting on the edge of the rice fields that surround his hut, illustrating his first graphic novel - I See The Promised Land - on scrolls of handmade paper.
About 2,000 km away, in a plush home in Prabhadevi, Mumbai, 14-year-old Nivrutti Desai is flipping through Chitrakar's creation, which hit bookstores last month. King's struggle is part of her International Baccalaureate school's curriculum and Desai has picked the Tara book as the subject of a class project.
I See The Promised Land is among a host of books bridging the gap between urban children and folk and tribal artists from rural India. Publishers such as Tara Books has published 19 titles using tribal and folk art forms like Warli, Gond, Patua, Meena, Kalamkari and Patachitra, since 1995. Over the next year, it will release four more illustrated with such art.
Delhi's Pratham Books, a children's publisher, produced two books last year illustrated with Warli art. In January, the publisher will launch a set of four books, each about a child from a different tribal artisan community.
Katha Books, also based in Delhi, produced Mai and Her Friends, a book illustrated by Gond artist Durga Bai from Bihar. The last few pages offer a do-it-yourself guide to making natural colours like Gond artists do. In 2011, the publishing house will also launch the Indica series, which will explain different traditional and tribal art forms from across India. Chennai-based Tulika Books has two titles with illustrations done by folk and tribal artists in the pipeline for the next year.
Some of the books are getting awards giving their artists a chance to travel the world. Tara Books' Do!, for example, which used Warli stick figures that have adorned village homes in rural Maharashtra for over 500 years, won 2010's Bologna Ragazzi New Horizons award of Italy.
But back home, many urban Indian children are unable to identify with these art forms. When Durga Mhatre, 12, picked up Flight of the Mermaid at a bookstore recently, she was a little dismayed. "What happened to Ariel's red hair and cute blue eyes?" she asked.
Children are as conventional as we are. They need a mediator to introduce them to a different way of looking at things. Parents, of course, can help. Seven-year-old Nayantara Piramal's favourite book is Tara's The Old Animals Forest Band, illustrated by Gond artist Durga Bai, a book she was introduced to by her mother Reshma, a paedtrician.
Nayantara now draws animals and trees resembling the illustrations. "The cow in the story is not black or white. It's blue! It is so strange and new," she says.