Late last year, Chennai-based market researcher Subadra Kalyanaraman was at a bookstore in Singapore when she chanced upon a surprise: an aisle devoted to colouring books for grown-ups. The idea of a book with intricate designs meant to be coloured in by steadier hands than kids was already popular with her friends in India. They even had favourites, Scottish illustrator Johanna Basford’s books were near the top of their lists. “Colouring was getting popular in India and seeing the variety in Singapore made me realise that we didn’t have many local books in the genre,” recalls Kalyanaraman.
In February, she released Shakuntala And Her Magic Box, a Madhubani-themed colouring book. It features 16 artworks and two pages of story panels, written by her husband and inspired by a Korean colouring book. “It’s the tale of a girl who loves music, and the gramophone is her music box,” says Kalyanaraman. “She sits by the river and sings amidst nature; there are illustrations of trees, birds and fishes.”
From a print run of 150 copies, her book is now fast selling on Amazon. Her Twitter timeline displays stunning contributions of completed artwork from colourists who use the pull-out pages of her book to express their creativity. “People have gone crazy with the colours. Some have done shading, others have used gel pens,” she says.
The pictures reflect a trend that has captured the imaginations, and hands, of much of urban India in the last year. They play on the simple, well-remembered joy of filling an illustration with colour. In India, the books are typically filled with illustrations of mandalas (a circular symbol representing the universe), mythical creatures, flora and fauna, and other abstract patterns, that hold promises of colour-fuelled fantasies. The Landmark chain of bookstores, which stocks almost 50 homegrown and international titles in the genre, has sold over 1,000 books since February.
The grown-up’s fascination for the books can be traced back to 2013, when Basford published the bestselling Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Colouring Book. The concept was unheard-of. Basford’s pitch for a book that people would buy just to colour the pages had met with a discomforting silence from her publishers. Today, she has two more books in the Inky series, has sold over a million copies and has a gallery on her website for readers and fans to upload their works. Many Indians’ have had their first taste of the trend through Basford’s books as well.
Fashion blogger Nimisha Khanna bought Basford’s Enchanted Forest in January and has been hooked. “It’s the best escape. Initially it was a little challenging since we’re so easily distracted. But now it’s the first thing I do in the morning, and I even take it with me on holidays,” she says. An intricate two-page spread took her three days to finish. “That feeling when you see the finished drawing is incredible.”
Writer and illustrator Indu Harikumar’s self-published Beauty Needs Space has travelled countries. She had an emotional moment when a Pakistani girl sent her a picture of her work, with a verse from Ghalib scribbled in an empty space. “I didn’t think there was space to fit poetry in there. The experience rid every doubt that I had when I decided to come out with the book,” she says.
Major Indian publishing houses are now commissioning artists to keep up with the trend. In May, Penguin Random House released Bagh-e-Bahar in collaboration with home decor store Good Earth, it includes Mughal miniature-style drawings interwoven with Rumi quotes, and illustrated versions of Devdutt Pattanaik’s Jaya and Sita. Aleph Book Company published textile designer Sujaya Batra’s The Mystical World, and HarperCollins is bringing out versions of Game of Thrones and Mills & Boon, putting the ‘adult’ in adult colouring books.
Plugging out, colouring in
In an increasingly technological world, the idea of going back to colouring is calming, meditative almost. It’s also why most books are marketed with the terms ‘mindfulness’ and ‘destressing’. Abhik Bhattacherji, who teaches underprivileged students, calls it storytelling through pictures. At a skill-based workshop in Mumbai, Bhattacherji and his friend gave prints from Basford’s books to women from low-income families. “There was so much enthusiasm and joy, and along the way, it became a great mind tool,” he says.
Batra was prompted to explore the realm by her 29-year-old son. “With cellphones, Xboxes, iPads, it’s hard to live peacefully today,” she says. When sketching the The Mystical World, based on verses from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, Batra chose lines that she believed would hold relevance today. “It teaches you so much about practical living. While you’re colouring, it may also help you understand the philosophy,” she says.
The sense of achievement at having finished an illustration is probably what has given colouring a new-found popularity among grown, often stressed, men and women. While drawing needs skill, colouring is fairly uncomplicated. Priya Kapoor, editor at Roli Books, which published Basford’s work in India, says, “Being plugged into social media has made our concentration weaker. Colouring allows us to go back to the basics, using just your hands and imagination.”
From HT Brunch, July 3, 2016
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