Before she began illustrating for Arshia Sattar’s Ramayana for Children, 27-year-old Sonali Zohra had never read the text before, except its Tinkle version. “I think I had a mental block against it. While it’s a massive part of Indian culture, I felt like it had been glorified to an extent where the story was lost,” says the Bangalore-based graphic designer.
She had, however, read The Mahabharata by Shanta Rameshwar Rao – also a children’s version—which featured illustrations by late artist Badri Narayan. Rao was her school principal and reading the epic at a young age influenced her in a big way. “I was blown away at the way it depicts the history and the culture of our country. They were mascots for different elements, like Indra for lightening, which I found it fascinating. As a 10-year-old, I really understood the metaphorical details,” she says, adding that this was probably also the reason that she thought another mythological text (Ramayana) wouldn’t resonate with her in the same way.
When Sattar was looking for someone to illustrate Ramayana for Children, her recently released translation of Valmiki’s epic for children – her first translation was published two decades ago – she stumbled upon Zohra’s work online and reached out to her. “I do all sorts of editorial and literary illustrations and had never thought I would do a mythological text. But Arshia’s version reminded me of The Mahabharata, as it had similar elements of storytelling.”
Sold on the simplicity of the narrative, she started work on the book. While illustrating an epic – which has themes of violence, betrayal, deception aside from courage, bravery and integrity – for children can be challenging, Zohra made a conscious attempt to not dumb it down or over simplify it visually. “I’m very inspired by Badri’s work. He was a traditional folk painter who didn’t believe it controlling himself artistically for kids. That’s what I did too. I didn’t try to stylize the drawings too much,” she says.
The illustrations, which accompany Sattar’s text, are striking – the tones are bright and the details elaborate, whether it’s Hanuman watching as Lanka burns, or the princess-turned-demoness Tataka being shot with an arrow. “The story is bright and dark in places so I just played with that. The colours were based on the mood. Also I thought the part where Laxman cuts Surpanakha’s nose was an unnecessary act of violence, so I used purple to depict jealousy,” she says.
Zohra says that Sattar’s writing was very descriptive, which made the work “an illustrator’s dream”. And having contributed to the epic in her own way, her views on it stand changed. “I think the Ramayana is very relatable if you read and interpret it the right way. Today, it’s often cited in religious contexts, but it actually started off as a folk tale. If you leave it to its essence, people of every generation will relate to it,” she says.
Here are some of Zohra’s illustrations from the book.
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