If you take your kids to a museum, where are they likely to enjoy the most? Certainly the natural history section, with its dinosaur skeletons, stuffed lions and giant elephant tusks. Or perhaps the galleries with Egyptian mummies, ancient artefacts, swords and armoury.
But take them to the painting galleries, show them gilded Baroques and delicate Indian miniatures, and the excitement is likely to fizzle out.
“Most people don’t think of classical art as something children could enjoy. Learning how to understand and appreciate art is not taught in schools,” says children’s author Mamta Dalal Mangaldas.
So, Mangaldas and co-author Saker Mistri started work on a unique project to bring 18th century miniature paintings and traditional Indian story-telling styles together in the pages of one book.
Their book, titled The Mighty Tale of Hanuman, tells the story of the Ramayana through images of original, 250-year-old miniature paintings from Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort Museum.
The paintings, commissioned by Maharaja Vijai Singh of Jodhpur during his reign from 1752 to 1793, depict episodes, characters and the intriguing landscape of Valmiki’s epic in vibrant reds, blues, greens and gold.
Of the 90 paintings in the collection, only three are on display at the Mehrangarh Fort’s museum. But the Museum Trust, which has also published The Mighty Tale of Hanuman, gave Mistri and Mangaldas access to the other paintings for use in the book.
“Our aim is to introduce children to Indian art, to make them feel comfortable with it, and a good way to do this is to connect the paintings to a story,” says Mistri, who believes that the book, though targeted at six- to 10-year-olds, will be attractive for adults as well.
The book narrates the Ramayan through Hanuman’s perspective and uses around 25 paintings from the Maharaja’s collection – at times the complete images and at times cropped close-ups of particular sections.
“These narrative paintings are large in size, full of amazing details, with several episodes depicted in one painting,” says Mistri. “We have tried to get the images and the text to complement each other and hope the reader’s eye will move from word to picture and vice versa.”
At the end of the book, the authors have added a section explaining the history of the Mehrangarh paintings and the processes used by the painters to create them. There is a gatefold section titled ‘Jump into the painting’, which helps young readers break down different elements of a panoramic painting through numbered annotations.
The Mighty Tale of Hanuman is Mistri and Mangaldas’ second book that uses paintings to tell a story.
In 2007, the duo co-authored The Kidnapping of Amir Hamza, a retelling of a story from the Persian epic Hamzanama. As illustrations, the book featured 16th century Mughal paintings that are now housed at the MAK Museum in Vienna.
The journey of both the books began when the authors saw, and fell in love with, the respective paintings, and wanted children to be able to experience the beauty of Indian art.
“In museum shops abroad, I have often seen books that use storytelling to introduce children to Western art,” says Mangaldas. “I saw a big gap in the market for similar books on Indian painting.”
While the paintings are an important part of the book, the authors have been careful to avoid portraying the characters as black or white.
Once the book is released, the authors plan to take it to schools and cultural fests to conduct art appreciation/storytelling workshops for children.