The author-illustrator team behind Bhimrao Ambedkar: The Boy Who Asked Why, let us into their creative process and a look at behind the scenes ideas and challenges of this unique picture book.
What inspired you to tell the story of Bhimrao Ambedkar?
Sowmya Rajendran (SR): It was Radhika Menon of Tulika Publishers who wrote to me asking if I'd like to do a book on Ambedkar. I said yes immediately because I feel we need more children's books about him - there are so many books on Indian leaders such as Gandhi and Nehru, but barely any on Ambedkar who was such an inspiring person.
Beyond textbook versions of learning that he was the 'Father of the Indian Constitution', his contributions are rarely discussed among the upper/dominant castes and class of children who are convinced caste no longer exists. However, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Author Sowmya Rajendran
How were you able to break down the caste system to make it accessible for young children?
SR: It was a challenge, without a doubt. More so because the readers who pick up an English picture book are likely to be urban, middle to upper middle class children. And to most of these young children, caste is invisible. It's not something they confront in everyday life. Their families probably practise caste - in the guise of culture - but they are unlikely to have understood that this is what it is.
So I thought of starting the book with cricket, a popular sport in India. The caste system is quite complex and I was aware that this can only be a beginner's book to caste - it cannot provide a reader with a complete understanding of it. It's an introduction to make a child aware that such a thing exists and to encourage him/her to start asking questions about it. So I didn't try to be too ambitious and was aware of the scope of the book. I, therefore, stuck to explaining caste through Ambedkar's life - from childhood to his rise as a political leader. I wanted to emphasize that no matter what he did, the people around him never forgot that identity.
What do you consider some of the more universal messages in this book that can resonate with kids everywhere?
SR: Every society has discrimination and prejudice in some form of the other. They are very often systemic. Whether that's gender, race, caste, sexual orientation or whatever else. Children become aware of these as they grow up. They already encounter some of this in the classroom and playground.
The message of the book is that systemic oppression exists, but it's not something you need to accept as normal. And even if there are laws in place to combat it, it is something you may still have to fight...because laws alone cannot change people's mindset.
Caste issues in India often mirror many of the discriminatory practices associated with racism, are there any parallels and lessons to be learned from how to tackle casteism and racism?
SR: The first step is towards acknowledging that yes, these discriminatory practices exist because many adults are in denial about it. They might point to an Obama or a Ram Nath Kovind (the current Indian president who is a Dalit) and say the world has changed. But as we know, discrimination on the basis of caste or race is evident in several spheres.
The second step is to take a hard look at yourself and the people closest to you and start questioning discriminatory attitudes that you or they might be harboring. These can be very subtle or obvious - for instance in India, dark skin is looked down upon because it is associated with the lower castes. This is not easy but then, you cannot change the world without changing yourself first.
Often in the West, India is reduced to an exotic land of spices, yoga, Bollywood, crushing poverty and leaders who woke the conscience of the world, how does Babasaheb Ambedkar's story shake up that narrative?
SR: Well, India is either straight out of a Karan Johar Bollywood film or a Slumdog Millionaire. It's the two extremes that the West is sold on but I don't really have any hang-ups about this. We are a country of extremes. Many Indians get defensive when an outsider asks them about the caste system.
Certainly, it is annoying when people from the West speak of caste without acknowledging their own issues, but other than that, I see no reason at all to hide this uncomfortable reality. Just as Indian children should grow up knowing all about Jim Crow laws, children from other parts of the world should read about the caste system, too. Because it's always useful to remember that oppression exists in various forms, count your privileges, and do what you can to fight it.
Do you think Ambedkar's message of shaping and changing community through education and fighting within the system still has relevance today?
SR: Ambedkar fought many battles - some that he won, but others that he also lost. He had several differences in opinion with Gandhi, for instance. He had to fight within a system that was designed by the upper castes to keep their privileges intact. But that's also why he's an inspiration to so many - and I don't mean only the Dalit community. There are many ways to fight oppression and I don't think anyone has the right to dictate to an oppressed person how they should fight back.
Education is certainly one of the ways. But in south India, we had a revolutionary anti-caste leader like Periyar who was a primary school drop-out. ALL these stories are relevant. All these stories tell us one thing - discrimination isn't normal, and it isn't ever acceptable.
Satwik Gade, the illustrator of The Boy Who Asked Why
In picture books the visuals always complement the story, was was your vision for the story?
Satwik Gade (SG): Some of the decisions I took regarding illustrations, the vision, so to speak, were driven by my idea that illustrations should ideally not repeat what the text is saying. However in children’s books, illustrations must depict the text in someway as it is also a reinforcement device in pedagogy. So the attempt was to balance these two opposing ideas.
My primary idea in the book was to look at Ambedkar as Bhim, the curious little kid which is what Sowmya had done so well. But if you see the text, just because it is talking to children it doesn't talk down to them. The text believes that children are capable of understanding a lot more. So while I was aware that thick indian ink drawings with sober watercolours have not been used for children's books for decades, just like the approachability of Bhim the character made his message also approachable, I tried to make Bhim look endearing so that his sombre moments were reflective without being too distant, which is usually the problem with the public image of Ambedkar.
How were you able to balance the serious ideas within the story with a playful element to appeal to children?
SG: I did not actually attempt to put in a playful element to it at all, but my editors suggested the kites scene and responded positively to frames where Bhim is laughing and active. That might have helped lend a playful air to the images.
What made you chose water color as a medium for your illustrations?
SG: I think watercolours were the obvious choice because my drawings revolved around my ink outlines. Also watercolours are the best when you are trying to add a touch of seriousness to comics.
The whys along with the two full spreads of the train and the cart are the most important pages of the book, so my attempt was to make the watercolour wash more pronounced in these pages. And also looking at it more artistically I took liberties on pages with monochromes and splashes and I also let colours bleed on the bullock cart page.
Find out more about The Boy Who Asked Why here.
Also see Room in Your Heart