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Children’s Literature – Sense & Nonsense

Children’s Literature – Sense & Nonsense

The following is KG Subramanyan’s paper presented at the Seminar organized by the English Department at Visva-Bharati on 29th January 2012.


I am very happy to be in your midst this morning if only for a short while. The organizers of this seminar have persuaded me to declare it open despite the various pressures I am working under. That I have agreed nevertheless is a tribute to their persistence. I do regret that I will not have the pleasure of sitting through the seminar, attractive though the theme is and in a sense close to my heart. I am sure it is bound to be an exciting one. I am quite impressed to see that the concept note raises many relevant issues. Embroiled in the work on hand I will have to forgo the pleasure. I shall however look forward to seeing, in the days to come, any publication or transcript that records the papers and the proceedings.

Although this state holds a much better record in producing literature for children than many others in our country and many of its noted literary figures have shown special interest in contributing to this field, the need for such literature is bound to increase by leaps and bounds in the time to come. Especially in a country like ours with a large population of youth and countless social and cultural divisions; and, over and above, various linguistic sub-divisions that call for a variety of approaches in communication. Surely this has its own problems. Almost every day our news media carry some feature or the other on the education of children in our country and its shortcomings. They speak largely about the inadequacy of coverage and then the poor standard of the training of young people in the basic skills of reading and writing. This is bound to alarm us. If they do not have the needed skills to read and write, how would they respond to the literature that is brought to them?

This inadequacy however accrues partly from faults in our educational planning. Our work models are based on the needs of a faceless urban middle class; it does not address the needs or the response levels of various people outside of these. And they are the majority. This was excusable in the initial stages of educational planning in view of the scarcity of resources and employment opportunities. But now when we promise complete schooling to all the youth, the levels of literacy have perforce to be high. But this is apparently not the case. Most of the statistics presented in official announcements are stated to be false and misleading; they seem to be based more on the study of enrolment figures than the scrutiny of actual performance, or the reaction of children to the proffered exposures. In any case, once the needs of these groups are addressed and their literacy levels grow (as we should expect it would in no distant future) the demand for children’s literature will grow as well. And when those who write for children understand their diverse response spectra, we are bound to see a great variety of such literature. And to follow their intermingling will possibly assist a kind of cultural integration. Or at least a healthy cultural cross-awareness in the time to come.

Let me now confine myself to what is instead of talking about what is to come or has to be brought into being. That there are certain patent defects in our current educational system at the initial levels is known to many. It tries to load the growing youngsters with an overwhelming baggage of information and in the process depress their sense of personal enquiry and initiative. Its main objective seems to be to school them to serve the running needs and norms of society, it does not encourage them to think forward. This inevitably leads to intellectual stagnation and servility on a large scale. These children, when they grow up, dream of becoming smug hirelings of the outsourcing industry and their parents find comfort in this. Their eyes are more on the pay packet than on the essentiality or probity of the profession. The loud advertisements in the educational supplements of our news media are efforts at attracting these submissive bull-cave into specialized ranches and branding them to join some category or the other of the workforce needed in the flourishing centres of free market capitalism.

Rabindranath Tagore, the founder of this institution, whose 150th birth anniversary you are celebrating with great aplomb, had foreseen this eventuality or something close to it. The structure and objectives of the educational institutions of his own time were also comparably rigid and small-minded. He saw in these a distressing lack of rapport or connectivity between the young and the old; the latter had too confirmed  a notation of what their purposes were and how the youth had to be groomed to pursue them. This purposefulness gave the educational process the character of mindless drilling and removed from it all sense of fun and cheer and with it the personal curiosity and initiative of the student. He wanted to counteract it and demonstrate that there are better educational alternatives. How he did it you already know. At the centre of this effort was an attempt to detraumastise the student and his inner self. Introduction to traditional knowledge, codes and practices were just a springboard from where he could take off to do this.

Ongoing class at Patha Bhavan, Santiniketan. Image courtesy:

To work this he needed a whole new body of educational literature, which in addition to the delivery of information would also carry incentives for further enquiry and research. I am sure that at one time his resourceful teachers did encourage and guide such enquiries. But they apparently did not have the physical resources to compile the needed literature. Though in the field of public education the line of booklets brought out by the Lok Shiksha Sansad were exemplary in many ways. But these too did not continue. I doubt whether these are being published today. If the current schools of this institution still honour the intentions of their founder, this is what they should embark on in a big way.

Thus far I have been speaking about children’s books that are needed to help them in their basic education and have such inputs as to arouse their sense of inquiry and innovation and to sensitize their perspectives. The few books of Sahaj Path showed the way. Both in the text and the illustrations they are now collector’s items. And hold within them various instructive features that show how to introduce a student to the facts of the environment and niceties of language at the same time. And Nandalal Babu’s linear and linocut illustrations have been an inspiration to us through the years. It is a pity that there haven’t been further efforts to produce such thoughtful and aesthetically rewarding publications.

A page from Sahaj Path with linocut by Nandalal Bose.

But the largest body of children’s literature consists of stories, travelogues, verses, romances and detective fiction. Each of these seeks to activate a spiral sector of a child’s imagination. Psychologists present here will be able to explain the process better than I can. But I confess that, though I am a grey haired old man, I often entertain a wish to moult from a man to a child. And when I enjoy on occasions the most fantastic fairy tales written for children I also feel I have succeeded to some extent. Various artists have expressed a similar wish. Some have even considered that such a change of role is an essential prerequisite for an artist. Abanindranath has mentioned in various places that an artist’s vision can be compared to a child’s virgin vision, a vision unclouded by previous exposures, which in its freshness of approach, gropes around what it sees, slurs from one image to another, mixed up identities and fabricates new composites. It is a poetic vision that transforms a cocooned larva into a butterfly. No wonder that fairy tales are popular with children (as also those who have a wide-eyed child theme). They fertilize the imagination. And build a breeding ground for metaphors, which bring new meanings to common facts of life.

While fairy tales provide a space shift from the probable to the improbable or vice versa, a travelogue transmit one from one location to another, from the near to the far, from the familiar to the exotic. It infuses a sense of liveliness and adventure in our humdrum existence, kindles in us a desire to break our little shells and walk beyond. To a child it offers an invitation to exceed his limited location and discover the larger world. Similarly mystery stories goad one to unravel the shadow patches in our existence, and those of others, giving the reader the excitement of playing a game, lining up in succession the problem, the chase, the speculation, the solution and final summation and sigh of relief.

There are many more details one can go into. Some of your papers will be going into them during the sessions. Taken together these various forms of literature give a young person a vicarious experience of the various encounters he is in for in his adult life and emphasize those values that refine human behaviour and throw light on those attitudes that debase it.

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This is a kind of simplistic statement from an artist who admits that his grey hairs are no indication of maturity and wisdom. These days opinions are divided about all matters. There are serious educationists who discount the values of various categories of children’s literature I have mentioned so far. Some find their fantasy content unproductive and injurious to the maturing of the child. Some feel the plentiful incidents of violence in the epics, whether Indian or Greek, will warp the tender minds of children and make them violence prone. Side by side with these there are others who consider fantasy healthy, motivates non-linear thinking and can lead to remarkable repostulations of reality (even scientific discovery). And the critics of the epics who went to the extent of making ludicrous suggestions of sanitising their texts live in a society that allows their small children to see animation films that bristle with scenes of violence every half second. In the same manner you can find psychologists who think that children are pure and angelic and altruistic and others who see in them little devils with various veins of violence, selfishness and cupidity. I am one of  those who thinks we are a mixed bag, born with good and bad points and the world is a complicated place with various lights and shadows; and a total life concept has to face this unavoidable dichotomy and its inherent conflicts. No child can be completely blindfolded and protected from unpleasant facts; these sensations are built within; no congenitally blind man finds his dark world a paradise. The most we can do is to make the best of a bad bargain.


KG Subramanyan


Feature image: Artwork with children’s book covers by KG Subramanyan

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