If imagination is the fruit of a curious mind, then stories are its fodder as well as offspring.
The stories told to children at infancy often shape the way they see the world as adults and affect the language they speak and think in. But in Kashmir, the stories told to children are not always in their own tongue.
"I grew up in Srinagar, listening to Kashmiri tales but not reading or writing in Kashmiri. I was always more encouraged to speak in English, and schools did not teach Kashmiri," artist Onaiza Drabu told News18 over a telephonic interview from Kenya. As a result, the artist grew up "receptively bilingual".
"I remember at school once, one of our teachers would tell us that the definition of literate is that person who can read and write in her mother tongue and this hit hard. I could barely speak mine," Drabu recalled. That was how she started studying Kashmiri literature and art.
Five years ago, Drabu started the Lipton Chai Blog where she began illustrating Kashmiri proverbs, truisms and words that thrilled her. Her love for the language at a later age led her to the realisation that it took her this long to appreciate her own language because as a child, she had no access to it apart from spoken Kashmiri at home.
As a young adult, it struck her hard that there were hardly any children's books in Kashmiri. "I thought that if I had children's books and literature from Kashmir and not from a faraway land, while growing up, how I perceived my language and my culture would have been very different. So I thought of changing it."
In keeping with her resolve, Drabu has now come out with an illustrated children's book "Okus Bokus: A to Z for Kashmiri Children".
The book details, in Kashmiri, several aspects of Kashmiri life and culture through simple illustrations and interesting anecdotes, told by a grandmother to her two grand kids that serve as the main narrators of the tales.
(A page from Okus Bokus | Courtesy: Onaiza Drabu)
Since she started developing her blog, Drabu started studying Kashmiri folklore, poetry and art and has worked with women's collectives to promote women artists of Kashmir. For 'Okus Bokus' too, Drabu has chosen an all-women-run website Koshurwear.com for retail. Currently, the book is only available on the website but Drabu is in talks to take it to bookstores next.
While Drabu wrote the book, the illustrations have been done by Alif. "I'm not great at illustration and though I had been trying for a while, I just could not get the style right. Then I found Alif".
Both the artist worked together to create the book which has a distinct local flavour and a very charming look to it. Though the stories are told from an elderly woman's perspective, they are young and fresh, as a wise grandmother's stories often are. With them, Drabu tried to capture the very essence of valley, beyond the violence that is often painted as the only mainstay of Kashmir. But darkness has a way of creeping in.
"There's a bit where the kid asks 'nani' if there are spirits. But the nani explains that superstition is just a part of life. And that just explains Kashmir," Drabu said.
But there's a lighter side too. Drabu said her favourite bit was the one about Kashmiri poets. "These bits of history and culture, often intangible, are mostly lived and, therefore, slowly losing relevance," Drabu reflected. The book is her attempt to change that by capturing the A to Z of Kashmir, from its language, food, music, arts and crafts, flora and fauna of the region, as well as some folklore.
(A page from Okus Bokus | Courtesy: Onaiza Drabu)
A perfect example is the bit on bread. On the page, Drabu mentions that there are different kinds of bread that Kashmiris eat in the morning for breakfast, or in the afternoon with lunch and supper. Those unfamiliar with Kashmiri culture would not know the difference between morning and afternoon bread.
However, the artist practiced restraint and did not make the book into a boring, informative history lesson. "In the pages, I put down enough to pique someone's curiosity. If they want to find out more about the breads, they can look it up further," she said. The idea was to inculcate a culture of asking questions about Kashmiri culture and start a discussion with family, friends and teachers about their shared and slowly fading heritage and culture.
One of the trickier parts of the book, however, was the letter 'X'. "It has been a long wait but mostly five years of trying to find something in Kashmiri culture, literature, language, food and art that could fit the letter X," Drabu once wrote on Twitter.
While saddened by the lack of content for children in Kashmiri, Drabu, who now lives in Kenya and works for UNICEF, agreed that it was not easy for many children to learn to read and write in the complex Kashmiri script. The artist felt it may be time Kashmiris introduced the Roman script.
While 'Okus Bokus' is meant for Kashmiri audiences, Drabu noted that there was quite a dearth of Kashmiri representation in mainstream literature and art in the rest of India. Despite a vast oeuvre of critical works of literature and poetry, from history or contemporary, there is little spoken of it in the mainstream narrative.
However, Kashmiri artists are gradually breaking the glass ceiling and using their art to confront complex issues. Recently, eleven young students from the Institute of Music and Fine Art, University of Kashmir, were awarded the Tata Trusts Students' Biennale National Award, which was announced at the prestigious Kochi-Muziris Biennale's closing ceremony in March earlier. These artists, including Anis Wani, Tabeena Wani, Arona Riyaz, Numair Qadri and others, have already started making ripples in the art fraternity as well as social media with their haunting, reflective and provocative paintings, sculptures and photographs that depict aspects of the living political and social realities of Kashmir.
However, despite most young Kashmiri artists choosing to use art to make political points and bring to life the daily injustices and trespasses faced by locals in the state, Drabu chose to maintain a distance from politicization, at least for 'Okus Bokus'.
"This is solely a cultural project with the ethos of preservation and dissemination," she maintained.