Pradyumna Kumar is the first Indian artist ever to win the Grand Prize at the prestigious 15th NOMA Concours for Picture Book Illustrations. His entry ” How the Firefly Got Its Light ” a series inspired by Mithila paintings was selected as the best amongst 522 entries from 48 countries, no mean achievement for an artist who entered a competition for the first time. The NOMA Concours is organized biennially by Asia/Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO (ACCU) supported by Noma International Book Development Fund. The purpose of the Concours is ‘to discover up-and-coming illustrators, graphic designers and artists in Asia (except Japan), the Pacific, Africa, Arab States, and Latin America & the Caribbean, to provide an opportunity at which they can present their works to offer incentives for their creative activities’.
What makes Pradyumna’s win more impressive is that he only took to art about 5 years ago after a surgery reduced chances of him continuing with his job as a land surveyor. Totally self-taught, he has been influenced by his wife Mala Karn and his sister-in-law Pushpa Kumari, who are amongst the finest contemporary artists in the Mithila tradition. Mithila art, also known as Madhubani art, is typical of the Mithila region of Bihar, North India and are a vital part of the cultural traditions of the area. Traditionally, women drew these ceremonial paintings on walls and floors, depicting religious and social themes. These paintings were means of visual education, a way of passing down stories, myths and social values from one generation to another. The marriage chamber or kobhar ghar is where the most elaborate paintings are done on the walls to seek divine blessings for the newly married couple. A severe drought in the region in 1966-67 heralded the transformation of this art – the government in an attempt to generate employment and income, started encouraging the women to paint on paper.
Pradyumna first heard of the NOMA Concours from an American patron, artist Scott Rothstein. For Pradyumna, entering the competition, that too an international one was no easy task. What took time was not the actual process of painting but conceptualizing a story that firstly, could be universally understood and secondly, lend itself to easy visual expression. As someone who has worked closely with him since he became an artist, I was his sounding board as far as the competition was concerned and was to translate his story from Hindi to English. We both agreed that doing a complex work with esoteric symbolism and complicated story line was a no-no. Rather the illustrations and the story should be such that people, no matter where they come from, can easily understand the visuals and the story. So began Pradyumna’s search for a suitable story -he read the scriptures and examined literary sources, looking for inspiration everywhere. Finally, he came up with a story that combined tales heard on his grandmother’s lap as a child and his own deep concerns regarding the lack of harmony in human lives and environmental degradation. He wrote a story about a tiny firefly pondering over its insignificance and witnessing the gradual distancing between trees and humankind. She observes the disciplined lives ants lead, the work of the busy bees and also joins other animals and humans in putting out a forest fire. Finally, she asks the Sun for some light and at night, dispels darkness and fear with the light in her body.
When Pradyumna first narrated the story, I was deeply moved for here was a simple, yet poignant and powerful tale. This is a story that can be easily understood by a small child as well as people looking for deeper meanings. The trees that could walk and talk and their deep symbiotic relationship with humankind is not a mere figment of imagination but allude to a time when people lived in greater harmony with the natural world. The ants that led a disciplined life could be another point to take off into philosophical realms – Order vs. Chaos, the Individual vs. the Collective. Working over 3 months Pradyumna completed 6 panels, each panel a testimony both to his individual artistic skill and to the Mithila Art tradition that he drinks deep from. Pradyumna sent off his entry with the satisfaction of having completed the six paintings as part of a cohesive series, little knowing what lay in store for him.
At the NOMA Concours, an international jury evaluates the works and selects the worthy ones. For the 15th NOMA Concours, the International Jury consisted of eight members and comprised of Claudia Legnazzi (Argentina, illustrator), Piet Grobler (South Africa, illustrator), Suzuki Koji (Japan, artist), Hibino Katsuhiko (Japan, associate professor, Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music), Sugiura Hammo (Japan, illustrator), Matsumoto Takeshi (Japan, director, Chihiro Art Museum Azumino), Otake Eisuke (Japan, Noma International Book Development Fund), and Sato Kunio (Japan, director-general, ACCU). The judging process is comprehensive and stringent. According to a Concours release, ‘in the main screening, 33 works were selected in a first round of voting, and then, after discussions, these were further pared down to 13 works. At the stage of selecting the top prize-winning works, the judges looked at each one, discussed such factors as technique, overall composition as a picture book, originality, and composition of the illustrations, and evaluated them to decide the prize-winning entries’.
Matsumoto Takeshi, International Jury Member, has this to say of Pradyumna’s work, ” Giving equal weight in its drawings to people, animals, and plants, the work also conveys the values of people living in the Mithila region. Any number of stories seem to pour forth from the work, which has a unique decorativeness and is very finely and exquisitely drawn. The frame decoration is beautiful and enjoyable, making it seem as though you are looking at a tapestry. In the personification of wood and use of colour, one senses not only the following of tradition but also the artist’s individuality”.
The prize-winning works were exhibited at the National Diet Library’s International Library of Children’s Literature and, in part, at the Biennial of Illustrations Bratislava (BIB) 2007 in Slovakia. In addition to commemorative medals for the prize-winners, there are financial awards of US$3,000 for the grand prize, US$1,000 for each second prize, and US$300 for each runner-up.
Pradyumna is pleased that through his work, he has highlighted a traditional art form of India. He hopes his win will open the door for more book illustration projects, not just for him, but also for the scores of traditional artists in India constrained by shrinking markets for their works. Encouraged by this award, Pradyumna prepares to scale even greater heights in the art world.