Brain Pickings

Alone in the Forest: Exploring Fear & Courage in Stunning Illustrations Based on Indian Folk Art


Exquisite visual storytelling that speaks both to our crippling fear of the unfamiliar and our ability to transcend it, emerging enriched by the experience.

For nearly two decades, Indian independent publisher Tara Books has been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on beautiful books based on Indian folk art traditions, including some extraordinary handmade gems that made it into my recent collaboration with the New York Public Library. Now comes Alone in the Forest (public library), illustrated by the celebrated Gond tribal artist Bhajju Shyam. It tells the tale of Musa, a young Indian boy, and his frightening foray into the dark forest to fetch firewood after his mother falls sick. Somewhere between Lemony Snicket’s The Dark and Tara’s magnificent The Night Life of Trees — in which Shyam’s expressive illustrations also appear — this exquisite piece of storytelling speaks both to our crippling fear of the unfamiliar and our ability to transcend it and emerge somehow enriched by that experience.

The Gonds of central India, among whom Shyam came of age, are a community of exceptionally visual people with a heritage of forest-dwellers. Though their art tradition originates from the decorative patterns painted on the mud floors and walls of their homes — a medium widely used across rural India and also employed by the Warli and Meena tribes — it has blossomed over the centuries into a visual language of extraordinary richness and storytelling capacity.

Complement Alone in the Forest with more of Tara’s treasures, including their two crown jewels, The Night Life of Trees and Waterlife, their homage to cats, and my personal favorite, the ever-empowering Drawing from the City.

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