PAINTING THE TOWN RED: VANI TRIPATHI TIKOOby Vinta Nanda March 1 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 10 mins, 58 secs
Vinta Nanda talks to Vani Tripathi Tikoo about her recently published book, Why Can’t Elephants Be Red?, and about other things.
Akku, the protagonist of her book, is a lively, imaginative and adventurous two-and-half-year-old little girl. Growing up partly in Gurgaon and mostly in Singapore, she is the darling of her big joint family. From playing with her fishy friends and beloved puppy to discovering the wonders of swimming pools, sea beaches and malls, every new experience fills Akku with joy and curious questions. She loves to scribble, draw and colour, and her imagination runs riot with elephants that are red, crabs that have moustaches and unicorns that don’t have horns. Whether it’s art class or a playdate with her friend, Akku has fun and learns new things about her world. But the biggest adventure of all awaits Akku - her first day at school.
Trisha Niyogi, who believed in this illustrated children’s book, presents ‘Why can’t elephants be red?’ under the publication Niyogi Books. Her note reads, “It takes readers into the adorable and magical world of a little girl for whom everyday life is full of wonder, surprises and fun. An interesting book for all age groups, the book can be enjoyed by children as well as young parents”.
Vani Tripathi, the author, is the former national secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). An actor by profession, she has been an activist bringing issues related to youth and women to the notice of various forums and has led several leadership programs in India and abroad. Her campaign and outreach programs focused on encouraging women's participation in politics. As a celebrity campaigner of the BJP, she also managed campaigns for several candidates, especially women in various parts of India, including cities like Delhi, Mumbai, states of Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
Also an actor by profession, Vani has worked with theatre stalwarts Barry John, Maya Rao and Ebrahim Alkazi, and with film directors Mahesh Bhatt, Tanuja Chandra, Kundan Shah, Raman Kumar and many more. She is involved in theatre, films and television, and has worked on projects both in India and abroad. Vani worked as an actor-teacher at the National School of Drama’s (NSD) Theatre in Education Company for a few years and she is actively involved with the Madhya Pradesh School of Drama (MPSD), which she is one of the founding members of.
Today I talk to Vani and discuss with her the recently published and much talked about book written by her for children called: Why can’t elephants be red? Over to Vani then…
What made you embark upon this project?
Every book has a journey and so does ‘Why can’t elephants be red?’ This one has had two different travels to arrive at this particular destination. The first one is that I had done a play at the National School of Drama, ‘Laal. Laal. Haathi…’, which was about the inner world of a child - about a child in school, not good in his studies but consumed by art. One day he draws an elephant and paints it red. The teacher reprimands him and tells him that an elephant cannot be red, to which he replies by saying, ‘In your world elephants may be grey and black, but in mine they are red.’
This kicks off discussions in the classroom and the teacher realises that an artist’s mind must not be suppressed. The second aspect that my mind dwelled upon was my own experience with my daughter Akshara. She is the protagonist of the book, and she was full of questions at every step of the way during the pandemic. I was away from home, being an only child myself, looking after my ailing mother, while my little one was left in the care of my family of twelve members, away from her own mother.
Here I was mothering my 82 year old child-mother, as the sole caregiver for her, and at the other end I was torn apart from my three year old. Also the fact that there was this big Kashmiri Pandit family, my in-laws, taking care of my daughter and making each day wonderful for her to compensate for my absence.
While her aunts and grandparents took care of her, her communication with me was unique and filled with questions. The pandemic meant the lockdown, people wearing masks, fear, and so many things, which the mind of my little Akshara was processing through her conversations with me taking place remotely on voice calls and facetime.
In the title of your book, since you are a friend of mine, I see you: the wonderful woman who never hesitates to ask questions. So it's no wonder that Akshara is like a little version of you, and Akku, the protagonist of your book, emerges from her. Tell more.
We are so busy growing up as adults that we forget our childhood, hum apna bachpan bhool jaate hain. And, that is exactly what has been a raging debate in the Theatre in Education Company at the NSD, where we work with children. But the more important part is capacity building for parents and teachers. Now a 37 year old company, and initially, when Barry John used to head it, one of the most difficult and complex debates was ‘who are we to decide how children are and what they want to be’. So we followed the methodology of GRIPS, which was theatre from Germany, where the first rule was ‘no fantasy’. And it also meant that children could look at their own lives.
And, let me tell you, ‘role-play’ is a great catharsis for children because it starts to be important for them to talk about the pressures they face at school, and from their peer groups, and the many other things that adults do, which are hypocritical. E.g. you may prefer to do lazy parenting, so you just hand over a phone to your child to distract him or her and then bark orders like, ‘Screen time over!’ The child can actually turn around and tell you that you are on your phone all day, and you even carry it with you to the loo, so why’s it that your screen time is different to theirs’?
So, it’s also about the complexity of this parent-child relationship where it’s always the parents who are uninspiring and lack understanding. And, the fact that we stop short of looking back and remembering our own childhood. This book I’ve written is an attempt to make adults look back at their lives and recall how beautiful it was during their years growing up. And, today for Gen Next, especially for children like my daughter who will be five this year. For them to know how two years of their lives were just wiped out because of COVID and yet they are happy and continue to think positively.
Why do you think that it's most important for children and parents, both, never to feel shy of asking questions - giving wings to their curiosity?
I never thought this would become a book at the time when I was penning my thoughts about actual people, real life situations. One of the other things I’ve been wanting to talk and write about for a long time now is the lack of realistic writing for children. And, when it comes to realistic writing, again, we want to create the utopia - the prince and the princess, the kingdom, the king and the queen, which is all nonsensical. What we imagine that children want to read has nothing to do with their everyday life, and it doesn’t help them in any way. So, very much like realistic theatre for children, I want to keep writing realism because it is also important for children to know that we don’t treat them like nincompoops.
Where is it that you want this book to go, how far and wide, and why?
I’ve gone back to writing in a big way. This book is the first outcome of my present passion and now I want to invest myself in taking what I write to the places where they belong. Since I’ve always worked in theatre for children and young people, I want this book to be read widely. I want it to be translated into all Indian languages.
I’m just in the first week of the launch, a precious phase for a writer. I already have one leading Hindi publishing house of the country backing my book and talking to me about doing a translation. What this book will eventually do is to create a consciousness about real-time situations for children and the real world of children, which we often fall short of writing and speaking about. That is why it is so important for me.
What have you been up to in the last couple of years?
I’ve gone back to writing and teaching children in the GRIPS method. There are three verticals: 1) Adults performing for children, 2) Adults performing as children, and 3) Adults performing with children. Adults performing ‘as’ children is a complicated procedure. It’s like the method acting school of Stanislavsky. It’s like how in the body of a thirty-five year old you can be a child and act like an eight year old. It’s about the difference between being childish and being childlike. These three streams of learning are what I’ve been a part of in the last few years, and it is important for me to reach out to as many people and communities as I can.
Also I’ve been following up with my work at the state run drama school in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, which I founded, Madhya Pradesh Natya Vidyalaya - it forms the core of my existence. Over the last couple of years I’ve been dividing time between Singapore, where my husband is with my daughter and my in-laws, and where my daughter goes to school, and my mother who still lives in Delhi. Apart from that I’m trying to write and produce things that I believe in. And a lot of those projects are works in progress.
Not missing the chance to know more from you (since you are an integral part of the Indian film industry, also a storyteller and actor) about where do you think as Indians, we are headed in the global storytelling space?
India is headed to an extremely important place in global storytelling. With the advent of the OTT there’s been a democratisation of content. Today when Sacred Games hits 190 countries at one instance it changes the narrative. Similarly Money Heist and Narcos were not English language programs, so full marks to these content creators who have broken the boundaries.
Similarly Indian Cinema is growing by leaps and bounds. Note that I’m not calling it Bollywood because it is a term I despise – we are not some poor cousin of Hollywood. We make films in almost 50 languages each year and we also happen to be one among the largest content production territories of the world. Indian storytelling has tremendous opportunities today.
We were at Cannes last year as the Indian delegation, which I was a part of, and India was an honoured country at the Marche Du Cannes at Festival De Cannes, and that speaks for itself. Also, it is celebration time for Independent Cinema because filmmakers are no longer trapped in the vicious cycle of distribution, marketing and production. They get commissioned projects from OTTs and they don’t have to worry about theatre availability. This gives them the required independence to tell stories the way they want to.
What's next on your table?
Next on my table is taking this book to readers all across the country. We’ve just finished the launch in Delhi and we were fortunate to have many events surrounding the launch, which followed at Oxford Book Store, Midland, Kumzum, and the Art Festival has also hosted us. In the next one year I see myself going to many literary spaces and specifically to schools with this book. And yes, something is brewing - I’ll be producing a project very soon.
When and how soon do we see you acting again?
I would love to act. And, for an actor like me there cannot be a more opportune moment than what presents itself now. I won’t say that I am waiting in the wings for the right script to come because whenever it is destined to happen, it will. I’m ready to make a comeback and I think it will happen soon.