Storytelling was an integral part of Chitwan Mittal’s childhood. “My convent-educated mother made bedtime magical by narrating stories from her vast collection of books. My love affair with picture books started as a child and has continued well into adulthood,” says Chitwan, the founder and editorial director of AdiDev Press, a publishing house that specialises in high-quality picture books for toddlers and early readers in South Asia.
The women-led startup has recently released a series of board books titled Learning to Be that seeks to introduce young children to higher values and perspectives based on the lives and philosophies of South Asian saints and historical personalities.
Beginning with books on Mahavira, Guru Nanak and Buddha, the illustrated series encourages young readers to implement these values through actions in their own lives. Written in collaboration with Sarita Saraf, the books are illustrated by award-winning illustrator Debasmita Dasgupta.
Based in Singapore, Chitwan – a mother of two boys, Aditya (8) and Dev (3) – did her Bachelor’s in English Education in Boston, US, and her Master’s in Values in Education in London.
Since 2005, she has served on the committees that established Indian Institute of Teacher Education and Children’s University for the Government of Gujarat, India. “Both institutes are focused on experiential learning and holistic development through innovative education tools,” she explains. In addition, she set up an education consultancy, Educational Innovations, to empower schools in Tier-2 cities to make curriculums more holistic and engaging.
We spoke to Chitwan about the message of peace and kindness in the new collection and her thoughts on spirituality in the new age of technology and religion-based politics.
After working as an educationist with the government and private sector, what inspired you to set up AdiDev Press?
While doing my undergraduate program in Boston, I spent my weekends browsing the children’s section of giant bookstores, as well as at specialty book shops. I longed to someday stumble upon books with pictures and stories native to South Asia. But, sadly it never happened!
Everything I read as a child, and now – even what my kids read – seems to reflect a Western milieu. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but where are our authentic, South Asian voices that our children can identify and learn from? That was a question I always asked myself.
After completing my Master’s, I aspired to create content that celebrated diversity, values and children’s unique inner selves.
In 2015, we moved to Singapore and, as a young mom, I started my hunt for culturally relevant content for my two boys. I soon realized that not much had changed and South Asian storybooks were still hard to find. I decided to stop looking and start creating the very books that I had always missed: stories that represent and reflect South Asian people and culture. And, AdiDev Press, derived from the names of my sons, came into being.
Was it a conscious decision to make this an all-women team or was it something that happened as you went along?
It was not a conscious decision to make an all-women team at AdiDev Press. However, as I went about looking for like-minded authors, illustrators, editors, art directors, graphic designers, historical researchers and others to become part of my team, I soon began to realise that they were all women. It was never by design.
As we progressed in our journey at AdiDev Press, we found ourselves feeling grateful that a unique set of talented individuals, who are all moved by passion and a sense of purpose, who happened to be women, had miraculously found each other.
What drives you to work towards the holistic and spiritual education of young children?
I have two children, and in them, I see everyone else’s. Our collective vision is to create high quality children’s picture books that will inspire and uplift. There’s very little in the market even today that does this. That is my biggest motivation.
Why do you think books on our great saints are important in today’s tech-obsessed age? Do you see a demand for these outside India as well?
I feel that we teach children about religious figures and the saints in history books, but we do it cursorily. There is no depth to what we teach them. For example, everyone knows that Siddhartha was born as a prince and one day he saw a sick man, an old man and a dying man. And this made his question why we suffer. He then left his palace and went to meditate. But do we know what answers he found? Or what he said? What was his philosophy?
As a society we don’t make the effort to explain this to our children. And, more importantly, explain it in a way that makes sense to children and connects it with their everyday life.
The messages of peace, service and kindness in the three books on the saints are extremely relevant to the contemporary world. Buddha, for example, speaks about desire being the root of all suffering. Children live today in a completely materialistic world, their senses are constantly bombarded with objects of desire. Mobile phones, televisions, video games and movies all promote the culture of consumerism and possession, wanting and having more and more and more. In this environment, the message of the Buddha is highly pertinent.
Likewise, how do we teach children empathy? That it’s important to give back. Through our stories, we have tried to show them that the values at the core of all religions are actually very simple and can be understood and inculcated to lead rich and fulfilling lives.
How did the teachings of the great saints inspire you, personally?
I have been involved in the creation of educational materials and tools for value-oriented education as an educational consultant. In partnership with the Indian Council of Philosophical Research, I administered and conducted several learning seminars for school teachers and students on value-oriented education across India, emphasizing themes such as ‘The Aim of Life’, ‘The Good Teacher and the Good Pupil’, ‘Mystery and Excellence of the Human’.
Research for these seminars led me to read and learn about the philosophies of these great saints. I felt very motivated to inculcate messages from their philosophies into educational tools and materials. There is scant little that effectively offers up such topics to children in a child-friendly way. This is what inspired me to venture into this project.
What do you think is missing in the South Asian education system today? And what is the solution you would propose?
Formal schooling in South Asia was set up to serve the purpose of creating literacy, a workforce that could read, write and do basic arithmetic. However, we have evolved and come a long way since then.
In India, since the Bengal Renaissance, with emergence of leaders such as Tagore, we saw the focus of schooling expand to include aesthetic education. Schools began to teach music, dance and art as society began, once again, to appreciate the value of an aesthetic education in the shaping of holistic human beings. As we further evolved, we have also included elements of emotional and social education for children.
It can be said that there are two ways to understand holistic education – one is ‘comprehensiveness’ and another is ‘integration’. In the last century, the developments towards holistic education in schooling have been purely in terms of comprehensiveness. We have expanded the number and range of subjects the child studies. But the missing element in school education that we now need to focus on is ‘integration’. We need to help children to find their unique inner selves and form their personalities around this inner core.
Do you think the trend of the regional leaders using religion as a political tool for short-term electoral gains will harm our society’s relationship with our spiritual heritage in the long term?
Yes, of course. Using religion as a political tool will make the youth of the country averse not only to religion, but also to spirituality. This would be a huge disservice to society. If this continues, we will end up with a generation of children that are spiritually lost.
You have a stellar team of writers and illustrators. How does the diversity – in age and backgrounds – contribute to the creativity and business aspect of your publishing house?
For picture books, having the right fit of words and pictures is an essential element of success. We did not have any preconceived ideas about who we wanted to work with. And more often than not, our choices ended up being what may not be considered typical.
We wanted illustrations that were subtle, aesthetically pleasing yet spry. We wanted our illustrators to be of South Asian origin, and our artworks and books to be of international quality and appeal. This was no easy task. We did not rush to sign the most famous or award-winning illustrators, but waited for the right fit to emerge.
For instance, we zeroed in on architect and urban designer Shruti Hemani for our picture book titled Are your emotions like mine? This was her first children’s book illustration project, but we knew, right from the start that she was the perfect fit. Her experience as an urban designer helped to create a beautiful and unexpected spread which shows our main character, a little girl, in the city of Jodhpur. The book is set here too. And the detailed drawings of the view from Mehrangarh Fort are breathtaking. Shruti used handwritten font to create the text for the book and fine lines inspired by traditional and folk art. It’s an enriching experience for children and adults alike.
Similarly, we fell in love with the artwork of illustrator and Bharatanatyam dancer from Pune, Ambika Karandikar, and chose her to illustrate our Hindi alphabet book, J is for Jalebi. Her artwork is non-traditional. Her characters are realistic, not perfectly shaped or fanciful. Yet, they are beautiful, raw and original. She did a truly marvelous job. Going forward, she will be illustrating a series of three bilingual books for us.
We are also thrilled to have worked with our illustrator and now art director, Aparajitha Vasudev. She took on the challenge of illustrating Hanuman in a completely original manner. She added elements of magic, fantasy and pop culture to create a truly unforgettable version of him.
Our illustrators come from many different cities across different states of India: Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Karnataka, West Bengal, Delhi and many more. Their geographical and cultural diversity is reflected in our books too. Just like our roster of writers and illustrators, our books are diverse and unique, from others and each other.