3 years


The Crayon Revolution

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What is the lure of the adult colouring book? Is it a sign of boredom and loneliness? Does it alleviate stress? Is it a return to childhood? Or is it a symptom of ‘rage against the machine’?

THE FIRST rumblings of it are upon us. You can guess by the tell-tale pencil shavings near your colleague’s desk. You can make out by the ink-stained thumb of your co-passenger on the flight. And the unanswered phone of your friend. A new fad is here and it is slowly and insidiously seeping into our daily lives. It is called the adult colouring book. While naysayers believe filling of colours into lines is the domain of children learning hand-eye coordination, and combating ADD, sales figures tell us otherwise. In April 2015, the number one and number two bestsellers on Amazon were adult colouring books. Johanna Basford, a Scottish illustrator, an ‘ink evangelist’, and perhaps the single most important name in the business, has sold 10 million adult colouring books since the release of her blockbuster Secret Garden in 2013

The demand for colouring books has been such that crayons and colour pencils are now in short supply. Reports claim that after years of plateauing, the German writing tools company Staedtler’s sales rose 14 per cent last year, all thanks to the colouring madness. 

While the trend started with the UK and France, it slowly made its way to the US and Canada and now India is seeing the first signs of the invasion. At Itsy Bitsy, India’s leading hobby, arts and crafts megastore, Harish Chawla is yet to catch a whiff of the trend. While the shop has an inventory of 20,000 products, adult colouring books is not one of them and the stock of crayons is yet to disappear. The Adult Coloring Books Addicts Facebook page, which started a few months ago, has 4,000 plus likes, mainly from the US, UK, Canada and Australia and only one member declared she was from India. Aafreen Khan, 46, an Australian, married to an Indian, who has been living in Kolkata for more than 25 years, has recently taken to colouring. She says that she always loved paints, but, as a mother and wife, never had the time. Now that her daughters are grown up, she hopes to make more time for her interest. 

But do not be fooled. The trend is upon us. And Jolly Sabharwal at the Full Circle Bookstore in Delhi’s Khan Market is witness to it. Manning the till at the shop and answering every query of readers, she says they started stocking adult colouring books only two months ago and the books have been flying off the shelves since. The most popular titles include The Mindfulness Colouring Book: Anti-Stress Art Therapy for Busy People; Colour Yourself Calm and Secret Japan (Colouring for Mindfulness). The colouring books appear to fit right in beside Buddhist thangkhas, scented candles and pillows for sweet dreams, found at the shop. It is only natural that publishers in India have sensed this opportunity and are shooting titles into the press. Harry Potter Colouring Book and Harry Potter Magical Creatures from Insight Editions (brought to India by Simon & Schuster) have just hit stands. In the coming months, we will see Prabha Mallya’s Fangs and Feathers brought out by Aleph; Devdutt Pattanaik’s The Jaya Colouring Book and The Sita Colouring Book and Bagh-e-Bahar: A Mughal Garden by Penguin Random House India; and Game of Thrones and The Art of Romance: Mills and Boons by HarperCollins. 


 If Devdutt Pattanaik’s books will be peopled by those from the divine world, Fangs and Feathers will have somersaulting monkeys. And Bagh-e- Bahar will bring to life Mughal gardens 

Devdutt Pattanaik, author, mythologist and illustrator, has always filled his notebooks with black-and-white doodles between notes to himself and checklists. Believing that his illustrations are but an extension of the text, a colouring book seems to be the natural next step. He has chosen images of Hindu gods and goddesses and episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata for the forthcoming titles. Udayan Mitra, associate publisher at Penguin India, and the mastermind behind Pattanaik’s colour books says, “We thought readers of all ages might enjoy the idea of the story of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata as seen through 108 of these illustrations, which they can colour in, to really engage with the epic narrative. We’re looking at the Sita and Jaya colouring books as a fun extension of Devdutt’s branding as India’s number-one mythologist.” 

If Pattanaik’s books will be peopled by those from the divine world, Prabha Mallya’s Fangs and Feathers will have somersaulting monkeys. The Harry Potter colouring books will give a chance to fans to reimagine their favourite characters and creatures in colours and shades of their choosing. Rajni George, senior editor at Penguin Random House, says that Bagh-e-Bahar: A Mughal Garden, brought out in collaboration with the luxury retail store Good Earth will allow readers to bring to life the romance of Mughal gardens, “using Good Earth’s trademark combination of Persian, Central Asian and indigenous Indian styles.” 

But one must ask, what is the lure of the adult colouring book? Is it a sign of boredom and loneliness? Does it alleviate stress and ease the mind? Is it a return to childhood? Is it a symptom of ‘rage against the machine’ and the need for the tactile? Is it a desperate bid to keep hands busy and the mind still? 

There is of course no single answer, rather different answers that suit various colourers. But art therapy is not something to be tut-tutted at. It is a major field and for the last 100 years, Carl Jung’s theory that colours reveal personalities and moods, and that colouring is a way for self-expression and relief has only gained further traction. 

Deepa Kumar who divides her time between Delhi and Mumbai and runs a policy-based start-up admits that she is prone to stressing out and would likely agree with Jung. As a child she never took to colouring and would pass on her art sheets to her mother to complete. But one day, she found herself colouring in a magazine and suddenly realised that this could be “therapeutic and fun”. She says, “It is amazing that no one is telling me the strawberry should be pink or the roof of the house should be brown. I just make my own colourful hotchpotch.” When she sits down to colour with her Scandinavian Folk Patterns (Creative Coloring for Grown-Ups) or Game of Thrones colouring books, she finds herself completely absorbed with the task at hand. She pays no heed to her bai asking for dinner instructions or the beeping of her phone. She appreciates the flexibility that colouring provides, there are no timings to adhere to, she can colour on a flight, when sleep is evading her and just before dinner. 

As a former salsa teacher, she revels in the arts, and finds that colouring allows her to be “creative and emotive”. While her flatmates were initially bemused with her pastime, they have now taken up colour pencils as well. Speaking on the phone, from Mumbai, she says, “I thought I was a 25-year-old who can’t deal with adulthood. But now I realise there are others.” 


 While most adult colouring books, rich in squiggles and twirls of all things pretty, can be passed around the family, there are books that put the adult right back into the pages

Others there are plenty. The simplicity of colouring books means that curiosity is easily piqued and converts quickly mushroom. Abhigya Shukla Akester, 38, an educator and designer who divides her time between Dharamshala and Ladakh, sets up reading rooms for children. She once borrowed a colouring book from a library in Dharamshala and found that she enjoyed the act of putting pen to paper. Colouring proved to be meaningful in many ways, it reminded her of her own childhood, it made her nostalgic, it allowed for deep concentration, and it was both comforting and meditative. While she took to the activity only a few months ago, inspired by her example, a few friends have ordered their own books such as Secret Garden, Animal Kingdom and Dream Catcher: A Soul Bird’s Journey. 

WHILE THERE are numerous adult colouring books out there, the name that arguably launched a thousand more and has sold 10 million plus books is 32-year-old Johanna Basford. As a child of marine biologists, she grew up with her sister on research vessels and scientific aquariums. Her childhood holidays were spent on the Isle of Arran on the west coast of Scotland, where her grandfather was head gardener at a castle garden. When she met her husband he was a fisherman on a Northern Atlantic trawler. He’d spend months with the Scottish fishing fleet catching herring and mackerel. 

It is little surprise then that the incredible beauty of Basford’s work arises from the creatures of the deep (Lost Ocean, 2015) and botanical splendour (Secret Garden 2013, and Enchanted Forest 2015). Her proximity to and knowledge of the seas and natural world translates into filigree-like sketches. She draws inspiration from her father’s library of marine reference books (which have illustrations of lives beneath the waves) and botanical books inherited from her grandfather (which detail ‘weird and wonderful species’). Drawn entirely in black and white and by hand, her pages are a type of ‘fanciful horticulture’ and a hybrid marine world. A colourer will find herself not only discovering speckled mushrooms, paisley leaves and whorled trees but also an attentive reindeer standing guard at the corner of the page. 

The immense popularity of her work is measure of her genius on the page. Four years ago when she first pitched the idea of an adult colouring book, her editors reserved their comments. But once she had sent them five pages of super intricate illustrations, they knew that they had a winner at hand. There has been no looking back since. 

In detailed email answers provided by her publicist, Basford writes that colouring appeals to adults for three main reasons: it helps to de-stress, it sparks creativity and nostalgia and allows for digital detox. While colourersfrom across the world send her their work, which she uploads on her gallery, she also receives thousands of stories from them. ‘They share details of their favourite pages, suggest pens and pencils that they have found work particularly well, and perhaps most poignantly, some people have stories about how colouring has played a part in certain stages of their life, whether that be an investment banker de-stressing on his lunch break, a busy mum taking an hour to herself in the evening or a cancer patient keeping his hands busy during chemo. The stories I receive are astonishing and so touching.’ 

For Basford, colouring provides an opportunity for adults to be consumed by the moment, it spurs them to be creative without the tyranny of the blank page hanging over and it brings families together. What could be better than households switching off the television and sitting down to colour instead? 

MOST ADULT colouring books, rich in squiggles and twirls of all things pretty, can be passed around the family, but there are books that put the adult back into the pages. This Valentine’s Day saw the release of Sex Position Coloring Book: Playtime For Adults, with illustrations of couples copulating in bathrooms and bedrooms. Grimm Fairy Tales Adult Coloring Book and The Fetish Coloring Book, which leave little to the imagination, are the other popular books in this series. And for that particularly wrecked day at office, when nothing is going your way, there is Sweary Coloring Book for Adults and Calm the F*ck Down. Here you can spend hours colouring bunnies that lope around the cusses ‘bullshit’ and puppies sneaking around ‘dumbcunt’ printed in elaborate calligraphy. 

Sceptics will look at this activity with puzzlement, even derision. There will be those who deem it the ‘cult of Peter Pan’ and declare it the final symptom of the infantilisation of adults. There will be friends who mock and the urge to quickly hide away your book before your siblings find you will remain. Despite all of this, the trend will endure, the heads bowed over pages, the fingers gripped around pencils will persist at the task at hand—filling in colour and creating personal works of art.