Mango Birds

An Indian folktale, retold by Deepa Agarwal.  Supposedly about the origin of golden orioles (mango birds) — but really a fable about a common-property resource problem.

The story line is that long ago, in a simpler time, the people of a hill village would pick and eat the mangoes off the tree when they were ripe.  People and animals both enjoyed the mangoes, and the spirit of the mango grove, in the form of a wind, would whisper to them “Eat all you like, but take only what you can use.”  And there was plenty for all.

Then one night, a man came and began to pick all the mangoes and put them in sacks.  The mango spirit was upset about this and made the sack of mangoes tumble down the hill.  The man chases the mangoes but is unable to catch them.  He trips and falls, the bag tumbles open, and out come the magoes — but they fly out of his grasp and up into the air, turning into birds.

This text block would be in the lower left corner of the image, in white:

“The mangoes have ripened, deep in the forest,” the people of the jungle sang as they danced around their fires at night.  And before the first streaks of light appeared in the sky, they padded down to the grove.  Effortlessly they shimmied up to the highest branches of the tree and ate their fill of the choice fruit.

The spirit wafted among them in the form of a breeze.  “Eat as much as you like, ” she murmured, “But remember, this fruit is for everyone.”

Mango Birds - Jeanette Bradley 2009
Mango Birds – Jeanette Bradley 2009

The breeze is depicted using some mhendi motifs — they don’t show up well in the photo.

The funny thing about this project is that I drew the preliminary drawing and mentally planned it out with a mental image of a hot, steamy, midday in the rainforest.  Then I went back and looked at the text and realized that the scene took place at night!  Ack!   So I added in the man holding the lantern, and spent hours working out where the (imaginary) light of the (imaginary) lantern would fall on the (imaginary) people and tree, and how it would cast (imaginary) shadows.

I wanted to evoke some of my sensual memories of India and give the viewer a sense of the oppressive heat, the slowness of everyone’s movements, and the crowds.  I never visited the rainforest or the mountains in India, so I had to imagine that part after looking at photos and reading about the Himalyan foothills.  I had never seen a mango tree before, and was charmed to discover that the fruit hangs down on vines — they look like a child’s drawing of apples hanging from a tree.

Mangoes growing
Mangoes growing

This spread is 12 x 20 inches, and contains 10 figures. (Can you find them all?)  I discovered that a 4 inch high figure takes as much, if not more, time to render than a drawing on a “normal” sized piece of paper — say 18 x 24.  Those teeny-tiny hands are killer.  And one tiny movement of the brush and suddenly the person is scowling, or has no nose, or three eyes.

Despite high frustration levels, I had so much fun with this.  I have a sketch of the mango bird mid-transformation that is so cute that I will post it once I’ve worked on it a little more.

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