Reed Pen to Digital Art: The Journey of Illustrations for Children’s Urdu Books
Reed Pen to Digital Art: The Journey of Illustrations for Children’s Urdu Books

I will attempt to showcase a sampling of Urdu literature produced for children, with emphasis on my own practice as well as some other eclectic illustrative styles from the past to the present times in Pakistan.

There was certainly a time in our South Asian history when reed pen (sarkanday ka qalam) was used on a takhti (wooden tablet) coated with Multani clay providing a smooth writing surface. Though this was simply for exercises in Urdu writing, it may have had an impact on the art of artists such as Sadequain, Anwar Jalal Shemza, Zahoor-ul-Akhlaq and Rashid Arshed. Unfortunately, I have never used the reed pen or takhti in my life, but we had reasonably good drawing and painting materials available from when I was an art student. It was the pre-computer era, and everything was hand-drawn and hand-written. Printing methods were old-fashioned. Even though four-colour offset printing was introduced by Elite Publishers in 1951, but it came about for wider usage in Pakistan in the 1980s.

In the Indian subcontinent, Urdu magazines were the precursor to children’s Urdu books. Bacchaun ka Akhbaar 1 seems to be the first children’s magazine. It was a monthly published from Lahore between 1902 and1906, and again in 1911. Payam-e-Taleem, first published in 1937 from Delhi, continued with some hiccups right up to 1988. There are no images of the inside pages of these two magazines that I could find for reviewing the illustrations, but judging from the covers, one can form an opinion regarding their simple yet powerful compositions in two colours.

There were over 40 children’s Urdu magazines published in India, and post-Independence, Pakistan too had a fair number, but then the numbers dwindled and declined, and presently there are only a handful of them left.

The names of many children’s magazines2 seemed to emerge from floral roots: Ghuncha, Shagoofa, Phulwari, Phool, Kalian, Guldasta, etc. Another variety of names suggested favourite games, toys and sweets enjoyed by children, for example: Aankh Micholi, Khilauna and Toffee. Then there were others prompting the child to think of good traits or the abode from where all kinds of information, knowledge, fantasy and mystery turns up: Naunehal, Honehar, Shareer, Masoom, Achha Sathi, Bachchon ka Akhbar, Nirali Duniya, etc.

These covers show the easy, straightforward conformations of illustration and titles of the two older issues of the Khilauna and Phool magazines, whereas the newer Phool, that started to get published from Lahore in1990, uses photos of fair-skinned Pakistani babies and toddlers on its covers with highly cluttered compositions. In my humble opinion, the illustrations are quite average.

Some of the other names in the plethora of children’s Urdu magazines that have been published are: Taleem-o-Tarbiat (produced by Ferozsons since1941, hence the claim that it is “Pakistan’s oldest” children’s magazine), Noor, Chandanagri, Hilal, Hidayat, Prem, Sathi, etc. However, magazines such as Taleem-o-Tarbiat seem to be stuck in a time warp, as the illustrations in its recent issues have not kept up with the changing times and look pretty dated. 

Taleem-o-Tarbiat magazine, February 2021. Medium: water colours.

Almost all afore-mentioned magazines have closed down, except for a few, including Taleem-o-Tarbiat. Hamdard Naunehal perhaps tops the list in popularity, and as of late, from being strictly an Urdu magazine, it has added pages in English as well. First published by Hakim Said of Hamdard Laboratories in1953, the magazine keeps his memory alive by publishing his picture in each issue. Naunehal uses a mix of photographs and illustrations that are either computer generated or have a strong foreign flavour.

Hamdard Naunehal magazine, October 2018. Medium: photograph

Sathee is being published since 1978, and I will be repeating myself by saying that its illustrations are heavily inspired by those in Western children’s literature. The first issue of another monthly, Anokhi Kahaniyan started publishing from Karachi in1991, and it is difficult to say whether the illustrations are original or ‘borrowed’. 

Suntra magazine was published by Kifayat Academy but closed down in 2012, and Uran- Tashtaree, a bi-monthly magazine of the Children’s Literature Festival, published eighteen editions until 2017. These magazines were illustrated by Saira Nagi, who was mostly aided by computer graphics.

Uran Tashtree, 18th edition, 2017, illustrator: Saira Nagi. Publisher: Children's Literature Festival. Medium: digital

The Pakistani illustrators who have stuck to portraying Western imagery seem to have been influenced by our collective colonial hangover. Perhaps looking inwards for inspiration requires more imagination and hard work too. 

I have fond childhood memories of devouring Naunehal, Bachhaun ki Dunya, Khilona and Taleem-o-Tarbiyat, as they provided hours of leisure and pleasure to many of my generation even though the illustrations were not great. In the 1950s and 1960s there was no television, nor the Internet, and one was content with whatever images and imagery got presented. Urdu literature for children in the form of books was almost non-existent, except for a few small and poorly produced storybooks.

Some of my favourite English storybooks were my father’s collection of the Just William series by Richmal Crompton, or the storybooks I started borrowing as a member of the British Council Library at Sarnagati Building on Pakistan Chowk in Karachi ever since I was seven years old. Other English books produced from the 1920s to the1960s, such as Heidi, all of the Enid Blyton series, and the Daniel Defoe, Mark Twain and Lewis Carroll books helped to spur my imagination. Perhaps in comparison to books published nowadays, the illustrations in those books were not spectacular, but in comparison to the Urdu storybooks of those times, they were very appealing.

In 1972, the National Book Foundation was established In Pakistan with a children’s division headed by Meher Nigar Masroor and Naheed Azfar. They produced a limited number of some very good books, some of them illustrated by Azfar herself.

During the four years (1969-1973) of my studies at the Central Institute of Arts and Crafts (CIAC) in Karachi, we were never given any specific assignment for illustrating a children’s book. However, one of our teachers, namely Khalil Ahmed, a fresh graduate from the NCA, joined the CIAC when I was in my 3rd year, and he frowned at our Western-inspired works. “Something is surely amiss in your training. Think in Urdu!” He said to us, and pointed out the difference between our drawings and graphics and those from the indigenous folk culture of the subcontinent. He also made us aware that traditionally our people are drawn to a lot of ornamentation, such as truck art, mehndi designs, highly embellished bridal clothes, intricate jewellery, frescoes on heritage buildings, and so on.  I would attribute my own ‘awakening’ to his teachings. Shunning the foreign, embracing our own, and experimenting with different styles and mediums became exciting.

Children of all ages inspire me. I had my own two children (1979 and 1982); made stuffed fabric toys and handmade accessories using local imagery, and displayed them in two3 well received exhibitions; created fifty-two fabric applique wall hangings for the children’s ward at the Aga Khan University Hospital, and two large fabric murals for the IUCN in Karachi depicting endangered animals of Pakistan, and another mural for its headquarters in Gland, Switzerland. I taught art at various levels – at the PECHS, KGS and CAS schools, and taught children’s book illustrations to 5th semester students at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture for three consecutive years.

One of fifty-five wall hangings for the Children's Ward at Aga Khan University Hospital, 1986 (hung there for 25 years), designed and fabricated by: Rumana Husain. Medium: fabric appliqué.
Pakistan's Endangered Flora and Fauna, 1989, (16’ high mural at IUCN Karachi), designed and fabricated by: Rumana Husain. Medium: fabric appliqué.

In1986 I started working at a newly opened private school. It was soon obvious that children took no interest in Urdu. I couldn’t blame them, as their Urdu textbooks were most uninspiring. Although by then a significant momentum had gathered for children’s books in Pakistan, but the stories or the illustrations did not match with the existing times. Urdu storybooks were either highly moralistic or were translations of Grimms’ Fairy Tales or the stories by Hans Christian Andersen. The Tarzan series of adventure novels written by Edgar Rice Burroughs were also being translated in Urdu. The quality of illustrations in those was not at all stimulating. 

Tarzan ki Wapsi, author: Maqbool Jahangir, illustrator: unknown. Medium: unknown

My husband, an architect by profession, used to collect beautifully illustrated children’s Urdu storybooks published in China, Russia, and India that he used to buy in Karachi from various exhibitions. Many countries have been producing original children’s books in their own languages and then translating those into different languages before sending them out to the respective countries where those languages are spoken. 

I thought it would be a good experiment to undertake by asking the Urdu teachers to use those Chinese, Russian and Indian storybooks in their classrooms instead of our sanctimonious textbooks that only had black and white illustrations.

A children's Urdu storybook from China. Details are unknown.
From Russia with love. An Urdu storybook. Details are unknown.
Sujata aur jungli Haathi, 1974, translator: S. M. Shahnawaz, illustrator: Shankar. Publisher: Children’s Book Trust, New Delhi, India. Medium: water colours

The experiment worked, and children were attracted to Urdu stories due to the joyful and colourful illustrations. From this originated the idea of creating our own books, as after all those foreign books were only a half measure since they had their own locales and characters. I therefore cofounded the Bookgroup.

I was heading that school and worked as a volunteer for the Bookgroup for over eight years before becoming its Director for four years. After the first book got published (which I had co-authored and illustrated, using a Makrani boy as the protagonist), I felt the need to write a teacher’s manual for it, so that it could be promoted for other schools as well. Once we had the first few books, I not only went around several schools in the city but also across the country to hold workshops for heads and teachers, thus creating a market for Urdu storybooks to be taken seriously and used inside the classrooms as supplementary reading. After giving fourteen years to this endeavor, I parted ways from the Bookgroup in the year 2000.

I continue to create books for children. My books are published by Oxford University Press, Danesh Publications and other publishers.

One theme keeps cropping up in my work: the environment. I have been connecting the dots between plastic, pollution, ‘development’, and the toll all of this takes on the living world. My first book, Hasan ki Gali was about littering, and my story Kala Bhoot (illustrated by Noorjehan Bilgrami) gave life and personality to the ubiquitous plastic bag. They were both published three decades ago — but their messages are still as important as before.

Hasan ki Gali, 1989, coauthor and illustrator: Rumana Husain. Publisher: Bookgroup. Mixed media: crayons, water colours and coloured pencils.
Kala Bhoot, 1993, author: Rumana Husain, illustrator: Noorjehan Bilgrami. Publisher: Bookgroup. Medium: water colours

My picture books speak about nature, its bounties, about trees, animals, the earth, our environment, and man’s ruthless exploitation and greed. But my books are light hearted and humorous too. My stories are also on the topic of friendship, empathy, peace, harmony, inclusivity, indigenous tales, festivals, handicrafts, and local environment. These subjects provide me inspiration for the illustrations that I make.

Ool Bala, 1995, author and illustrator: Rumana Husain. Publisher: Bookgroup. Medium: coloured pencils

In a recent bilingual book, Khoo-Khoo-Khoo – The Coughing City, I have dealt with issues of overpopulation (in a subtle manner), of air and sound pollution, garbage, infrastructure development, etc. that leaves little room for animals and trees. The book is illustrated by artist and art teacher Adeel-uz-Zafar, with whom I have worked on several children’s book projects.

My books have received awards in Pakistan, India and Nepal, and the one published in Nepal was also illustrated by Adeel-uz-Zafar.

Tu Tu Main Main, 1993, an old tale retold. Illustrator: Rumana Husain. Publisher: Bookgroup. Medium: fabric appliqué
Khoo-Khoo-Khoo – The Coughing City, bilingual, 2020, author: Rumana Husain, illustrator: Adeel uz Zafar. Publisher: JAAL Publications. Medium: water-based inks, graphite pencils and black pointer
Another page from Tu Tu Main Main, 1993, an old tale retold. Illustrator: Rumana Husain. Publisher: Bookgroup. Medium: fabric appliqué

The contemporary illustrated Pakistani children’s books, having weathered a variety of trends in design, was emerging in the 1990s, and the increased use of modern printing techniques enabled the artists to paint in a variety of new mediums, and to integrate the text with the artwork attractively yet economically. I must mention here that in the late eighties and early nineties, we were dependent on hand calligraphy and the text went back and forth to the calligrapher until it turned out satisfactory.

Inside pages, Chuch Chuch Gilheri, 1994, an old tale retold. Illustrator: Rumana Husain. Publisher: Bookgroup. Medium: photographed small sets using handmade squirrel and different objects.

The late advertiser, writer and voice archivist Luthfullah Khan one day took me over to meet two young men who had started using (the then rare) Urdu software which could help expedite work and make life easier for those associated with publishing in Urdu. This was in the early 1990s.

The ability to use the Noori style of Nastaliq, created as a digital font in 1981 through the collaboration of Ahmad Mirza Jamil of Elite Publishers and Monotype Corp. as the InPage Urdu software on a computer was a game changer. The laborious hand calligraphy was replaced. By the mid1990s teething problems of the software had been more or less resolved, and a similar transformation was also taking place with regards to computer manipulation of illustrations. Photoshop, possibly the only bit of software to have spawned its own verb form, was just getting to be known, and one was fascinated to see what it could do to improve hand-made illustrations. I still remember the fascination of witnessing colour changes of illustrations or cloning an element of my design. It seemed miraculous. However, I wanted to use it only as an aid in a small way as I continued to hand-draw and hand-paint.

Pakistan ki Sair, 1998, author and illustrator: Rumana Husain. Publisher: Bookgroup. Medium: handmade illustrations with gouche and photographs.
Inside pages, Pakistan ki Sair, 1998, author and illustrator: Rumana Husain. Publisher: Bookgroup. Medium: handmade illustrations with gouche and photographs.

Art schools in the country have begun teaching book illustration and design, but in turn, very few publishers are taking seriously the need to employ artists and designers to plan and layout books with attention to style and detail. A significant number of illustrators continue to copy the visuals from children’s books printed in other parts of the world. In simple words, it is laziness and plagiarism. Adequate thought has not been paid in this regard considering the needs of a burgeoning young population who should feel proud of their own identity.

Original storybooks in Urdu still remain a stuttering progress. In my personal experience of doing over sixty children’s books, none of the publishers make it financially worthwhile for the author and illustrator; be it small publishers or large publishing houses.

Digital illustrations and animations are a big hit though. Websites such as Upwork, Guru and others are used by Pakistani illustrators of children’s books available globally, as they find that overseas clients fetch them much more money. There are also websites with Pakistani children and other ‘characters from Pakistan dressed in the traditional way Vector Illustrations’ such as that have ready-to-use, royalty-free stock images in high definition (HD).

The reading habits of children are poor in our country because they don’t see their parents or their teachers reading and discussing books. Sadly, parents who can well afford to buy books do not care about building a home library for their children either.

Promotion and marketing by the publishers need to be innovative and aggressive, so that parents and teachers get convinced that Urdu storybooks, beyond the textbooks, are vital for children’s imagination and emotional development. Paper and printing should be cheaper so that books are affordable for all income groups. Ceremonial plaques and all kinds of other prizes, awards and gifts need to be replaced by books.

If Pakistan is serious about building a reading culture then small and cheap lending libraries must be established in all neighbourhoods.

According to the figures on the website of world population review, at the time of writing this article Pakistan’s population is 224, 169, 017, and 35.4% of this is between 0 -14 years of age.  Indonesia has a population closer to ours. An article, ‘Indonesia: 17000 Islands of Imagination’ published in the April 2019 issue of a journal ‘All about Book Publishing’ reveals that every year 55,000 new titles are published in Indonesia – with a majority of those for children. This is simply outstanding. I cannot find reliable figures for Pakistan, but it is doubtful if new Urdu titles for children reach a number beyond 300 per year. The print run too is extremely low (between 1,000 to 2,000 copies), and translations or original stories in regional languages are almost non-existent. This needs immediate rectification.

Incentives for creative people are needed in order to do this. Authors and illustrators must get encouragement, adequate remuneration, royalty, support, and greater respect for their craft. Unless all this criteria is met, fewer creative people want to write and illustrate Urdu books for children.

In conclusion, I want to mention a few initiatives and a few artists whose contribution towards children’s book illustrations in Pakistan is immense. They need our respect and gratitude.

In 1978 Pakistan’s first lending library for children came into being in Lahore. The Book Bus, a brightly coloured double-decker bus specially converted for the purpose, was the brainchild of an American psychologist named Nita Baker. Soon after, an educationist Basarat Kazim took over, setting up the formal Alif Laila Book Bus Society (ALBBS) aimed at providing meaningful education to children, especially girls from disadvantaged backgrounds. ALBBS has set up libraries in schools in numerous districts of the Punjab, and it has libraries in buses, rickshaws, and also on camel back! Its decades of experience have inspired a few other similar initiatives.

Alif Laila Book Bus, library on wheels, 2019

The Children’s Literature Festival (CLF) founded by Dr. Baela Raza Jamil of Idara-e-Taleem-o-Agahi (ITA), a leading non-profit, with Ameena Saiyid, the former Managing Director of Oxford University Press as its co-founder, has been promoting children’s books, storytelling and much more ever since the first CLF was held in Lahore in 2011. With more than seventy CLFs held in different parts of the country now, as CLF Advisor and resource person I have seen from close quarters how it has been a major influencer and stimulus for children’s reading habits. The CLF’s own  publications, its Kitab Gadi in rickshaws, and the more recent Digi Kutub Khana with books in a gaily-coloured trunk for marginalized coastal, desert and mountain regions, is a compassionate solution for providing good quality books for children.

Children's Literature Festival, Digi Kutub Khana (DKK), a library in a metal trunk for children in remote regions. The first DKK was launched at Mubarak Goth fishing village in 2020.

Amongst the individual artists who have been illustrating for children, Aftab Zafar creates highly detailed water colour illustrations. He completed his Fine Arts training from Mayo School of Arts (NCA) Lahore in1952, and is one of the senior most artists and illustrators of Pakistan, with thousands of illustrations to his credit.

Senior artist Aftab Zafar illustrating a children’s storybook in his studio, 2014.
Faiz Ahmed Faiz, graphic storybook, 2015, author: Rumana Husain, illustrator: Aftab Zafar. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Medium: water colours.

Shirin Syed studied Fine Arts at the Punjab University, Lahore and started working at Pakistan Design Institute (PDI), which was established in Karachi with Swiss assistance. She later headed the design department at the Oxford University Press. To-date she has illustrated innumerable children’s books.  

With my Friends, bilingual, 2003, original story: Kathy Keirle Ali, translation: Rumana Husain, illustrator: Shireen Syed. Publisher: Children's Museum of Peace and Human Rights (originally called HREP). Medium: water colours
Nadir series, 1998, author: Mariam Shera, illustrator: Shireen Syed. Publisher: Bookgroup. Medium: all the books in the series are done in watercolours, but the covers are paper collage.

Adeel-uz-Zafar graduated from NCA in 1998, and has been illustrating children’s books ever since. He is an established fine artist, showing nationally as well as internationally. 

Rung Barungi Dunya Urdu Silsila, 2008, author: Rumana Husain, illustrator: Adeel-uz-Zafar. Publisher: Danesh Publications. Medium: mixed media including water-based inks, graphite pencils and collage.
Prerana and Lal Peela, 2012, coauthors: Rumana Husain and Buddhi Sagar, illustrator: Adeel-uz-Zafar. Publisher: Kathalaya Inc Pvt Ltd, Nepal. Medium: mixed media, including water-based inks, graphite pencils and collage.

The late Akbar Zia was a visual artist and a seasoned illustrator of several children’s books. He was also a caricaturist. Zia graduated from NCA in the year 1997. HIs  premature death has created a huge void in the world of illustrations in children’s Urdu books.

Tota Khan aur Bakri Ara ka Safarnama, 2015, author: Rumana Husain, illustrator: Akbar Zia. Published jointly by the Children's Literature Festival and Oxford University Press Medium: digital.
Dushman ya Dost, 2020, coauthors: Baela Raza Jamil and Sehrish Farooq, illustrator: Akbar Zia Medium: digital.

Naila Ahmed has a Master’s degree in Fine Arts and has worked with major publishing houses on over thirty books for children over the last fifteen years. 

Dadima ka Raaz, 2019, author: Nusser Sayeed, illustrator: Naila Ahmed. Publisher: Medium: opaque water colours (gouache).
Rung Barangi Dunya Urdu Silsila, 2008, author: Rumana Husain, illustrator: Naila Ahmed. Publisher: Danesh Publications. Medium: Opaque water colours (gouache).

Fauzia Minallah got a Master’s in Communication Design in 1991 from the Pratt Institute, New York. She created Amai, the bird of peace and light, and through this character she has been writing and illustrating her stories for children’s books. 

Amai and the Banyan Tree, bilingual, 2012, author and illustrator: Fauzia Minallah. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Medium: illustrated digitally on Adobe Photoshop.

AzCorp Entertainment launched itself in 2015 with a comic book series. These comics are all about harmony and diversity. The company employs several illustrators, including Saib Irfan, Sana Ashfaq, Shakil Awan, Maha Abdul Alaam, Junaid Badr, Tehreem Iqbal and Zain Naqvi. 

Sheeba and the Private Detectives, comic book series, 2018, multiple authors, character design: Waseka Nahar, illustrators: Maha Abdul Alam, Tehreem Iqbal, Sana Ashfaq et al. Publisher: Azcorp. Medium: illustrated digitally on Adobe Photoshop.

Maria Riaz Tauseef, an NCA graduate, is a relatively new entrant, who is a gifted illustrator and writer of children’s books. A mother of three young children, she launched her career with a book in English but is now also working on Urdu books.

Bachay Kahan Hain? 2020, author: Syeda Basarat Midhat Kazim, illustrator: Maria Riaz Tauseef. Publisher: Alif Laila book publishing IBBY Medium: digital illustration on iPad pro using autodesk sketchbook.

Saleha Ghani, with an MSc in Artificial Intelligence from the University of Edinburgh under her belt, is a self-learnt illustrator and designer. She has worked on two children’s books for, and continues to work on more books.

Noori, 2020, author: Nusser Sayeed, illustrator: Saleha Ghani. Publisher: Medium: hand-drawn digital.

There are other young and popular illustrators on Instagram. However, they are not restricting their creativity to only a single genre such as Urdu storybooks for children.  Saleha Kamran4 has worked on concept and texture for the Pakistani computer animated film Allahyar and the Legend of Markhor. Maha Abdul Alaam has worked on a wide range of projects, including movies such as Teen Bahadur, Netflix’s Sitara, and issues of popular comic books. These young men and women are mostly inspired by either Japanese Manga comics or other foreign illustrators.

One can argue that we have come a long way, and the overall quality of illustrations is much better now. However, if we compare the Pakistani children’s book illustrations with the best of the international books, we still have a longish journey to make. Our talent pool is promising, and if given more opportunities, there is no reason why the Urdu children’s books cannot make a mark.


  1. Major Urdu Journals at the Urdu Research Center in India, Digital South Asia Library, The University of Chicago Library.
  2. Website: The names of the magazines are attributed to an article published in ‘Pakistan Today’, titled ‘Reviving children’s Urdu literature’, written by Firoz Bakht Ahmed
  3. The exhibitions were held at the Goethe-Institut, Karachi (1981) and Pak American Cultural Centre, Karachi (1985)
  4. Nine Pakistani illustrators upping the Insta game, Express Tribune, Rida Lodhi, June 23, 2020

Rumana Husain is a writer, artist and educator. She is the author of two coffee-table books on Karachi, and has authored and illustrated over 80 children’s books. Four of her books have won awards in Pakistan, Nepal and India. She has been a contributor to various newspapers and magazines, and written hundreds of articles, travelogues, art and book reviews, and has also conducted numerous interviews in the print and electronic media.

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Comments (5)

  • A very comprehensive and well researched article khala. We do not realise how heavily we are influenced by the western world. Their art and culture come more naturally to us rather than the other way around. When we start appreciating our own country , roots and legacy it will become visible in everything else including art and book illustrations.

  • Awesome article and great visuals.

  • Informative, very readable. Thank you.

    Ali Akbar Husain
  • A wonderful and holistic article on Children’s Urdu literature and it’s art form. Chronologically researched. Thankyou
    We need more of such research on poets of Urdu children’s literature, period authors or by genres.

    Aliya Sikander
  • Felt a sudden urge to delve into some nostalgia and this was the perfect read. There’s something so compelling about old style of children book illustrations. Thank you for such a comprehensive article filled with lots of images to look at.


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