“The illustrator I think must always own the story as much as the writer; be an equal partner because one is telling the story with the writer and not by the writer.”
You have been illustrating for over a decade now. How did you begin? What was the first book/story that you illustrated for children?
My first book for children as an illustrator was a little book called ‘I’m so Sleepy’ written by Radhika Chadha and published by Tulika Books, in Chennai. It was around 2002 when I was still finishing my course at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. I had taken up animation as a discipline and I was always interested in making visual narratives and storytelling through pictures. A part of the process of making animation films involved making conceptual art for it. I enjoyed that stage immensely because it involved making illustrated scenes from the film you were ideating for without having to worry at that stage about the practicalities of how to make the drawings move. I had sent some samples of this animation work and some illustrations I had made in my sketchbooks to Radhika Menon at Tulika Books and they very kindly gave this student with absolutely no experience in publishing a chance to work on a book. It was really thrilling to see my work in print. In some ways, even to this day, the thrill of seeing a new book come out of the press is still the same. Growing up, I was a kid who loved drawing and reading books with illustrations and had often wondered who these people were who made these lovely drawings in all these books that I had. Though most of those illustrations were by either American or Russian illustrators, I loved them. I distinctly remember though, the first time I saw the work of illustrators like Atanu Roy and Suddhaswata Basu in an English children’s magazine called Target. I think it was the first time that I had read stories about Indian children with illustrations of people who actually looked like me or people that I would see around me. I think that definitely left an impression on me and is one of the reasons I decided to take on something like this professionally.
Ammachi’s Glasses. The story and illustration is by you, from a book with text to a wordless picture book. Such a vivid and progressive narrative. Would the story contain more had it retained the text?
The truth is that the initial drafts of Ammachi’s Glasses had visuals plus text in it. Once the publisher and I had gone through a few iterations of it, we realised that the text was merely a repetition, making the words pretty much obsolete. The story worked perfectly well without having any words in it. What was wonderful is that I realised that in this case the story might be mine but the vocabulary with which the narration is done, was really the child’s own. So, wordless books can really transcend language boundaries and make the ‘reading’ experience much more personal and intimate.
Indira, it has certainly achieved a mass appeal. Tell us your experience of working on it?
The idea for doing a graphic novel for young adults about Indira Gandhi’s life came from the publishers (Context) themselves. The year the book was published was the late Prime Minister’s centenary year. I was teamed up with the writer Devapriya Roy, someone whom I had not met and worked with before. Devapriya had started researching on the life of Indira Gandhi a little before I had come on board. We lived in two different cities. She in Delhi and I in Bangalore. So, initially we both weren’t very sure how a collaboration like this would work out. We did both agree that apart from reading up on Indira’s life, it was important that we also travelled together to do a good amount of visual research. So, initially Devapriya would suggest books to me that I could read and in turn, I would suggest graphic novels that Devapriya could read since she had never really written for comics before. We then travelled to Allahabad and also visited places in Delhi where parts of the book are set. This initial research was really valuable because at the end of the day Indira was not a fictional character, so to make the book factually accurate and visually engaging, this was important. We also needed to make the book to be noticeable among the many already wonderful biographies that were written about her life. I think the visits to Allahabad (swaraj Bhavan, the old city, the Sangam and a couple of other places) and Delhi (Indira Gandhi memorial, the parliament) really helped me visualise the book. It was important to get a sense of the grandeur and scale of some of these places. It helped me plan out scenes in the book and add details in the image that one might completely miss if one just looks at a photograph of the space. To give you an example; I’ve seen so many pictures of the central hall of the parliament on television or in magazines but to see the tessellated dome in real life completely changes the way you look at the space. Also there are these very specific fans that are attached to the benches on which the parliamentarians sit that are really unique. I’ve used details like that throughout the book. I think things like these give the image a specific character and layers of meaning are then added to the image.
We also went through numerous archives of photographs for this book. There were quite a few details about her life that surprised me; things that are not commonly known, like her difficult relationship with her father, her bouts of depression as a teenager, the way she met Feroze Gandhi. We were also lucky enough to get a few very interesting/surprising stories from Priyanka Gandhi of her experiences with Indira Gandhi which she very kindly shared. One of the nicest things about the collaboration though was that it led to one of those rare friendships that are formed post your 30’s with the author Devapriya. We do plan on collaborating on few other projects.
Who are some of your favourite illustrators and why?
Among Indian illustrators, the work of Atanu Roy and Mario Miranda has left a deep influence on me. I love the kid of detailing their work has and their sense of humour. Also, Suddhasattwa Basu for the gentleness with which he draws nature. Manjula Padmanabhan, for her wit and the characters she creates. I also absolutely love Pulak Biswas and Madhuri Purandare’s work.
There are also some contemporaries whose work I always look forward to seeing. Rajiv Eipe whose ‘Ammachi’s Amazing Machines’ are an example of the care with which he creates the world that his characters inhabit. Archana Sreenivasan for her brilliant compositions and also Prabha Mallya for the way she draws wildlife and here great sense of design.
I love Jon Klassen and Oliver Jeffers for their unique storytelling and minimal yet extremely evocative art. David Weisner for just making the most gorgeous wordless books. Emily Gravett for her easy humour and spontaneity.
According to you, how does illustration enhance the power of a story?
In the context of picture books, I believe it is the illustrator who really drives the story forward in the ‘jugalbandi’ between images and text. The rule most often is that the image never repeats what the text says and it is the gap that the text leaves for the illustration to fill and the ultimate juxtaposition of image and text that creates a new meaning. The decision of what to include on a page is almost always a political one and sometimes that decision is very subtle. Be it the skin colour of your characters or the clothes he/she wears or just the confidence and the body language of the character. Often, these might not be things that are specifically mentioned in the text. The illustrator I think must always own the story as much as the writer; be an equal partner because one is telling the story with the writer and not by the writer.
What role does an award play in children’s literature?
I think it helps to put the spotlight on Indian children’s literature which has unfortunately still not got the attention, care and investment that it needs from people who hold power and capital. It makes the mainstream sit up and look at the work of different creators with the seriousness that it deserves.
At such a young age, so many titles to your name. What do you feel about it?
I never really thought about the number of books I was doing, you know. In the beginning, I was just making books because I was enjoying illustrating these books. Later I started meeting children who grew up reading ‘I’m so Sleepy’ or one of those early picture books I worked on and they are almost teenagers now. It feels good to know that somehow I’ve been a part of their childhood and made me realise that what I do has relevance. I think of that child in the 80’s completely star struck by illustrations in an issue of Target and just feel lucky enough to be doing what I do. As it is with most creators, I feel I’m still learning with each book I work on.
Do you have a dream project in mind? What is it?
I’d love to do a project that involves travel, illustration and food histories for children perhaps. Also, it would be nice to do something curatorial that involves recording and documenting the work of other Indian illustrators into an anthology just to look at their process and inspirations
How can the young be encouraged in this field? What is your message to budding illustrators?
By building more libraries where adults and children from diverse backgrounds can have access to books and stories. We really need diverse creators of books as well and for this, art education must be accessible taught seriously (and joyfully) by government schools. For young people to look at it as a career option and to feel like it would be a space where they will be nurtured and valued, we really need publishers and owners of publishing houses to remunerate illustrators and writers of children’s books well enough for them to be able to make a living out it and not treat it as something that they do aside other things.
I always tell young illustrators who I sometimes teach, to look at themselves as storytellers first. If you are illustrating for a writer, read the entire story well. Own the story. Draw everyday, thoughtfully. Keep sketchbooks and think about your practice. Experiment. Be politically aware, observe and be conscious of your surroundings, and read.