How did you begin your journey in the world of illustrations? What makes you illustrate for children?
I’d been drawn towards illustration since my time in art school studying painting, and later at design school learning animation, so when the chance to illustrate a picture book called Dinosaur-Long-As-127-Kids, written by the amazing Geeta Dharmarajan and published by Katha came up, I leapt at it. My family has always encouraged my artistic talents, so I pursued art, because it felt good to be good at something.
I illustrate picture books because I enjoy doing so very much. Also, books are wonderful things, and if some drawings I make gets someone interested in reading, then great!
While growing up, what did you want to be?
When I was very young, I wanted to be whatever my brother wanted to be, which changed frequently from pilot, to chemical engineer, to genetic scientist, etc. As I started to draw more and be interested in art, I realised that I wanted to study and eventually do something related to visual arts. I didn’t have a very clear idea of what that would be, because I didn’t know what the possibilities were, other than a vague idea of being a painter or sculptor with a long beard, a kurta, chappals and a jhola.
Tell us an interesting response that any of your work may have received?
I can’t think of a specific one, but I really enjoy seeing when a reader turns something they have seen or read in a book that I have worked on into a real-life activity — like making coconut barfi using simple machines (from the book Ammachi’s Amazing Machines). I also find it quite funny when people who know me insist that a character that I may have drawn in a book is based on me or an immediate member of my family. These are often unintentional coincidences, or else completely false allegations. Although it is true that we often put a lot of ourselves into the images we make.
Is it important for the illustrator to meet the author? What happens if they meet? What happens if they don’t?
I haven’t thought about this very much, and I have to admit that I don’t have a strong opinion on this either way. It happens that on most books that I have worked on, I haven’t had the opportunity to meet or even communicate extensively with the author, and I assumed that this is just how things are. I am conscious of the fact that it must take a lot for an author to completely hand over something they have created to someone else to interpret visually, so I am happy to try and incorporate into the illustrations as many suggestions and ideas and thoughts from the author. Good editors and art directors play such an important role in the process, and I have been fortunate to have been able to work with some of the best.
While illustrating a picture book, what are you most mindful of? How do you connect imagination and observation?
At a really broad level, that the illustrations reflect the character and sensibility of the story, and are helpful in drawing a reader into the world of the story. I think adding details from real-life observations and experiences adds some level of authenticity to the images, something for a reader to relate to, identify with. I often try to add tiny sub-plots into the illustrations so that the pictures are more than just an identical reproduction of the text, and so there’s something for the reader to come back to after one reading. I think imagination and observation are both crucial ingredients that go into making a nice, rich illustration stew.
What has been a complex illustration that you have done so far? How did you tackle it?
The book ‘Dive’, published by Pratham Books StoryWeaver, has some of the more detailed illustrations that I have worked on. Since the book was imagined as an introduction to an underwater world, the editor, art director and I, all agreed that it would work best to try and represent that world in as much vivid detail and realism as possible.
Your book, ‘Pishi and Me’, has the finest of details and it takes children to a world beyond the book, to many real-life activities as you say. Tell us your experience of illustrating it?
This was one of the nicest books that I have had the chance to work on. The story is told from a child’s perspective and the illustrations were composed keeping that in mind. The book is sort of an invitation to the reader to accompany the protagonist and his aunt on a walk around their neighbourhood, as they collect little souvenirs from the paths they take and people they meet. As it implores us to celebrate small, everyday things, it made sense that the illustrations be detailed and authentic enough within which to situate these things. I took many walks around my neighbourhood for inspiration and ideas and little details to add to the drawings. Years after having worked on the book, I still find myself combing the ground in front of me with my eyes for small, interesting objects.
Do you think illustrations elevate the text in a book? How?
I think for children, illustrations are a path into a story or a book — this was certainly the case with me, growing up. Illustrations in picture books can convey emotion, atmosphere, detail and nuance that complement and enrich the text without putting too much strain on the reader.
While illustrating, how do you know what children will like?
To be honest, i don’t know. I rely on the wisdom and perspective of the editor and art director for a sense of what might work with children or not. And beyond that, you use your instinct.
Who are your favourite illustrators and why? And which is your favourite picture book?
Growing up, Ajit Ninan and Jayanto’s illustrations in Target magazine fascinated and enchanted me. I love the work of author-illustrators Emily Hughes and Carson Ellis, for their whimsical, inventive drawings and storytelling, and the way they combine text and image into a seamless whole. Closer home, Priya Kuriyan for her keen observational humour and sheer volume of consistently brilliant work. Aindri C pushes the boundaries of illustration with almost every new book and project. Rohan Chakravarty for his brilliant humour and wit and his enormous body of wildlife and conservation themed work. Archana Sreenivasan for her meticulousness and commitment to an almost impossibly high standard, and Manasi Parikh, whose drawings are full of heart and whimsy in equal measure. There are so many amazing artists working in the illustration space currently, and their work inspires and pushes you constantly.
There are so many favourite books, and it is hard to pick one. But yes, one big favourite is ‘Du Iz Tak’ by Carson Ellis.
What is your message to young aspiring illustrators?
Draw lots, work hard, be inspired by things around you, don’t do half-hearted work, practise kindness and empathy, and don’t listen to silly middle-aged illustrators like me.