Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Interview with Ashok Rajagopalan

Ashok Rajagopalan - an illustrator, a graphic designer, an animator and also a writer of children's books. He has illustrated more than 500 books for children in the last twenty years, for publishers like Tulika, Scholastic, Macmillan, Oxford University Press and Orient Longman.

In 2007, he made his mark as a published writer as well and since then he has written three books - retellings of the Odyssey and Iliad for children and Ajit the Archer, a novel for children.

His illustrations, be it simple pictures in Thumb Thumb books ('Mirror', 'Flower', 'Where is Thangi' and 'Up Up') or soft pencil sketches in 'Andamans boy' - have been mesmerising children and adults alike since last two decades.
They just enthused me so much that I could not resist the temptation to conduct an interview with him and he was very kind to take his time out to answer my questions. Here is the brief question-answer session with him, peppered with some of his beautiful artwork.

1. How did you get into Children's book illustrations?

Always wanted to be one. Chandamama had started a children's magazine called Junior Quest in 1989, and I approached the editor, Aditi De, with sample illustrations. She gave me my first break. After that, I used my 'published illustrator' status to get work from textbook publishers. Magazines and books for grown-ups don't require as many pictures as those for kids, so I found myself specializing in illustrating for children.

2. After having seen some of your artwork, you seem to be comfortable in pencil sketches, pastels and computer imaging. If given a choice, which medium would you choose? Or which is your first preference?

The style and treatment of the text usually influences my choice of medium. Otherwise my choice depends upon what I am experimenting with at that point in time. Sometimes the publisher requests a particular style or treatment. I always love pastels and use them when I wish to create an emotion-rich picture. The 2001 Tulika Diary of Seasons was done that way. These days I am going green, my studio is almost paperless, and my first preference is computer graphics.

3. How do you select the projects, especially when a selection has to be made between the ones that interest you and the ones that are offered to you, how do you make the decision?

I rarely say no. Refusal to take up a project could only mean that I don't have the time.

4. You are a source of inspiration for many but who/what inspires you creatively?

Am I? Thank you for telling me. People usually don't tell me these things lest I think too much of myself. To answer the question, I am inspired by them all! Leonardo. Michelangelo. Turner. Monet. Van Gogh. Dali. Teniel. Charles Schulz. Uderzo. R.K. Laxman. Mario Miranda ...and many others.

5. I have observed that the artists generally travel a lot, is it a wrong generalization to make?

Absolutely wrong in my case. Unless travel is a relative term, because I walk a lot. I am usually at home, and take the family out on an annual vacation to some spot. The first time I flew was when I was 43, in 2007 and the northernmost I have travelled is Goa. I have never been abroad.

6. What are your current and forthcoming projects?

Just finished a book for Tulika. For a year now I have been working for two children's magazines: Impulse Hoot and Impulse Toot. Then I do the storyboards for a comic called the Dynast, which will be published this year. Last year I did the design and illustration of many textbooks. English is over and GK is planned for this year, the publisher tells me. After Penguin India published my Witchsnare, a gamebook I have written, I manage to get writing work too. Ajit the Archer, a novel for children will be out this year. Thinkbig Books are the publisher. I am at work on a picturebook, too, one that I will both write and illustrate.

7. How has your art/style changed since you first started?

My art and style changes with every new book I do. I call it variety and growth but my critics could call it inconsistency.

8. What does a typical day look like for you?

I have very few typical days. I start work at 6 am in chunks of worktimes. 6 -8 some work. 8 - 8.45 take second chap to school. Breakfast at 9 am. 9.30 - 11.30 - some more work. I take a short walk to the local teashop and either resume work, or talk to my wife, or friends on chat, or play a game on the computer. 12.30 - 1.30 Wife and I have lunch and watch two soap operas together. 1.30 - 4.00pm: More work with small breaks. 4 pm: tea and conversation. 4.30-6.30 Work. 6.30 Teashop, phone a friend and go yak yak. 7 - 9 Work, but work that doesn't require great creativity, only execution skills. I even work on the laptop and watch TV during this time. And talk to family members, of course. 9 - 10pm: Dinner and two soap operas. 10 to 11pm: Read bedtime stories to the kids, conversation and sleep. zzzzzz...

9. What do you hope to accomplish in the future (artistically or otherwise)? Any dream projects?

I want to do fine art, you know, the kind that hangs on a wall, and write at least one novel a year. That's how I see myself in ten years. One day, a movie, or a series of movies, will be made based on books I write. That's another dream and plan.

10. Did you have any formal training and what are three pieces of advice you would give to someone just starting out?

Not in Art. I have been formally trained in Mechanical Engineering, but know more about Gauguin and gouache than gears or gaskets. Artists need passion more than formal training. Pieces of advice for an aspiring illustrator of children's books:

1) Never lose the child in you. Keep that kid alive by remembering how you were as a child. For example, always remember that little children see the world from a low angle, and that they can see your nostrils, and are closer to adult feet than heads.
Let that inner child relate to the kids of today and update itself.

2) Always have fun. Art is meant to be play, not work. The moment you stop doing that, it will show in your work. When you are in form, your pleasure will visibly vibe through your pictures..

3) Be a good reader. The good illustrator respects the text, reads it, enjoys it, and draws pictures that are not only faithful to it, but lifts the book to another height. Wishing all aspiring illustrators the best!

Thank you very much. I enjoyed answering these questions, some of which set me thinking deep about some aspects of my work.

Ashok Rajagopalan

A very big thanks to you, Ashok!

Book Review : Not Just For Breakfast Anymore

Title : Not Just for Breakfast Anymore
Author : PV Lundqvist

It’s a story of a boy, Benny, who desperately yearns for a pet - a regular pet (a dog or a cat) who could be his companion and a buddy. To make his preference known to his parents, the cues that Benny drops are definitely not subtle. But he is bewildered when he is introduced to his special birthday present - a pet of course, but definitely not what he had imagined even in his dreams - a Pig. For Benny, a pig could just be an option for breakfast. Like any kid of his age, he makes his displeasure apparent to his parents after having received his unique birthday present - a unique pet. He even refuses to give his pet any name and after a lot of coaxing, very reluctantly begins learning about taking care and training the pig. But everything changes when the endearing pet makes his way to Benny's heart.

Gradually a loving bond is established between Benny and his pet, who is now christened by him as 'Fletcher'. When some of their pesky neighbors try to involve 'Board of Health' to make a point that a pig cannot be a pet and hence the family cannot live in the neighborhood with the farm animal, Benny takes it upon him to do every bit to save Fletcher. While completely involved in the challenge that is being thrown to him, he starts appreciating the support of family and what it means to stand together as a unit against any odds in life.

Lessons learnt in one situation can be applied in many other diverse situations too - that is what Benny realized while fighting for his rights in securing a position for himself in the school baseball team, he could use the confidence that he attained while putting up a fight in order to save his pet Fletcher.

Besides being a very engaging and fun story, readers of 9-11 age group will get to learn some incredible life lessons - getting comfortable with the heterogeneity and uniqueness of people, self-belief and standing up for what one believes in, no matter how conventional or unconventional it might be - are some among many. The way Benny learns to deal with bullies conveys the message that nothing is impossible if the mind is made up for it. The part where the whole family works together as a team to save Fletcher is very inspiring and this exercise gets Benny acquainted to the inner side and strengths of his parents which had remained unrevealed to him so far. Very gripping and motivating story and tickles the funny bone on many occasions too. Would be a huge hit among fourth to seventh graders.
{Image courtesy : Amazon}

Friday, March 26, 2010

Book Review : Fatal Embrace

Title : Fatal Embrace
Author : Mark Braverman
Publisher : Synergy Books
ISBN : 978-0-9840760-7-9

Israel/Palestine - the ongoing conflict for almost half a century now is probably one of the most argumentative contentions of our times, which will definitely earn its mention in the annals of mankind accentuated by woes and cries of innumerable people involved.

Mark Braverman, through his book - Fatal Embrace, talks about the issue provocatively, capable of stirring the soul, yet maintaining the objectivity along the way. Offering glimpses of the past, he has walked the readers through those times to the current situation.

Glimpses of History - The anti-Semitist attitude which was prevalent in almost all parts of the world culminated during the Nazi Holocaust. The declaration of Israeli state by United Nations post World War II, facilitated the end of anti-Semitism. Creation of the Israeli state - a state to give a safe haven to Jews against their persecution in any part of the world, opened a whole new chapter. The international political movement - christened as Zionism, was adopted by Jews for establishing and developing a national homeland for them in Palestine. The new Israeli's experimented with their new found power by occupying territories beyond those delineated in 1949 Armistice Agreement besides assaulting the native Palestinians in Gaza, extensively violating human rights in West Bank and expelling almost three quarters of a million Palestinians to make way for the state of Israel. A perfect example of the oppressed now donning the mantle of an oppressor.

Present day scenario - Separation walls, special checkpoints, new road networks accessible to Israelis only are just some of the many ways in which Palestinians are being robbed off of their freedom everyday in various ways by Jews. The human rights violations are rampant and more and more Palestinian land is being grabbed forcibly to be included in the Israeli state. Jerusalem which holds spiritual and political significance for Palestinians too has been reclaimed by Israelis slowly and surely.

Role of Church - The author clearly substantiates the role of Christians - who while taking responsibility for the historical anti-Semitism have transitioned from one extreme of considering Jews to be 'God's rejected' to the other extreme of emulating them and taking them to be 'God's selected'. The Christians atonement and the Jewish search for establishing their identity and to enforce their empowerment has resulted in the most fatal kind of embrace - wherein the two powerful forces have joined hands which is thwarting all attempts of reaching any peaceful settlement in the affected region.

The Church's current stand on the issue cannot be explained in any better way than the analogy used in the book .When Church offers to negotiate a truce between a lion and a lamb, the lion replies by asking the Church to wait till its lunch is finished and the Church is contented being just a mere spectator of the whole scene.

Role of US of America - United States of America is fully equipped in terms of resources and the capability to facilitate a peace process to reach some concrete solution in the largest democracy in the middle east region but is rather comfortable being an accomplice to the Jews in the garb of atonement for their past sins. The unconditional support (politically and financially) of the Israeli policies is simply snowballing the whole conflict gradually.

Questions crying out loud for answers -

  • Does the world owe a state to Jews in order to compensate for the centuries of violence against them?
  • Are the Jews justified in taking revenge for past anti-Semitism by building separation walls, stealing land and cutting the channels of commerce and agriculture for native Palestinians? Can counter violence be the answer to any problem?
  • Can Christians and America simply wash off their hands from this whole dispute in the guise of atoning for their past sins of being anti-Semitic?

Need of the hour - Peace for all - Israeli, Palestinians, Muslim, Jews and Christians - is the desperate need of the hour. Christians need to move beyond the atonement and guilt feeling. One disaster cannot and should not be used to justify another. Not just for Palestinians, even the Jews are on the path of self-destruction with the current state of affairs. Both sides are living under constant fear - Palestinians being imprisoned in their own land and fearing dispossession, powerlessness and a bleak future and on the other side Jews are prisoners of their own fears - distrusting even the ones with whom they share long history, common culture and love for the land. Both sides are crying for immediate relief.

Mark Braverman has displayed unmatched histrionics in making the readers abreast of the current state of affairs in Israel in a very matter-of-factly manner yet handled very humanly. Being a Jew himself, he appreciates the grit and determination that Jews displayed in leaving behind their painful past but having said that, in no unclear terms he condemns the oppressive treatment meted out to Palestinians by Jews in the garb of their Zionist project. He has extensively researched the works and writings of array of thinkers on this issue and has tried to bring to the readers the mindsets of different communities - the Jews living in Israel, non-resident Jews, native Arabs in Palestine, Christians in Palestine, Christians across the world and citizens of America. There is a brief mention of some of the possible solutions which are being discussed globally.

An eye opener and a great read for all citizens of world, who care for Israel - Jews and Palestinians and for the growth of mankind at large. A very inspiring and genuine - straight from the heart writing.

{Image courtesy : Amazon}

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Book Review : All Free

Title : All Free (a folktale from Gujarat)
Author : Mamata Pandey
Illustrated by : Srividya Natarajan
Publisher : Tulika (Under the Banyan series)

The story starts with Bhikhubhai's heart craving for fresh, juicy, delicious, grated coconut but there is a small problem - he will have to part with a little money which he would rather not. He does not mind walking some extra distance if he could get a coconut at a reduced price and what a blessing if he could get as many coconuts as he wants from the coconut grove itself - ALL FREE!!!
Too good an offer to be actually true.

But for that he would have to climb the tree himself to satisfy his specific requirement of not spending a single paisa but getting to enjoy the coconuts. So Bhikhubhai decides to climb the tall tree and in an attempt to grab the biggest fruit, does his foot slip? And he finds himself hanging from the fruit of his desire. Another man comes and hangs onto the feet of Bhikhubahi and to make the matter even more interesting one more man joins the chain by holding onto the feet of the person below Bhikhubhai. Now there are three men hanging from the big fruit, swinging in the air. In order to save their dear lives, the two men want Bhikhubhai to not leave the coconut and what happens when Bhikhubahi is offered a reward of three hundred rupees for providing this service?? Can he keep focusing on holding the coconut tight when his mind is thinking about the unbelievable - getting coconuts and three hundred rupees - all free?

Simply a laugh riot.

The illustrations by Srividya are influenced by the Garoda (story tellers of Gujarat) style of folk art. Beautiful figures in bright colours are accentuated with thick black outlines. Simple patterns in the illustrations depicting village scene are magnificent. Traditional tie-and-dye border on the cover page gives a glimpse of the signature art of that region.

Other titles in 'Under the Banyan Tree' series -

Mazzoo Mazzoo a folktale from Kashmir
Wrestling Mania a folktale from Punjab
Sweet and Salty a folktale from Andhra Pradesh
Eyes on the Peacock's Tail a folktale from Rajasthan
Magic Vessels a folktale from Tamilnadu
Hiss, Don't Bite ! a folktale from Bengal
A Curly Tale a folktale from Bihar

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Book Review : Dear Popat

Title : Dear Popat
Author : Madhu Limaye
Illustrated by : Keerti Ramchandran
Publisher : National Book Trust
XPosted on : Saffron Tree

The beautiful day which dawned with India's freedom - 15th August 1947, unfortunately did not bring the same for the smallest but the most beautiful state of our country - Goa, which continued its struggle under the oppressive regime of Portugese, for many more years after 1947.

Madhu Limaye, a freedom fighter, initiated a Satyagraha movement against Portugese Government in 1955. For his protest, he was beaten mercilessly and was sentenced to a twelve year imprisonment. From the Fort Aguada Jail, he started writing letters to his 1 year old son - Popat (Aniruddh) - his way of filling the loneliness of his days by steering his mind and thoughts to the memory lanes of his family and his beloved son. He attempted to bridge the gap that physical distance had brought between a father and a son by sending a capsule of his affection regularly in written form.

The affectionate letters that he wrote to Popat must have been Popat's prized possessions throughout his life and now for us to savour the loving words of a father to his son. I simply enjoyed the diverse and disjoint topics, finding their mention in his letters - the way a child's attention moves from one thing to another - jerkily but enthusiastically.

In some letters he mentions about the fireflies coming through the window of his room and the conversation he had with them, the birds and animals which are being coaxed by him to convey his messages to his dear son Popat but they just eat the treat he offers and do not obey him. Sometimes he talks about mother sea and his son, who are engaged in a game of hide and seek and other times he describes about the huge ocean waves crashing against the rocks near the prison.

Besides being in captivity, Limaye and his small group of friends, enjoyed and celebrated all special festivals and occasions including Popat's birthday and his father getting the special treatment of not doing any chores that day and just basking in the sweet memories of Popat.

Madhu Limaye has written some very profound pieces but he has neatly managed to bring his writing style to a very comfortable level where his son could understand the written matter when his mother read these letters to him. One thing which I liked the most is the tone of third person narrative which Limaye has used in most of his letters, the way children talk about themselves and while addressing others. Using words like Bhobho for a dog, miao for a cat, chiu-tai for a sparrow, zhook-zhook for a train etc. lends an extra personal touch and makes the reading very interesting.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Pastel paintings...

Fabric Painting...

Different seasons on cushions covers...

Warli Art

Krishna dancing on Kalia ...captured on a hand-made sheet

I like Warli on any surface, so this time I decided to do it on pillow covers and bedsheets. Still working on the bedsheet.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Book Review : Committed

Title : Committed

Author : Elizabeth Gilbert

Publisher : Bloomsbury

A very logical sequel in Elizabeth Gilbert's life is chronicled in this book. In Eat Pray Love (reviewed here) - her previous bestseller, she very transparently walked us through the feelings she underwent coming out of a long and ugly divorce process and her resolution to travel to three 'I' places - Italy, India and Indonesia as her way of healing.

In Committed, the transparency is still very neatly maintained and she takes us to another phase where she has actually moved on and is now seriously contemplating committing herself to a new relationship.

EPL ends with Elizabeth finding the love of her life in a Brazilian-born businessman - Felipe, who met her while she was in Bali, Indonesia. They both share similar background of being broke once from previous relationships and they are on the same plane as far as entering into marriage institution is concerned. They enjoy the togetherness but at the same time do not feel the need to walk the aisle once again. But this changes rather abruptly not by their own choice though. The only option they are left with (which interestingly a total stranger suggested) is to get married.

This change of scenario brings them to a juncture where they both have to reconsider their earlier firm resolve of abstaining from marriage forever. While awaiting the legal procedure taking its course, Elizabeth tries to make the best use of the time by analyzing this old and sacred institution - Marriage from all possible angles - whatever she thinks could help her getting ready to take this step forward.

She delves deep into the history of marriage and while travelling in South Asian countries during this time, she tries to understand the meaning of matrimony and commitment from the eyes of people belonging to diverse cultures and varied belief systems.

Some may consider it as a mere paranoia on the part of the protagonist (author herself) considering that they both were anyway committed to each other but then this whole exercise makes Gilbert even more sure about her decision to take on the responsibility of this relationship as a complete package.

She has the knack of giving beautiful words to her feelings flawlessly in a very fluid manner and that is the quality which makes the readers hook on to her books. But every book offers something different so its better to read this book without having the hangover of EPL. There are some chapters in which she digs deep into the history which takes it to a little impersonal level in an otherwise very personal writing but other chapters make up for those parts beautifully. Overall an interesting read but no comparison to her previous work so read with an open mind, not expecting similar results as were derived from EPL.

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