Thursday, October 24, 2013

Interview with Vishaka Chanchani

This interview comes from Rachna Maneesh-Dhir.

Vishakha, on behalf of Saffron Tree, I wish to thank you for your time. Through interviews such as these, readers get to know their favourite books' creators better. The hope is that by sharing your thought process, your inspiration, your "journey" , your readers understand, appreciate and enjoy your work more!

My pleasure, I am honored you are allowing me to think more about my own processes of life and work ….thank you Rachna,
We know that you got your degree in arts. When did you start writing and illustrating for children? What attracted you to this particular field? And …what are the things that have influenced you?

Actually I am a post graduate from the Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University, Vadodara. I spent seven years there, discovering a ‘homeland’…the place, the people, their songs dances. Having been brought up in Calcutta through all my school years, (much as I loved it), Gujarat came as a refreshing change. I had never travelled to Gujarat until the last year of my school though I belong to a Gujarati family.

In Vadodara, it was a big surprise and really fun to hear everyone on the streets, in the shops, in our college speak such fluent Gujarati. I was fortunate that my family had shifted to a place with such a recognized university, and an even more renowned fine arts college. Only, at that time one didn’t quite realize what a wonderful opportunity it was to be part of such an open and rich campus. On the one hand I was discovering Gujarat, on the other one breathed art and lived art, and was in the company of artists and art students all the time!

I developed my writing when I was still in college. Little poems. Sometimes as a fun letter, for the family kids, or for illustration projects. So I guess, whenever I got the opportunity to work in schools, the first being in Delhi, I evolved scripts for children. Subsequently, when I moved to Bangalore and got surrounded by little nieces and nephews, we had our own home theater. Scroll making, puppetry sessions, little plays evolved with all the little kith n kin participating, singing and performing for their own parents, aunts, uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers. Lots of my follow up work at school has its roots in the family scenario!

Who would you say are some of your "favourite" artistes - authors and illustrators?

I don’t know about favorite, but there are quite a few I appreciate… who continue to inspire. Who can forget both the script and the illustrations of Alice in Wonderland?

I can recall Nandlal Bose’s black and white illustrations from ‘Sahaj Path’… I have a deep regard for some of Tagore’s writing for children, I recently saw his play ‘Tasher Desh being performed and was bowled over by the brevity of the subject, his visualization of the theme that still feels so contemporary.

I am extremely respectful of K.G. Subramanyan’s use of space, line and sense of craft in his paintings and murals and books. I like and admire Pulak Biswas illustration and artistry for the same reasons, for his masterly strokes and indigenous characters and scenes. Nilima Sheiks illustrations, feel like ephemeral paintings. Taposhi Ghoshal uses textures and paint with much love and warmth; her expressive characters grow out of the pages …be it a crow, a crab, a crane, an old man with wrinkles on the street or brown skinned ladies wrapped up in smiles.

Another illustrator friend called Milan Khanolkar inspires with her spontaneous and unpretentious work… not much of which has found its way to the wider market. I have always been struck and totally inspired by native art, be it Aboriginal or Gond or the Patua scrolls.
I like Quentin Blake for his simple characteristic approach and for bringing in fun ways of illustration…I am a huge fan of Dr. Seuss. And oh yes, I like Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol, for its verse, and for its quirky black and white illustrations. I enjoyed and am privileged to own a copy of old Gujju folk tales with ‘Abid Surti’s’ colorful illustrations. Who would have heard of him today?

On a quieter note, I am moved by the Zen Chinese brush, the use of ink, the feel of tremendous space in their canvas.

For me, I guess it is about appreciating art in its many manifestations~ raw or classic, contemporary, naïve or native, in miniature or large format; it is not just about one kind of line or stroke.

Would you like to comment on today's “children's book” scene in India?

I am not sure if I am the right person to do it since I am not so updated on the current scenario. However, I can share my gut feel of the subject…

When I find myself in an exhibition of books, or in a book shop, I feel sad that so much of our work has become so overtly colorful, and so glossy. Sometimes we may be taking it for granted that children like color, they like smiling faces, they like only shiny and cute things, they like happy endings, very convenient truths. The adults may be constantly transferring their approval in the kind of books they select for their children.

Having said that, I must hastily add that today there is a much wider scope for doing different kinds of books, and some publishers are treading brave grounds. I can see that Eklavya Prakashan in Madhya Pradesh reaches out to a larger public, and their books today include an amazing variety of styles and subjects. NBT and CBT continue to make books that are affordable with good content and imagery.

Tara Publishing has always been opening up new windows. Bringing art and craftsmanship to the book, braving new mixes, new themes, asking challenging questions, encouraging native artists to take up formal illustration of books.

Tulika is bringing out interesting books which are informative and not boring, visually appealing, making them accessible in Indian languages as well as English. Dissolving boundaries, making history and sociology come alive by making books like ‘Hina in the Old City’ or by bringing art and artists to everyone’s doorstep with picture books like ‘Barefoot Hussain’ and more.

Still, we can make book making more adventurous, more far reaching, we need more book melas and carnivals, we need to educate the public, develop taste in reading pictures and words; in schools, we need to reinvent, redefine libraries, make them more inclusive …. Bring in more planet friendly books; include bold and contemporary, more indigenous literature, continue to have the great classics as much as other good books by western authors/illustrators that have universal appeal.

We need to do away with the repetitive, and superfluous; to relook at all our ‘knowledge’ oriented and ‘did you know’ kind of books and examine their worth. Some of them work, some may just be about only gathering ‘information’… how much of is it really required and for/towards what purpose??

Your first book, "How stones lost their hearts" was written and illustrated by you and published by CBT in 1992 and "Magician" published by NBT around the same time?

How Stones… was my first book - a book that I actually began while still doing my masters in illustration. I followed it up with CBT much later. But I myself am not sure which one got printed first. Both were done in pencil. I remember an excited Mala Dayal (then editor, NBT) waving my hesitations aside, when I asked her doubtfully whether the pencil lines might show up well in print for Jadugar.

The latter was conceived at a Bangalore School, where, along with art, I had also become a Hindi teacher for primary classes. I was working with a colleague to develop learning aids that would help South-Indian children learn Hindi words thru pictures.

There are reprints of both the books available even now, but today I would probably like to tweak the scripts a bit, and maybe undo some of the illustrations of Jadugar!

What are the changes in the process of bringing out a book since then?

Publishing has come a long way, and with this technological digitalized era, mind blowing things are possible; it’s also a designer‘s world today. A good designer can help enhance the work of the artist illustrator without taking away from the work. However the vice versa also holds true…

When one designs for a book it is important to ask some questions. The design and the overall appearance of the book and paper may look sophisticated, but…

What is it saying about the words, and the author and illustrator’s style?
Do the publishers sometimes cater to the market and use technology to sell their books, rather than do true justice to the subtlety of content and art work and expression of the artist?
How much of technological and design intervention is needed?

These are difficult, not easily answerable questions. All publishers of children’s books need to take up difficult and challenging questions related to this subject; make links, hold genuine group discussions with educators, artists and writers to bring out books that are vibrant and sensitive to their needs.

Adults also need to be helped to select better books for their children, and to intervene in gentler ways.

You are multi lingual and multi-talented -having written books for children in Hindi, Baawre Beej, (published by Tulika)) and illustrated and written in English, Spectacular Spectacle Man (published by Tara). Do you have a special fondness for poetry and rhymes?

I like verse. I like the semi dramatic style of vendors, the way they call out their calls. I guess that’s why I like Dr. Seuss. Did you know, he is said to have ascribed his writing style to his mother who was a baker, and had her own pie vending chants?

“Aaeeye aaeeye, chashme le jaaiyee,

Ek hee jhatke me, duniya anokhi paaeeye!”

Spectacle man, aka Chashmuddin was originally conceived in Hindi.
Subsequently I did a lose translation of Chashmuddin in English, which stands on its own.

What I personally like about the Baawre Beej character Beeju is the fact that he is using all the tricks of the trade, only to sell his wares, his seeds for…free, free, free.

Both these characters have grown out of my fascination for Indian vendors…be they on the streets of Janpath in Delhi selling clothes in choral manner, or chaiwallahs on platforms, inside trains… broom vendors with broom calls, or the deep resonating voices of vegetable vendors selling vegetables on cycles or carts thru a maze of lanes in the early hours of the morning.

I cannot resist sharing the fact that I have a couple other scripts inspired by street vendors, one of which got printed in Open Sesame of the Deccan Herald, many years ago. It was called Dr. Donto, Dontologist T.E, T.P., T.M.…about a quack of a dentist practicing his dentistry in a booth on a street.

“Cave art”, a book that I personally am in awe of currently and have reviewed for Saffron Tree is your latest contribution - you have written the text and also shared photographs and art work. Would you like to tell us the story behind this book?

Well, the script is not new. I gladly confess, it wouldn’t have happened had the School that I worked at, not indulged me. I had, as a teacher there, thought of introducing art appreciation in the morning assemblies. These art assemblies, I thought, should open up ways of seeing.

“How native people see, use space, how perspectives of life get woven in to their depiction of the image. Their use of colour, line, their canvases…”.

While I was exploring all this, I spontaneously made drawings with twigs and cotton on sheets smeared with paint and cow dung, inspired by books on art found in caves. Before I knew it, the script was ready and the pictures were put together in scroll format with cloth bands in between.

Editors Sandhya Rao and Radhika of Tulika happened to see and appreciate the scroll. But it remained with me for nine years or more before it took the form of the book.

Just last year, I visited Bhimbetka caves with the Eklavya team. What I saw and felt there, became part of the book-thanks to Deeya, another editor at Tulika, who insisted that I write everything down.

I did, and it worked. The photos I had taken became part of the book. All the new elements added strength to the earlier script and images. This book explores the art of cave people from a perspective that helps us imagine ourselves to be right there, in the midst of their life, responding to it in lively ways. It does not work like a typical history/ social science book…

I believe Satyajit Ray made this remark after seeing a bison painting in a cave… ‘If they could achieve this power of imagery
thousands of years ago, who am I to say, I am an artist? ’… something to that effect.

Imagine a man of his caliber, confessing in this manner.


Artnavy said...

Absolutely love Baawarey Beej!

Thanks for this chat.

Praba Ram said...

Wonderfully done! Loved hearing about Vishaka's varied experiences and experiments with art and children's books.

Her crisptly communicated thoughts are a joy to read... "treading brave grounds", "ephemeral paintings", "convenient truths"..

Vishaka's views on the need for tastes to grow, move away from repetitive books, redefine libraries, parental mindset, publishers to engage with the community are all so powerful. Wish someone is listening. :)

"When I find myself in an exhibition of books, or in a book shop, I feel sad that so much of our work has become so overtly colorful, and so glossy. " - so true!

As utopic as it sounds, "dissolving boundaries" - how much I love hearing that in the realm of everything - especially in children's literature.

Sadly, as with everything else in society, subtlety is never given its due respect and priority in children's literature. Except by a few who care in the arena of work. We really have to change our ways with children's books. There's tremendous scope for showcasing to our younger generation so many untold stories in ways they haven't seen before.

Sorry about this long comment. Thank you, Rachna for bringing Vishaka's work and words to Saffron Tree. :)

Choxbox said...

I have met Vishaka! At some exhibition in Bangalore! Did not realise she had written this awesome book!

sandhya said...

Really enjoyed this in-depth interview, Rachna. Thanks for bringing Vishaka Chanchani to ST.

I had a serendipitious meeting with her recently - I'm sure you'll remember, Vishaka. I was at Strand Book Store, and a lady came in. We were both looking at children's books, and got talking - she was specifically looking for books illustrated by Pulak Biswas. This is after he had passed away, and she wanted to pick up some of them for a session she was planning to hold for children. I often get talking to people at bookstores, but it is just a comment on a particular book or some such. As luck would have it, something made me tell her I found her familiar, and that I thought we might have seen each other somewhere. So we introduced ourselves to each other, and when I told her I write for ST, she was immediately enthusiastic - she mentioned having being quoted by Rachna in the tribute to Pulak Biswas. And yes, I think she mentioned meeting you, Chox. She knew some other people I know in the book business - all of whom I've met at bookstores or the book fair.

Great having you here, Vishaka.

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