Saturday, January 17, 2015

Interview with Sheila Dhir

Rachna, ST's guest reviewer brings this inspiring interview with writer/illustrator, Shiela Dhir. Thank you for this!

Saffron Tree friends, in today's day and age of scheduling meetings, sometimes even months in advance, an unplanned encounter is a rare occurrence. However, that is how I met author and illustrator Sheila Dhir in Bangalore, a few weeks ago.

Many people have asked me in the past if we are related, because of the same last name. And I used to laugh, "I have never even seen her!" Well - see her I did and we had lots to share. We parted ways on the promise that I would interview her for Saffron Tree and she happily agreed. Thank you Sheila.

Sheila Dhir, born Shailaja Nair, has been involved with close to forty international books for children and her web site is extremely informative. Here we share details of her writing and illustrating adventures, in her own words.

Let us start at the beginning - what did you like to do the most as a child?

As a child, I was always interested in art, thanks to my art teacher. Not only did I participate in several painting competitions but also won several prizes. One experience stands out clearly in my mind's eye - it was an honour to win the prestigious Indo- Soviet Nehru Award for my painting titled "Journey into Outer Space" along with four other children from different parts of India.

The award was a month's holiday by the Black Sea at the Artek Camp in Russia. lt was the first time that we represented India and we all felt a deep sense of national pride. It was truly a memorable, unforgettable and wonderful experience at the age of thirteen - with fond memories and friendship with children from Russia....

You studied at The National Institute of Design, NID . Would you like to share some memories from your Ahmedabad college days?

My memories of NID are very nostalgic! We had very good faculty members whom we addressed by their first names and various faculty from abroad from time to time. I majored in Visual Communication which included Typography, Graphic Design, Book Design, Printing Technology and such. We had a very free, liberal atmosphere where a jury examined each of our various design was an intense 5 1/2 year programme with involvement with several hands on projects from the Government of India. Very fulfilling and satisfying experience.

You also have a post graduate degree. How was that experience?

I did my Masters in Mass Communication from the University of Denver in Colorado, but it was far more theoretical than my education at NID. Some 10,000 students applied for the programme, 150 made it for the interview stage after rigorous tests and 30 students were selected finally- we certainly felt privileged and honoured...

How did you start writing for children?

I have always been interested in children's books and education - thereby was planted the seed of writing and illustrating children's books. I have over 37 children's books internationally today - very satisfying.

I have worked for several publishers such as Tulika, DC Books, Scholastic, Inc in India and Asiapac Books in Singapore.

"Why are you afraid to hold my hand?" (Tulika) is a unique book. It is both written and illustrated by you and deals with the differently abled in a sensitive way. How did the idea take seed?

"Why Are You Afraid to Hold My Hand" is one of my favourite books created- written and illustrated, by me. For my thesis, I worked for Six months at the Spastic Society of India in Mumbai. After being in close contact with various children with cerebral palsy, I felt compelled to depict the attitudes of society at large towards the differently abled children and this book sensitively describes the dialogue between a disabled child and society at large. This book has been translated into Tamil, Malayalam and as a hard bound book in Korean and has been received very well.

I have since visualised an entire series along similar lines about Cancer, Autism, AIDs and Blindness and am looking for an interested publisher to take on this series that is so close to my heart.

Your book on twins (published by Scholastic India) was well received. No other book in the Indian context/ market is available even when we see many twins in India today, more than ever before. Please share your personal life experience that led to the birth of the book.

"The Mathematics of Twins" was born after we had twin girls. They were born prematurely at 28 weeks in Colorado and we went through a lot when they were in the neonatal unit for over 12 weeks! This personal experience inspired me to do a book about the uniqueness of twins.

Each one of your books is unusual - please share any special memories associated with a few?

Each book has been very special to me and you are right, they are quite diverse! I did a two book series on the Holy Cow and other Beasts and one on Krishna and other mythical figures in stylised Mithila paintings. There are no such books for children- vibrant and colourful...

Another series is Appu the elephant, which I illustrated for my cousin - one of these won the first prize in Publishing.

I have retold stories on Ashoka and Hungarian Folktales which has turned out very well indeed.

Chandu Pottu is a simple book about a little girl who is fascinated by her mother's bindi.

Indeed, I feel very passionate and satisfied by my creations.

You have had the opportunity of working with many Indian publishers. How do you see the evolution of Indian children's books? You have also conceived many activity books, for example.

My puzzle and riddles books are indeed a big hit. A favourite of mine is Jot a Dot- a book on creativity for children - it is written in verse and is truly unique as it explores design principles where Jot is the writer and Dot is the illustrator

I also have a self published book simply titled Thank You God - again in rhyme -totally non- denominational and simply describing the wondrous beauties of God...

Another favourite of mine is Little Hands which has been translated into several Indian languages. (And reviewed on Saffron Tree)

I see the publishing world in India growing, expanding and including sensitive themes for children today.

With the advent of computers, it is critical that it continues to flourish and touch on themes of societal concerns...

Would you like to share any other projects, besides books, that you may have been involved with?

A very special project I was involved with was the GANDHI book, designed by me for a private company in Mumbai. This was brought out for the world premiere of the movie "Gandhi" where I designed a book of Gandhi's quotations in rust silk, the special box and invitations along with a Braille edition of the book for the Blind Association of India.

It was exquisite gold and rust silk-screened on parchment paper- one of its kind on Jan 13th, 1983. It won the top PRSA award and it was a wonderful experience working on it- a true labour of love.

Tell us about the Georgia project where the Women's Network asked you to design a calendar.

The calendar project depicting the Calendar Girls was a very unique and exciting project indeed. Women from all walks of life with diverse careers dropped almost everything literally for a cause. This project was a take-off on the highly successful Calendar Girls movie, set in Great Britain where the women bared themselves to raise money for a leukaemia unit. I was one of the models for the Calendar I designed for fund- raising- quite an experience

What do you like to do when you are not writing or illustrating?

When I am not designing, writing or illustrating books for children, I love to exercise at the gym, swim, play a bit of tennis, am a voracious reader, see Miss Marple series, comedy shows, good films, etc.

Where is "home" for you, these days?

We are now in Hilo, Hawaii- a paradise which we love for its flora and fauna, pristine oceans and husband Krishna is the Dean of the Businees School at the University of Hawaii and our twins Devika and Radhika are in the mainland, gainfully employed.

Thank you, Sheila

Thank you so much for this opportunity to express my candid feelings as an author and illustrator of over 37 children's books internationally and for interviewing me, Rachna. I am so glad we met in Bangalore this year!

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