Since the late 1980's Uma Krishnaswamy has been illustrating books for children and adults, including, And Land Was Born, A Dollop of Ghee and A Pot of Wisdom, and Out of the Way! Out of the Way!. She enjoys creating parallel worlds through her art, which she renders in styles and fashions picked up from all corners of the globe. She has loved her little pots of paints from the time she was little, and even today refuses to throw out dried up, unusable paints, simply because they look so cheerful on her work table.
A collector of children's books, Uma teaches Visual Studies at the Madras Craft Foundation, and History of Art is her all-time favourite subject.
She has lived in Chennai for most of her life.
When and how did your career as an illustrator start?
I started out illustrating A. K. Ramanujan’s Folktales from India for the children’s supplement of the national daily, Deccan Herald. It was a dream first assignment, as not only did I get to illustrate fantastically written stories but also to choose and reinvent the folk art traditions of India to match them. It gave me one of my first insights into the bewilderingly diverse universe of art and craft traditions of India. An eye-opener in more ways than one. Research and the eagerness to capture the essence of the stories led to many exciting visual adventures.
Can you tell us a little bit about your experience of illustrating Uma Krishnaswami's Out of the Way! Out of the Way!? What can you tell us about your choice of technique/style?
Uma’s book came out of the blue, and I must say, a lovely shade of blue! Not only because I knew Uma personally, but also because the thrill of sharing book space with a nearly namesake doesn’t happen too often!
Once I got the text, it was obvious it wasn’t going to be an easy ride. Out of the Way! Out of the Way! isn’t a straightforward story in the true sense of the term. It grows without a hero, heroine or villains. No emotional ups and downs. Its simplicity was precisely what made it a huge challenge. The pictures had to match and add to the simple sophistication of the text.
An Indian flavour, in the broadest sense, was what all of us (author, publisher and illustrator) had in mind, not only because the story was set in India, but because of the way the story developed: from rural to urban, winding and twisting, making its way here and there—this is how things happen out here. But settling down to a distinct style, in this case black and white and line and colour, came after a couple of test-runs. Pen and ink lines, as seen in many Indian folk traditions, gave the space to exploit details. Many things happen simultaneously in a stage such as the one Uma set. As for colour, how can anyone think of India without her dazzling bright wardrobe? I think the end result is a happy mix of black & white and colour, which reflects the beauty, chaos and confusion that is India.
What do you do when you need inspiration? What's your creative process like?
My inspiration is the rich, varied and vibrant art and craft tradition of India– that’s always my starting point. I collect children’s books from all over the world and used to buy them readily, but space constraint has forced me to cut down on the number of books I buy. Happily the internet has been a great substitute, making up, in a way, for the books I'd love to possess. All those known and unknown artists, illustrators, designers, embroiderers and the rest, spread across the globe, are my vitamin pills. I check out websites daily, flip through magazines and books. Apart from being visually attractive and exciting, many times this process jump-starts my work.
Once I settle on a style or voice for my pictures, I work on the images, either in order, or on whatever page or spread I come up with the best ideas for. It’s not always a smooth process. There will be times when a particular frame won’t move beyond a certain point, and others will race ahead. But brainstorming with editors and the looming deadlines help make sure I get the job done. Most of the time I work directly on the final artwork. I am somewhat allergic to scribbles.
What are some of the Indian illustrators you admire? Any particular influences on your development as an artist?
I think India has a fabulous tradition of illustrators. Post-Independence, the books brought out by the National Book Trust, Children's Book Trust, etc have been illustrated by our finest artists. I remember spending many happy hours poring over those books. Pulak Biswas is one of my all-time favourites, and I am the proud owner now of an autographed copy of a book I read as a child, Mahagiri by Hemalata, published by the Children’s Book Trust. Mickey Patel, Shankar of Shankar’s Weekly, Ramachandran and many others, old and new, with their distinct mix of east and west, have given me the courage to explore and seek my particular perch.
What are you working on at the moment?
A couple of book projects are on the anvil. In addition, I am currently teaching Visual Studies at the Madras Craft Foundation, and working on several personal projects, while attempting to learn new skills and develop new approaches.
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