Priya Kuriyan: Interviewed by Kareena N. Gianani

Everybody loves Priya Kuriyan’s art, and a good number of people love Priya Kuriyan. Priya illustrated the soon to be published Maya Saves the Day by Meera Nair. In conversation with Kareena N. Gianai, a journalist who spends sleepless nights dreaming of writing books and wakes up envying The Morning People.

KG: When and how did you begin illustrating? Tell us about your first big break? (Sentimentality here is most welcome).

PK: I started illustrating in 1999, while at National Institute of Design. I took up animation as a discipline and part of the process of making animation films involved making conceptual art for it. That’s the stage I enjoyed immensely because I could try out all sorts of crazy illustrations to ideate without having to worry about the practicalities of how to make the drawings move. It was almost like the holiday before all the hard work that goes into animation begins. As a result of that, I think I just decided to go on a holiday a little more than often. In 2002, just before my final year, I sent some of the work I had done to Tulika books on a whim. They very kindly gave me my first break by assigning me this really endearing story called I’m so sleepy, written by Radhika Chadda. To see that someone had actually published something I had drawn was really thrilling (to tell you the truth, it still is!).

KG: Tell us why you are an artist. What would you have been if you weren’t one?

PK: Gosh! To be honest I really can’t think of what else I would have been. I would have been hopeless at anything else that I tried. A teacher, perhaps (since it’s one of the most underrated professions in India)?
I think I’m surer about the kind of thing I would absolutely not have liked to do – work in any kind of office job where all you see are numbers and charts and copiers and staplers through the day and everyone wears grey and light blue.

KG: Tell us about the time you spent illustrating Maya Saves The Day – things that tickled you, how it was working with Meera Nair, the (various?) drafts and changes and the final artwork that we now see in the book.

PK: I loved all the characters in the book. I think Maya is such a contemporary character. Any kid would relate to her. Maya, in fact, reminded me so much of my own niece who’s about the same age as her. So, I sort of physically modelled the way Maya looked and acted on her; the ‘ALWAYS in a hurry’ body language, her know-it -all, slightly bossy attitude and the curly hair. The fact that I could draw inspiration from a real person made it a lot of fun. Also, I loved the fact that the parents in the book had this very deadpan way of dealing with her tantrums and her general naughtiness – also something that was very close to home.
It was really easy working with Meera. She sent me very clear character descriptions of Maya and a couple of others in the book. After showing her the initial sketches of the main characters, I was good to go. There were very few draft revisions, really. Just a little signboard here, a little moustache there. It was fun to incorporate the hole, into my drawings. I can’t wait to see how that looks. All in all, it was a very ‘holesome’ experience I must say!

KG: In the book, I particularly loved the illustration of Maya and the bandwaallahs. Which ones did you enjoy doing the most?

PK: It is, in fact, one of my favorite illustrations too! I find bandwallahs really fun to draw. They are characters so uniquely and bizarrely Indian (almost like an India Coffee House version of a Republic Day parade contingent). In spite of the fact that they look like they belong to a totally different era, no one in India finds anything incongruent about their presence anywhere.
I also enjoyed the one of Maya in the pet shop. I like making busy illustrations where a lot of things happen at the same time and a reader could notice something s/he might not have seen when they see the illustration for the first time. I loved this moment in the book where, suddenly, things seem to be spiralling out of control for Maya. Her little sister is totally oblivious to everything, of course. Little incidents like these make the book really charming and easy to relate to.

KG: How do you go about illustrating a children’s book – things you keep in mind, the effect you try achieve with illustrations and so on?

PG: I usually read the story first and make really rough sketches of the main character or characters. If it’s a picture book, I do rough thumbnail drawings to plan the book. In case the book requires any research in terms of where the story is set or inspired from, I look for images – mostly on the internet, so I can depict things accurately. I almost always play music while I work. (No, the soundtrack generally doesn’t match the book). I keep in mind the audience – how old the children who would be read the book would be. I then work on the treatment – what the book would look like. I like trying different kinds of treatments and media and get most excited when publishers are open to something that is different or something I haven’t tried before. Again, I like making illustrations that a child would want to revisit again and again. My illustrations are usually a combination of hand-drawn artworks that are scanned and then digitally worked upon.
At the end of the day, however, there are no hard and fast rules I follow!

KG: We hear you travel with little, hidden notebooks and sketch things you see around you – tell us more?

PK: I love travelling and keeping a record of places I visit (and I am very discreet when I conjure my notebooks!). Travelling is inspiring. However small or big the city/village /town, one almost always comes back with quirky stories. Sometimes, the interesting characters I meet later find their way into the illustrations I make. So, I like to keep memories of these people and places in my notebook so I don’t forget them. I don’t always draw on the spot. At times, I go back and draw them as I remember them. I actually love observing people in public spaces like railway stations, the metro or the airport. I’m almost never bored if I can watch people from the sidelines (yeah I know that sounds creepy).

KG: Tell us about a city and its people, whims that you’ve enjoyed sketching the most.

PK: I really enjoyed this trip I made to Amritsar in November 2011. The city has so much character and history attached to it. From (retrospectively) hilarious incidents like losing my baggage on the flight to Amritsar, and the beautiful experience of visiting the Golden Temple for the first time, it was a great trip. It was nice to come back and connect the dots regarding the people I’d met in the context of the city’s history and how it’s affected them. (Some pages from Priya’s Amritsar diaries are posted at the end of this interview)

I also like documenting aspects of Delhi, be it stuff that really exasperates me about the city or just an observation about daily life in a city that I’ve now lived in for about five years .

KG: I must admit I have a recurrent dream wherein I stand and gloat at my good luck of having stolen doodle diaries of artists. Sketches and doodles done over many, many years. Now, if yours were part of the booty, what would I find?

PK: Lots and lots of (sometimes mean) caricatures of people around me. Hopefully some sketches you would like to frame, too! Then there are drawings that will leave you puzzled for the rest of your life.

KG: Which artists’ works do you admire and why? And which illustrated children’s books do you swear by?

PG: I absolutely love the work of Shaun Tan and Oliver Jeffers. I love The Lost Thing and The Arrival by Shaun Tan and Stuck by Oliver Jeffers. I also like the work of Piet Grobler, especially his illustrations for Today Is My Day. My favourite Indian illustrator/ artist has always been Mario Miranda. I love his quirky characters like the busty Miss Fonseca in her polka dotted dresses, Mrs Nimboopani, The Boss, Godbole, Bundaldass & Moonswamy.

KG: Are there any illustrated books you’ve disliked?

PK: I can’t pinpoint a book that I dislike, but I hate seeing illustrated children’s books in the market that sell as so called fairy tales with unimaginative characters and absolutely no cultural context of any kind. They also usually contain art that doesn’t follow any particular aesthetic.

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3 comments

  1. I am new to WordPress but the first 2 articles I read have got me hooked. Kudos to Kareena G on asking exactly what the readers want to know. I loved the style of both interviews, this one and Mira Nair’s. Am definitely going to look out for ‘Maya Saves the Day.’ Looking forward to seeing Priya Kuriyan’s collection of illustrations published one day. Really liked the ones u have attached here.

  2. I have loved Priya’s work in Fried Frog, I am glad she is illustrating again for you. Really enjoyed reading it.

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