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Vandana Bist, who has illustrated Akbar and the Tricky Traitor interviewed by Devika Cariapa, historian and writer.

DC: Vandana, you’ve done some marvellously lively illustrations for Akbar and the Tricky Traitor. It looks like you had fun doing them!

VB: You bet I did … besides of course ending up fifty fathoms deep in self-rejected rough sketches,a new pair of glasses of triple the previous power and a strange vision that all around me was rather large.

DC: Draw us a map of what goes on in your brain when first faced with a book to illustrate?

VB: DEADLINE!!!!!! Omigosh! When do I have give in the finals??? How long a life do I have once I’ve received the manuscript??? Can I take one week extra….pleaseee???

I think in my last birth I was a car that crashed fatally on the back gear … For once I’ve calmed the deadline fear, I work backwards. I flash an almost finished picture of how I want the illustration to look and then work towards that.

DC: How different is it illustrating a work of historical fiction? Did you have to do a lot of research on the period, the costumes, the architecture?

VB: Actually, I think I have a curious strain of ‘detailing’ in my DNA so, be it any kind of illustration … I end up infusing it with details of the deadliest kind, and historical fiction–particularly the kind this book is–lends itself happily to that.

It’s different in the sense that the characters may have been real people, but they got themselves into this tale of fiction and now they are at the mercy of the writer and the illustrator. So … Akbar might have been a rather wise, brave and far-sighted Mughal Emperor, but in this tale, we see him at his bumblingest best–and therein lies the fun in illustrating him and all the other characters.

Orthodox historians would be raring to get my head when they see how I’ve shown Akbar as this pot-bellied unshaven fellow, but then where is the evidence that he was not a party animal … and with all those elaborate hunting parties–anybody’s guess where the lion’s (pun intended) share of game went.

Having said that, I must admit that some sort of research needs to go in regarding the costumes, architecture, hairstyles etc. The ‘historical’ in historical fiction needs to be addressed with some authenticity, although I would love it if I could dress Akbar as a contemporary neta, complete with his white starched kurta pyjama, white sandals, neatly oiled and parted hair and a Gandhi cap, stepping out of an Ambassador car and walking into his bungalow in Lutyen’s Delhi!!oh! but that would be another story.

DC: The hunting and durbar scenes seem to have a distinctly Mughal miniature feel to them. While reading the book, I would keep going back to these particular illustrations to discover new and funny details each time. Your thoughts?

VB: As mentioned before, this detailing bit is a congenital problem with me. Once I begin, I feel my responsibility towards each hair of a fellow’s moustache, each nail on the woman’s toes … and soon the smallest sequin on a dress and each stripe on a turban become grist to the nib of my point 1 rotring pen.

In the pictures you are talking about,there was immense potential to detail the activities as well … and these pictures are great examples of what we call ‘illustrating beyond the text’. The text tells us that Akbar summoned his court very early in the morning … It is now for the illustrator to visualise how the not-so-excited and grumpy courtiers would look when summoned while they were in the process of their morning ablutions!

Or, as in the hunting scene, not all the horses would be well behaved and the chickens being transported for lunch would surely ‘chicken’ out if they got a chance! And since the writing is in the humorous vein, it was great fun making the drawings.

Yes, Mughal miniatures have inspired me and I love them because they do not make a great fuss about perspective in drawing, concentrate on keeping the eye on details … and manage to show one a lot of things in the smallest of space.

DC: Any pet illustration in Akbar and the Tricky Traitor?

VB: The court scene with Akbar running the gauntlet on the unfortunate spies and grumpy courtiers looking on.

DC: What’s your second favourite activity in the world?

VB: With apologies to Mian Tansen and all doyens of all the gharanas, singing Hindustani Classical …

DC: Would you recommend a book (or many) to us based entirely on its illustrations?

VB: Oh no! I was dreading that one!

Yes, the list is endless … right from The Hungry Caterpillar, through The Lion in the Meadow, Jemmy Button, We Ten Mice Build a Home (a Chinese book), Swimmy, The Tin Fiddle, The Runaway Bunny to The Scarecrow, illustrated by a superb Indian illustrator Suddhasatwa Basu.

DC: Do you have any hot tips for budding illustrators?

VB: Yes! I do!

Optimistically speaking, you’ve chosen a great career. Now, think pictures, breathe pictures, eat pictures, drink pictures … Don’t ever stop practising and honing your drawing skills, don’t be scared to break the norms of composition and experiment with all kinds of art material. Work along with the writer of the book you are illustrating so that the final product is super.

If you are moving on from drawing by hand to all those swanky illustration and graphics software–great! But remember, good drawing skills will only enhance your graphic software skills. And keep looking at all the great illustration work there is in the world and all that is still happening.

Pessimistically speaking, oh my god! Couldn’t you think of a better career? You are in for tough times!
But now that you ARE in this world, be prepared to live life as a second-class citizen, especially in this country. Remember, the buck stops at the door of the writer and the editor of the book you are illustrating, and the earlier you realise this, the better for you!

But you can still try to stick to your convictions about your art. Fight hard for royalty, in the enlightening knowledge that you will almost never get it. Many years into your career, you might be lucky to have writers and editors searching you out. You need the patience of a sedated ox to remain in this career, and don’t be surprised if you get your first respectable payment when you are on the other side of fifty!

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One thought on “Vandana Bist: Interviewed by Devika Cariapa

  1. Nice! had a good time reading this. Vandana talks of ‘illustrating beyond the text’ – I never knew such a concept was formally labelled and all, but this is just how I feel about graphic books. The pictures tell me the bigger story, almost!

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