Thursday, November 14, 2019

A Woman's Worth

I am pleased to finally show off my cover illustration and design for the book, A Woman's Worth, a study of Indian women's bodies from conception to old age and death. Researched and written by Australian journalist Sophie Cousins and published by Yodapress in collaboration with SAGE, the first few chapters which were sent to me read like a Stephen King novel; but this was fact, not fiction, in this country a woman is ultimately a receptacle for breeding a male child, until she does so she is barely considered human.

I resorted to using an analogy which I thought was very apt to describe the situation in which an Indian woman finds herself: I represented a woman within a Pitcher plant to show that a woman's womb is made to kill that which it is supposed to nurture (female foeticide), in a sense much like the Pitcher plant itself. Alternately, the Pitcher plant in this cover illustration can also be a metaphor for Indian society which rather than giving a woman the freedom to grow, inevitably captures and destroys her through its societal norms.

Here is the initial conceptual sketch that I sent the client:

I have to add here that after two decades as an illustrator, I am pretty much given free reign to do what I want and that is when I do my best work. 

After approval, I developed the concept, which can be seen in the images below.

So the image above fell apart because of the lurid colour scheme, so I redid the drawing to the one below which is better.

The kind of paper I use and how it partners with the pastel and charcoal becomes very important in articulating what I want to say within the image.I wanted a darker quality to the image, striking as a book cover should be but with an undercurrent of unease as befits the subject that it is about. In the top image I have used Strathmore paper, in the bottom image I have used Rembrandt pastel on equally expensive Arches paper. Not only is the effect immediately striking, the feel of pastel on the surface of the paper is music to my hands. The process becomes enjoyable and when that happens the illustration turns out very well.

Then I scanned the image and using InDesign, I added the lettering and selected the right colours for the fonts. 
Below is the final cover illustration and design.

Here, I must express gratitude to some of my colleagues (you know who you are), for helping me decipher the mysterious measurements given to me and helping me navigate the pathways of InDesign, and to my friend sitting somewhere in the hills of Landour, for putting the author Sophie in touch with me for this excellent project, many, many thanks.

Well, another job done.

Friday, October 25, 2019

An Exercise in Restraint

This illustration for the latest issue of The Indian Quarterly was done by layering my drawings with Photoshop, the first time I have used digital assistance this extensively to create an image.

I had a rough idea of what I wanted my illustration to say, but apart from that, as I do with charcoal and pastel, I explored and found my way through while creating the illustration until I reached something satisfactory. I came away with the opinion that while making a digital collage such as this, it is so easy to get carried away by stuffing your composition with as many elements as possible and overcrowding your image. It seems to me that creating an effective illustration using Photoshop is ultimately an exercise in self-restraint – Does the image really need this? No? Then just remove it because the lesser the elements the better the image.

Initially I admit I got overexcited with all the different things I wanted to use – gold leaf, pressed flowers, dried leaves, Punjabi lettering, drawings, strokes of pastel, butterfly wings etc etc. I stuffed it all into the composition like I would a suitcase for a long journey and then seeing the weight and the sheer clutter, I was compelled to eliminate  the layers one by one by one.

Finally what makes this illustration effective apart from the symbolism of the elements is the way the eye moves around the composition, from the darkness towards the right bottom led by the black lettering  towards the stroke of red pastel on the left and upwards by the white lettering to the top of the rock and the house and then the birds and the inland letter onwards in the sky in the shape of an arc. All this ultimately reflects the words of the poignant essay about migration which I was given to illustrate, written by Anvita Budhraja, titled No Home but Memory. The essay was  based largely on a poem by Amrita Pritam called Mera Pata or My Address.

Here is the poem by Amrita Pritam

My Address
Today I effaced the number of my house and
The name of the street at the top of the street;
I removed the signposts of all the roads;
Even so if you must find where I am
You must knock at the door
Of every house in every street, city and country.

This is both a curse and benediction
Wherever you come across a liberated soul
You can take it to be my home.

Monday, August 12, 2019


you're kashmiri until they burn your home, take your orchards, stake a different flag,
until no one remembers the road that brings you back. you're indian until they draw a border through punjab, until the british captains spit paki as they sip your chai, add so much foam you can't taste home, you're seraki until your mouth fills with english, you're pakistani until your classmates ask what that is, then you're indian again or some kind of spanish, you speak a language until you don't, until you only recognize it between your auntie's lips, your father was fluent in four languages, you're illiterate in the tongues of your father, your grandfather wrote persian poetry on glasses, you can't remember, you made it up, someone lied, you're a daughter until they bury your mother, until you're not invited to your father's funeral, you're a virgin until you're too drunk, you're a muslim until you're not a virgin, you're pakistani until they start throwing acid, you're muslim until it's too dangerous, you're safe until you're alone, you're american until the towers fall, until there's a border on your back.

~ fatima asghar

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Susanne Janssen

One day while browsing through the internet I came across an extraordinary illustrated version of Hansel and Gretel by an artist called Susanne Janssen; extraordinary because this version did not have the usual variations of gingerbread house and dense forests, rather, right from page 1 which opens out into a double spread of a wounded deer, the illustrations seemed cold and sharp and chilling, a terrifying psychological journey through hell and back to sanity. Also the unusual way the illustrations were made, bold collage, sharp angles,plunging diagonal compositions, red against black, said something about the confidence of the illustrator and her emphatic way of interpreting an old story in an entirely fresh new perspective. There is no room for frills and cuteness in her retelling, instead the visuals are suffused with an anxiety that we all recognize,one that is a part of living in this modern world.
I did what one does when one comes across a “find” on the internet, I bookmarked, I googled, I searched on Facebook for Susanne Janssen, I “friended” her. I am pleased to say that the illustrator reciprocated my enthusiasm of her work by appreciating mine.

Janssen’s illustrations for Hansel and Gretel however, did not leave me easily, I searched on Amazon for the book but could not find it,there are no English versions of the book either. I finally asked someone to get the book for me from abroad and I am glad I did.

For a better understanding of these images in Hansel and Gretel it is necessary to read this in depth analysis in Figure dei Libre. You will have to use Google Translate to read it but I guarantee you will come away completely fascinated.


Some weeks ago, Susanne Janssen sent me some beautiful flyers that she had made for her print making workshops. It provided some balm for the fact that I couldn’t whizz across to attend these sessions. The images on the flyers are beautiful and while they are a different mood from Hansel and Gretel, they are equally powerful and entice me to return to them often. Here are some pictures.

Thursday, May 30, 2019


Future Memories

My sister woke me early
that morning and told me
"Get up, you have to come see this
the ocean's filled with stars"
Delighted by the revelation
I dressed quickly and thought
If the ocean's filled with stars
I must take the first flight
and collect all of the fish from the sky.

~translated from Spanish by Eloisa Amezcua

Image from work in progress for an illustration which at this stage seemed apt for this poem.

Friday, May 3, 2019


This is a drawing of one of the two people I know named George. There are certain remarkable similarities about both of them. They live in the Cantonment area, have long fraying grey hair and straggly beard, are misfits and are blessed with the "gift of the gab" - They have the ability to pass of their many failures as wisdom just by making their words do charming acrobatics like pierrots in a side show. 

This post is about the George who used to sit under a tree at DaCosta square where I used to go for my walks. I once asked him for a cutting of a creeper growing on his mango tree. He gave me the plant and said in hushed tones, eyes wide open as if he was handing me a magic wand, "These are cephalophytes!" I didn't engage him, I took the cuttings and scooted. What is a cephalophyte anyway, try Googling it.

One night George was sitting at his usual place and I took a hazy picture of him during my walk. In an attempt to engage me in conversation he asked to see the picture. "You compose very well" said George, "not a lot of people do that!" 

I think any woman who has lived long enough in India knows that when a man praises her it is more about him than about her. I had to wait for about 3 minutes and that inevitability happened. 
"I appreciate beauty" said George, "I am a lover of nature. That is why I can appreciate how nicely you've taken this photograph,see? I appreciate the curve of this tree trunk here, I appreciate the flowers overhead, see that dead tree? I watched it die!"
And then George said, "God speaks directly to me through these trees." I backed away and fled.

My story accompanying this picture could so easily have cast a benevolent light on the friendly neighbourhood eccentric, it could have been a story in Reader's Digest or a church magazine,or even a children's book, with a colourful illustration accompanying it, safe, non-committal,un-opinionated reinforcing in its gentle readers the goodness that they want this world to be about, Sweet George giving Priya a creeper and telling her that the trees spoke to him. But I am not a children's book maker and my one stint long ago with a church magazine committee left me with an eternal sense of horror.

But irrespective of my story, there is the fact that George makes a great composition sitting in the dark with the streetlight on him and his doggy friends scattered around. It took 4 hours non-stop to finish this in my Canson sketchbook and I am happy with it.

My childhood in a cult

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Portraits and the Matter of Thoughtful Illustrations

This is a portrait of Greta Thunberg, a remarkable 16 year old schoolgirl who has managed to mobilize support for climate change in just 8 months in a way that no one else has quite managed to do before. Her story can be found here>

Why have I chosen to portray Greta Thunberg now? The reason has nothing to do with climate change but everything to do with illustration, good illustration, the kind of illustration that has some substance and integrity, and which has an image that says something. Sometime ago, a fashion site decided to put up pictures of women achievers and changemakers on their instagram feed. Instead of using photographs, they decided to use illustrations. To make the illustrations, they did what is mostly palmed off today in the name of “illustration”, they acquired photographs and used digital means to make bright, colourful images of women of substance sitting in the centre of a halo of psychedelic dots and rays with their faces looking as if they had a bad case of Vitiligo.

Of course whoever did this meant well,they always do, but watching one gruesome woman after another make its way into my feed during the run up to Women’s Day simply got rather much for me. It was kind of like sitting in the waiting room of a mad plastic surgeon and watching her mutilated results emerge one after another. I couldn’t take it anymore. I sent a thunderbolt of accusation in the comments section. I don’t remember what I said but it was something to the effect of: You have done nothing in your illustrations to show the achievements and character of the women you have portrayed!

Much to my surprise, I got a polite and civilized reply from HR in my messages later that day. They said they would “keep my points in mind”. I immediately felt guilty. I offered to do an illustration for them. No fee. Just getting my point across of what an illustration can be kind of thing. I didn’t make it in time for Women’s Day, there was other work on my desk, but after some thought given to what I wanted to portray, I chose Greta Thunberg.

I have shown Greta Thunberg sitting on this globe of black, patched up destruction that we have reduced our planet to. Beside her is her now powerful sign declaring School strike for Climate Change. The hope that is growing and growing and gathering momentum is shown in the shoots and leaves emerging tentatively but rapidly from her and her signboard and which will hopefully encompass the entire world in its growth, bringing about the change that is needed so urgently.

I have made this illustration in my large Moleskine sketchbook. It has a raw, textured feel to it that is very different from the clean, polished digital images that are so popular these days. This is what "real" is, it is messy and exhausting and intensely satisfying in a way that the Undo and Redo buttons of a digital device can never emulate. 

I hope that this, this portrait of a remarkable young woman that I have made, has beauty, substance and integrity to make it memorable for you. I hope it makes you pause for a moment and I hope it makes you linger over the image as you scroll through your feeds. I hope it inspires you and reminds you that it is the small choices that you make every single day that bring about the larger changes that you yearn so much for.


Another case of quick, thoughtless ineffective illustration would be this poster that was doing the rounds some time ago to mobilize people for support against cutting trees for an elevated corridor.

The generic conceptualization of the image in this poster simply makes me yawn. Tree cutting? Show a chopped off tree trunk and bung an axe on it, that will stir up enough indignation among Bangaloreans to read through two entire columns of text about the subject. This poster is as much an eyesore as an elevated corridor. 

Instead what if the designer of this poster had used an illustration of a TREE, a tree shown in all its glory and symbolic of what Bangalore was once famous for? What if an illustration of a tree like the one below had been used for this poster instead? 

Would not an image like this have been far more memorable for people looking at the poster? 
Would it not have struck an emotional chord in the audience and thereby made the cause more powerful? 
Doesn't it simply make more sense to show a tree rather than a chopped off one when you talk about Saving Trees? 
Are our creative people really that dead inside themselves that they create messages which have no beauty whatsoever so that their images simply add to the visual garbage that we see everyday online in the name of illustration? 
The answer is Yes to all these questions. 

It makes me really sad to call myself an illustrator because most people associate illustration with trashy images that keep doing the rounds everywhere, online, in picture books, in magazines, in posters...
There is the proven fact that the more trash you see, the more rubbish you produce so it seems that the circle of producing visual garbage is recurring and endless.Think about that before you click the LIKE button on an image as you rapidly scroll through your feeds.

Saturday, April 6, 2019


Accept who you are and revel in it.
               ~ M. Albom

Saturday, March 23, 2019

The Bookshelf

My bookshelf is the focal point in my new home and since I've moved in here it has become an evolving work of art. At first it was spartan and neatly arranged, but now over the couple of months I've stayed here, it has started to acquire more personality. 

Apart from my much collection of books which I must have as company, the things I love are also showcased here - the inevitable seedpods make their way to my bookshelf, as do objects picked up from my travels - driftwood from a beach in Roncesvalles somewhere in Toronto, the tiniest seashells from beaches in Australia, striped pebbles from Hampi, lucky pigs from Singapore...they are all placed here with love and care. 

Every time I pass by this bookshelf, which is many times during the day, my heart expands, my fur rises, I feel a sense of contentment.