Friday, March 14, 2014

Artist Feature: Doodling to Make a Difference!

"I am Supriya. I am a mom of two 4 year olds. I live in the USA and am constantly on the lookout for reading material that can impart the beauty of Indian colors, culture and influences to my Kids. My dad brought my kids the gorgeously illustrated story book "Color Color Kamini" as a gift when he visited us last year. And till date, I am unable to get over the sheer delight my kids experience when they see your illustrations in this book. Your illustrations are fresh. Breathtaking and Original! Looking at it, gave me an idea. Please hear me out. I am a blogger (and I did check out your blogs too!). I was wondering if I could feature you in Aalayam - a niche space for India inspired design, culture and cuisine ideas and for the people who keep it alive on a daily basis" 

This is an excerpt from the email I sent to Priya Kuriyan, whose email ID I found on her blog, that I looked up, when I was struck by inspiration to have a conversation with this talented illustrator whose drawings were coming alive every day, reminding me of my colorful childhood in textured India. Although I now lived thousands of miles away, I could still smell the fresh, wet earth of the forest where Color Color Kamini and her chameleon classmates lived. Such was the intoxicating storytelling of Priya’s illustrations. And I had to try and connect with her. 

I was delighted when I received an email back from her saying Yes!, She would love to be featured and she felt really special to hear that my kids enjoyed seeing her illustrations. So, that was the start of a “across the thousand miles” collaboration, a Q&A session that lent itself so naturally to taking a peek into who Priya Kuriyan really was, what drove her to draw so piquantly and what she was thinking when she doodled!

So, my Aalayam family, I present to you - Priya Kuriyan - one of us, yet uniquely prolific! It feels special that I was able to get nuanced and heart-felt responses to my questions from Priya, whom I have never met. I would say its a relationship built solely on mutual love for art and its interpretation.  So here goes!

Supriya (S): Priya, we all love the vibrant and verdant punctuation your art and illustrations makes in our and our kids lives. And we want to pick your brain to know more about it! First of all, what got you started illustrating??

Priya (P): I always liked drawing and reading as a child and was almost certain I would do something related to the arts once I grew up. Once I finished with school , I joined the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, (Gujarat) and I took up animation as my specialization. As most people know, animation is essentially another form of storytelling and is also something that involves an immense amount of hard work. Part of the process of making animation films, involves making conceptual art for it. It's the stage where you are just doodling and thinking of your story art , characters and the situations these characters could find themselves in. It was a stage I enjoyed immensely as I could create all kinds of really wacky illustrations in order to ideate for my stories without having to worry about the practicalities of how I would make my drawings move. 

I think my interest in illustration was really an outcome of that. It was, in a way, relaxing to illustrate for fun on the side while also doing animation - which at certain stages, can be physically and mentally quite demanding. I had also taken a short illustration course around that time. In my final year at design school , I sent some of the work I had done to Tulika books (Chennai) 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. Seeing my work in print of course gave me a huge kick and I decided this was something I would really like to continue doing .

S: Where do you derive your daily inspiration from? Is it your education, and cultural readings? The creative recesses of your mind? Or does it just come from the heart?

P: I think most of my daily inspiration comes from observing day to day life keenly. I love watching the way people interact with each other. It might be something as simple as watching someone buy vegetables from the local grocer, or just taking an autorickshaw to some place, but if one looks closely enough, I feel there are always subtle details one can catch, that make seemingly mundane things very interesting. These gestures people make, their clothes, a house I might have noticed somewhere, ultimately do make their presence felt, by creeping into the work I do.

I try traveling to new places every time I get a chance to do so. Once again, it doesn't really matter to me if the place I'm traveling to is a tourist hot spot or just another town. I make it a point to carry my sketch book and camera around so that I can record things I see and not forget. I've always liked reading.

I was lucky to have had the chance to study in a design school like NID. I owe a lot to it as it's helped shape me as person . It exposed me to so many things I didn't even imagine I would be interested in. That place and the taught me how to think. For someone who had been fed on mainly a diet of American books and comics throughout childhood, it was revelatory experience to find oneself in a place that constantly made you think of things within the Indian context. For the first time I saw what a rich tradition of folk art and crafts India had. That's something that continues to influence my work even now.

S: How do you give a modern slant to age-old mythical and mythological figures?

P: Well , I haven't had a lot of projects where I've worked with mythical figures, but a technique that I try an adopt at times, is to think of people I know in real life with a personality that would be perfect for the character I am creating, and then try and use that person as an inspiration. Sometimes it helps to turn things on their head and do what is not expected. For example if the 'villain' at first seems like he might be this huge guy, I might instead make him a really puny man instead.

The stereotypical mythological figures that we see in popular culture now, are simpler versions of images that were originally created by the famous Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma. His style of painting was very much influenced by the West. In turn, his paintings were what inspired the way all the characters in the Amar Chitra Katha series looked. The aesthetic of the Mahabharata /Ramayana series that played on Doordarshan in the 80's drew heavily from Amar Chitra Katha. There was a sort of homogenization of what all these characters looked like. I mean, one can't really place them in a particular Indian state or region.

On the other hand , if one looks at the pre- Ravi Varma depiction of Gods and goddesses in the 19th century Kalighat paintings, or in Madhubani paintings, they display a strong graphic quality ,a diversity in illustration styles . The way the women tie their hair or wear their sari in a Kalighat paintings was completely different from their hairstyles and sari wearing styles in a Madhubani painting . To cut a long story short, I would therefore perhaps do the ironic thing and go really far back to our older folk traditions and seek inspiration there in order to give a modern slant to our mythological figures

S: Can you talk to us a little bit about your creative process? Do you get to design your characters the way you want? Or does the outline depend upon the author or the publisher?

P: Well, most of the time I do get a lot of freedom to play with the characters. I usually read the book first. This is important for obvious reasons like - I can't make a character that was born in India look like his parents were Caucasian. I like listening to what authors have to say about the character. After all , It is the author who has created the character and understands it the most. Once I have an idea as to what the writer has in mind, I make really rough sketches, adding my own little quirks and details to the character ;some perhaps even the writer might not have thought of. I send it off to the publisher and the author for approval. Sometimes, they get back with feedback and ask me to change a few things. Once the sketches are approved, I usually go ahead and make final drawings. Another round of approvals, and then I color the final artworks in.

S: What kind of social causes have you worked with? Or are working with?

P: I make it a point to do projects with NGOs that publish books for children who can't really afford to buy expensive books. Pratham Books and Room to Read are organisations that have worked with . The best part about these organisations is that they make sure children in the remotest corners of India have access to story books. The idea that a kid in a remote village in Ladakh or a tiny hamlet in the Northeast must have seen my illustrations makes me really happy.

S: What have been the highlights of your career as a illustrator?

P: I'd like to measure highlights on the basis of how much I enjoyed working on certain projects. I have a soft spot for the "Baby Bahadur" series (Tulika books) , since it was my very first project. Illustrating for "The Fried Frog And Other Funny Freaky Foodie Feisty Poems" by Sampurna Chattarji. I had a blast illustrating for this one. Creating the 2011 calendar for Manipal press . I think it was with that project that I discovered a style I enjoyed working with. Lately , illustrating "Rooster Raga" for Tulika books and Uma Krishnaswami's "Book Uncle and Me". Oh ! but I must show you the latest highlight of my career :) - I think it is stuff like this that makes me want to continue to do what I do. I feel like in some teeny weeny way , I've been part of a kids growing years. (This is another blog I keep, Supriya . This mostly contains stuff from my sketchbook)

S: Has your art changed your everyday style - at home and at play?

P: I wouldn't say it has 'changed' something, but it has always permeated my everyday life.. In order to create something new ,there's always always a constant need to be inspired by things so there is a tendency to sometimes clutter my workspace with artwork by other artists I really admire. I guess if you were to visit my home , you would see I have a penchant for bright colors similar to what I use in my illustrations .But at the same time, I'm not sure whether what I like instinctively , has affected my art or vice-versa. You know, there's that tenet on which Gond art is based where they say that 'viewing a good image begets good luck' . That has to be true . Looking at beautiful objects definitely makes me happy ! And I guess one is lucky when one is happy .

Sometimes the nature of projects one does, definitely brings about certain positive changes; changes that have nothing to do with the aesthetics, but the quality of one's life. For example, I worked on this comic book project called 'our toxic world' for an organisation called 'toxic links' ,a few years back . Working on it made me realise how ignorant I was about so many things pertaining to environmental degradation, toxins and it's impact our health. It made me make certain conscious lifestyle changes . I do think I became a 'greener ' person after that by trying not to buy more things than necessary ,using public transport whenever possible, segregate waste, buying organic locally grown food etc :)

S: What challenges should the novice illustrator anticipate?

P: Sometimes ,Getting a first break can sometimes be difficult. It's always a good idea to put together whatever work one has in the form of drawings and sketches and compile your work online as well so that people can access it easily. Also, in the beginning , it is possible that one might be a little disappointed with the monetary aspect of it as it might not pay you as much as your friends corporate career might, but in a few years , with enough experience things do get much better. The important thing really is to continuously keep at what one likes doing, work earnestly and honestly and not compare oneself to another. Also, do some projects just for the love of it without thinking too much about what it would lead to.

S: How, in your opinion, does your art contribute to the preserving of culture?

P: I think in many ways what I and numerous other artists do is to directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously , record the stories of our lives. It might be a direct form of preservation like illustrating a simple folk story, or it might also be illustrating a contemporary piece where though the primary aim is to tell a story, it also, through its visuals illustrates the the circumstances that form the setting for the story. So, many years from now , when another generation looks back at these pieces , it would hopefully serve as a reflection of the society we lived in. As artists , most of us must simultaneously preserve and invent culture.

It is often our the past that acts as a catalyst /inspiration for new work and speaking of my work specifically , I think I'm always trying to evolve a style that's inspired by Indian folk art forms and miniature paintings, to create a visual language that is uniquely Indian. While growing up in the 80's I remember that there were hardly any books with Indian characters in them. Most of the characters in my favorite picture books were Russians with blonde hair names like Ivan and Vassily . So, whenever I made drawings for these little comic books that I used to make as a hobby in school, all my characters inevitably had blonde hair. I had unwittingly brainwashed myself to think that for a character to exist in a story , it must be Caucasian. It makes me so happy therefore that publishers of children's books in India now are now very consciously changing that, and a child in India who reads a book these days is not confused about his or her rightful place in storybook. I do hope my work is contributing in some way to this phenomenon .

S: Finally, what does a Day In the Life Of Priya Kuriyan look like?

P: I have to admit outright I am one of those people who just can't follow a fixed schedule everyday. I mostly dream of being a more organized person though. A day in my life is pretty quiet ,mostly . I'm definitely a night owl and therefore a late riser . I usually start my day with the newspaper and my morning dose of Caffeine. My neighbor's Spaniel usually knows when I wake up and he visits for about half an hour everyday. After a bit of mollycoddling (this is the only constant event in my daily routine) we read the paper together. I generally start work around 10:30 -11 am. The rest of the day completely depends on what project I'm doing and what stage of the project I am in .

There are days when I just need to think conceptually and maybe crack a look for a book cover or an editorial illustration or a story for a comic. On those days I think most of my time is divided between daydreaming and doodling and I tend to spend a lot of time switching from one thing to the other - while constantly thinking of this one concept at the back of my head. I know on the outside it just looks like I'm wasting time doing almost nothing and it's borderline embarrassing , but sometimes I just have to wait until the right idea strikes me. On certain days it's just the opposite . If I've reached that point in my project, where I know exactly what to do , I can just sit for hours and hours in utter concentration.

In the evenings I usually step out for a walk or a run. I get back to work post dinner. Just before this is also the time I get online and catch up with whatever's happening in the online world. I usually work late into the night since there are really very few distractions- no phone calls , no bells ringing. I usually end the day reading a book. That's something I've been doing ever since I could read I think .

Thank you Priya. You have inspired us. Please keep doing what you are doing to refresh, delight and rejuvenate our sensibilities. Keep drawing, no...strike that...Keep DOODLING to MAKE A DIFFERENCE.



  1. Priya: This is deepa, the other half of Aalayam - thank you for allowing us to showcase you on Aalayam - we love telling the inspiring stories of self made creative virtuosos like you. i am bowled over by what I see. I have to get my hands on a few of these books - the illustrations have such a quirky appeal to them - the books would be a great addition to any library! Thanks again for becoming a part of Aalayam.
    Supriya - I should perhaps congratulate you on another great showcase offline? Wonderful work!


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  3. Thank you, Supriya and Deepa for the feature ! Was nice talking to you about all this :)

  4. Lovely! The illustrations are truly catching. Are these book available online. Would love to get them for my girls.

  5. Hi Reshma, Thanks for stopping by, and for the feedback.

    I believe some of the books illustrated by Priya are available on Amazon. Check them out!

    Good luck!


  6. Hi Reshma, Thanks for stopping by, and for the feedback.

    I believe some of the books illustrated by Priya are available on Amazon. Check them out!

    Good luck!


  7. Delighted to see the new artist feature series on Aalayam, and even happier to see Priya Kuriyan's work whom I have long followed. Such expressive stories she weaves through her work, its amazing. Good to know more about her through this interview.

  8. This is really cool. Love it. I am hosting a Giveaway with Jaypore on my site today. Would love for you to enter and do please spread the word. Thanks a bunch Anu

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