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Updated: February 19, 2014 18:30 IST

Drawn to India

Nita Sathyendran
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Joelle Jolivet. Photo: S. Gopakumar.
The Hindu Joelle Jolivet. Photo: S. Gopakumar.

Joëlle Jolivet details the illustrations that she did for children’s book The Honey Hunter

French illustrator Joëlle Jolivet has been to India only once before and that too just for three days to attend a closed door publishing conference in Delhi. In her own words, “the trip was not much of an exposure to the incredible sights and sounds of India.” Yet, flip through the pages of The Honey Hunter, a children’s book, that Joelle co-authored with Indo-French poet Karthika Nair, and you’ll be surprised at how classically Indian the illustrations are.

The Honey Hunter has been adapted from choreographer Akram Khan’s dance drama Desh (which was co-written by Karthika) and is set in the Sundarban mangroves. It weaves together the myths of Bonbibi, the presiding deity of the forest, and Daikkin Rai, a demon who often appears in the form of a Royal Bengal tiger, and is told through the eyes of young Shonu, who belongs to a family of honey hunters. Shonu comes acroos both the beings in the forest while search ing for honey.

“The illustrations in The Honey Hunter are inspired by photos of the Sundarbans and from traditional Pattachitra paintings, adapted through my signature style of using big black lines,” says Joëlle, in her thickly accented English, pointing to a picture of Daikkin Rai of the fearsome eyes, printed on her T-shirt. Indeed, Joëlle’s illustrations for the book are a play of uncluttered, bold and clean lines. The characters exude rusticity, with their angular features, complete with big, expressive eyes. The artist says it took her almost six months of research before she could put pen to paper.

“For each book I illustrate, I try to search for inspiration from local art, tribal legends and art, the people, legends and culture of the place. For some characters, such as Bonbibi, who is worshipped by both Muslims and Hindus in the Sundarbans, for example, there is not much representation in visual imagery. So Karthika and I looked through photos of sculptures in temples and shrines, street plays, annual festivals and so on to get a definite picture of her, solving existential queries such as does she wear a sari or a churidar, does she have multiple arms, and so on,” explains Joëlle.

The artist has also stuck to a decidedly Indian colour palette for the book, highlighting her illustrations with dusky blue, yellow ochre, and magenta. “I’m usually a big fan of using neon colours to highlight illustrations. But here, I went for muted colours, the in between matte shades, because I wanted the illustrations to be subtle, and ergonomically flow around the text,” explains Joëlle, a graduate of the School of Applied Art in Paris.

Joëlle has over 25 years experience as an illustrator and authored around 30 books, several of them children’s books. She met Karthika through Judith Oriol of the French Book Office in India. Judith proposed the book to Joëlle’s regular publisher, Sophie Giraud of Editions Hélium, who decided to join hands with Zubaan, and publish it in French as Le Tigre De Miel.

“Karthika sent me the story and I promptly forgot about it! It was only when she called a week later that I remembered. Once I read it though, I was hooked. I was drawn to The Honey Hunter because it is such a fantastical, phantasmagorical tale, where the line between the real and the surreal is not defined,” says Joëlle. “I love illustrating cities and city life and have not done many rustic pieces. But one of my favourite motifs is trees. In this book, because it’s set in a mangrove forest, I got to play around with the tree motif quite a lot – I got to draw trees upside down!” she adds, her face, crinkling into a smile.

Joëlle, along with Karthika, was in the city as part of a book tour of India organised by Alliance Francaise. The duo are planning a new book – one featuring dragons. “But now that the tour is done, it’s time to relax and soak in the colours and sounds of India. My husband, Jean Luc Fromental, an architect, writer, and animator, and my son will be joining me for a 10-day vacation.”

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