Junuka Deshpande’s illustrations, documentaries and writing come straight out of her life experiences. That is the only way to be, she tells Pankaja Srinivasan

When Junuka Deshpande was 12, she posted an inland letter to Marathi writer Prakash Narayan Sant telling him how much she enjoyed his novel, Vanvaas . To her utter delight he responded, thanking her. She decided to write him another letter. This time, she put it into a proper envelope and made little drawings on it before posting it. Sant was so impressed with the young girl’s drawings that he asked her to illustrate one of his stories. “The first two stories I illustrated were Aag-gadichya Rulanvar (On the rail road) and Sharda Sangeet . I was fortunate that I got to read the work that directly came from his heart. It was a silent conversation I experienced with the author as I read and drew. I was not very far from the age of the protagonist Lampan when I drew his world. I made simple black ball pen drawings. That work is still very, very dear to me. I also illustrated Sant’s next book Pankha (Fan) when I was 14.”

Junuka, who teaches at the DJ Academy of Design, Coimbatore, went to a Marathi medium school. “It was called Dahisar Vidya Mandir. And I had a rare and wonderful primary school drawing teacher, Ms. Swati Indulkar. She would come into class, hoist herself up on the table and say, ‘now draw me’. I remember spending an inordinate amount of time drawing just the border of her sari. She let us draw the way we wished. She would have a good word for every drawing. I will never forget how she wrote ‘ati sundar’ in one of my drawings,” she smiles. Swati Indulkar was perhaps the catalyst for drawing becoming a part and parcel of Junuka’s life.

Junuka, 30, is now an author with Tulika Publishers and has brought out a picture book, Night. In black and white, it is about a nocturnal walk in the forest. It is a book for kids, but Junuka says it came out of very grown up experiences she had at Car Nicobar where she lived for two years.

Islands of experience

“I went to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences to apply for a project in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands a year after the tsunami. I was employed as a documentation expert. In my two years of living in the islands, I was transformed. We were a small team who were trying to understand the people of the islands, the systems, relationships, the sea and a whole lot of complex issues that made life of the tribal community (Nicobarese) very difficult. We formed a collective called the Dosti group along with the local community. We documented craft, histories, stories and forest medicines. We made songs and books. We travelled. We encountered hurdles, we were frustrated. Still, we never gave up. I think the strength came from the Nicobarese community. In spite of being so far away from ‘my people’ in another distinctly different culture, in dangerous environmental conditions, I never felt alone there.”

On the contrary, Junuka was miserable when she returned from the islands. She calls it a dark period that lasted almost a year. “I felt that my body was back but the soul was still in the islands. I painted my experiences, wrote about them, dreamt about them, somehow trying to get in touch with my changed self. At the same time, I was also looking for work.” It was those illustrations that gave shape to her book, Night . “I sent some of the illustrations to Sandhya Rao of Tulika and she immediately responded saying they would be interested in doing a book. With her inputs, I improvised the story and drew a lot more.”

Another project happened similarly when Junuka met Kamesh Aiyer, author of The Mahabharata Re-imagined . She is now in the process of illustrating for the series. Kamesh provided a whole new perspective on the Mahabharata which resonated with my beliefs and experiences. I love that he has re-imagined the stories by looking at the characters in a realistic way, from the window of ecology, geography and history. I am re-discovering the Mahabharata as I am drawing for it. There is very little heroism. It is more an analysis of human behaviour. Some stories are just re-told. I am looking forward to the audience reaction on this project.”

Junuka is also working on a project, “Call of the Seas”, with artist Chandramohan Kulkarni that integrates paintings with video films and uses audio visual techniques and sound design. “I like the idea of experiential documentary work. It gives the audience a space to think and form an opinion. It also gives the filmmaker/artist a space to consciously understand the audience and imagine its reaction. It is a kind of a dialogue and I enjoy it.”

Junuka says a lot of her work, whether it is illustrating, documentary making or singing (she sings Hindustani classical beautifully, having trained under Anjali Malkar), stems from her own experiences.

That is why she chose to study Film and Video Communication at the National Institute of Design (NID). “Filmmaking is the mother of all arts — drawing, photography, singing, all come together in it,” she says.

A people's person

By the end of the four-and-a-half years at NID, she was irrevocably committed to travelling and studying people and cultures.

“As a filmmaker and an artist I understood that a lot of what I learnt in a design institute actually came from the people and their love of their land and life. The science, philosophy, aesthetics, sustainability, everything!”

That is why her Nicobar years are so precious to her. She says, with a straight face, “Along with all the existential experiences at Car Nicobar, I also learnt how to fish.”

Filmmaking is the mother of all arts — drawing, photography, singing, all come together in it