Children’s book illustrator Priya Kuriyan on sketching facts

Priya Kuriyan   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Illustrator Priya Kuriyan chuckles over the phone as she recollects her research for a chapter about Aladdin Khilji in Manu Pillai’s recent release The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History. “I really wanted to include an image of his sword but the Internet kept leading me to swords that were everyone else’s but Khilji’s. Also, it didn’t help that Bollywood had made Padmavat; the Internet searches kept throwing up shots from the movie.” She finally found an image of the sword at the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai, thanks to a stranger on Twitter.

The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History contains a mixed bag of characters, from rajahs and politicians, to travellers and courtesans, and much more. Most of Priya’s charcoal drawings for the essays in Manu’s books were based on pictures that were available on the Internet.

Illustration of Shakuntala

Illustration of Shakuntala   | Photo Credit: Priya Kuriyan

“However, all the final drawings were vetted by Manu as one cannot trust the Internet completely. In fact, I accidentally used an image of the poet AK Ramanujan instead of the mathematician Ramanujan, since the Internet seemed to be mixing up their photographs! I realised it only when Manu pointed it out,” says Priya.

Research played an important role in illustrating Indira, a graphic novel by Devapriya Roy on the former prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi. “As there were so many biographies on her, it was important to create a book that would stand out from the rest. Apart from being factually accurate, the book had to be visually challenging as well.” And so Priya looked through scores of photographs and archives to get a better understanding of Indira Gandhi. She also visited Allahabad (Swaraj Bhavan, the old city and so on) and Delhi (Indira Gandhi Memorial, the parliament...) to help her visualise the book.

“One really gets a sense of the grandeur and scale of some of these places when one visits them. It helps one plan out scenes in the book and in adding details to the image that one might completely miss if one just looks at a photograph of the space. To give you an example, Swaraj Bhavan had these lovely, intricately carved wooden rosewood pelmets on which curtains used to be hung. Looking at them, one could immediately get a sense of Motilal Nehru's lifestyle, and good but lavish taste. I've used details like that throughout the book. I think it gives the image a specific character and adds layers to it,” says Priya, who adds that she learnt interesting details about the only female prime minister of India, like her difficult relationship with her father, her bouts of depression as a teenager, how she met Feroze Gandhi... during the research.

Illustration from Indira

Illustration from Indira   | Photo Credit: Priya Kuriyan

“We were also lucky to hear some fascinating stories about Indira Gandhi from Priyanka Gandhi,” says Priya, who began her journey while still a graduate at the National Institute of Design by illustrating Radhika Chadha’s I’m So Sleepy, about an elephant who forgets how to sleep. She has since drawn the images for innumerable children’s books, right from those of Tulika Books to images accompanying Ruskin Bond’s tales.

A book of her own
  • Ammachi’s Glasses is Priya’s first wordless picture book. Released in 2017, Ammachi’s Glasses is based on her late grandmother, Thressiamma Kuriyan, who lived in Kochi. In the book, Ammachi wakes up one morning and finds herself stumbling, bumbling, and tumbling through the day, causing chaos everywhere she goes, all because she can’t find her glasses. “I lived with my paternal grandmother for a few years. She used to wear chatta and mundu, make pickled mangoes, and detested the resident cat. She had a lot of spunk, had a great sense of humour and was quick- witted. I felt I had to immortalise her in a book,” says Priya, who has recreated a small Kochi household in her book.

Quirky characters
  • Priya did the cover for Khyrunnisa A’s Tongue in Cheek, a collection of articles that appeared in The Hindu MetroPlus that deals with everyday experiences in a humorous fashion. “It was great fun making a cover for this book as Khyrunnisa’s writing is so witty and humorous and I really enjoyed making some of her quirky characters come alive on the cover. The characters in her story are relatable and, as someone who loves drawing and observing people from the street, I almost felt like I would have seen some of these people at some point of time or the other.”

According to Priya, illustrated books for adults are not that popular in India. “Most Indian publishers do not invest in illustrations for books for adults. At most, they might decide on an illustration for the cover of the book. I guess Indian publishers feel that illustrations are suited only for children’s books. Apart from Manu’s The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History, I think Nilanjana Roy’s The Wilding’s is perhaps the only other book targeted at an adult audience, which carries illustrations on its pages.”

Working on a book for adults, says Priya, is similar to that of illustrating a children’s book in terms of process, research, planning, making rough sketches, then going on to make final artworks using a treatment that is best suited for the genre of writing. “However in the final execution in terms of art style, there is a distinct difference. It needs maturity. The characters especially, need to have a more grown up body language, gaze and so on when compared to children's books.”

The freelance artiste, who is based in Bengaluru, is currently working on a project for Tulika Books and is doing several book covers on the side. “I am also working on writing a children’s book for Pritham Books. It’s hush-hush now, so I can’t speak much on it,” says Priya.

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 1:14:55 AM |

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