Where did your creative journey begin? For me, I can remember bits and pieces of memories pieced together. One of them was taking art classes at NAFA (Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts) when I was seven. I still remember the musky smell of the rooms, the peeling paint of the plastered white walls to reveal a grey behind, the first time we were introduced to Chinese calligraphy and having to be very, very careful as the watery black inks of the Chinese brush touch the thin, translucent rice paper so as not to create an accidental smudge or else you create angry, black, furry sparks across the sheet.
But anyway, here is somebody else’s story that I am intrigued with.
From 4 June to 7 July, Galerie Steph and SPRMRKT (the gourmet supermarket at McCallum Street) presented an exhibition of Indian artist, illustrator and performer Malavika PC’s work for a new book titled ‘The Magic Bird’. The children’s book of the same title is written by Ken Spillman, and Malavika’s collages on hand-textured sheets brings the story to life in a three-dimensional way.
I was intrigued and asked Malavika to give more insight into her creative background and the creative journey for ‘The Magic Bird’. Originally I had wanted to shorten the interview but reading it I was sucked so deep into her explanations, reasonings, thoughts and stories that I couldn’t make myself cut any of it. If you take the time to read through it it will really inspire you. When an artist is so genuine and opens her heart out like that, you can’t help but feel touched, even if you haven’t picked up a copy of the book yet, which you should.
“Narratives survive on logic. Children make their own logic—and nothing shakes that certainty from them—until they decide on their own that the idea doesn’t work for them anymore.” This is a quote from the bio on your website. I believe this beautiful description on ‘narratives’ does not just apply to children but also in the way you work on your art. What are your thoughts on this?
I have mulled this over in my head for years—but it is in my working with children over the last decade that it has began to solidify into and as an approach itself. Funnily I get more and more courage to deal with abstract ideas as I continue to work with children. I’ve not been a fan of once upon a times that end in happily ever afters. I’m not the first to discover this but there is always a before, an after and the multiple variables in between that could have been. I believe that no matter how linear, simple and straight forward an idea is, there will always always be an eye and a mind that sees it differently and it would be legitimate. I personally like the intangible feeling when a piece falls in place; this is what I am most curious about and look forward to in my work and the works of others. For this reason I continuously improvise and experiment.
Can you share with us some favourite memories from your childhood with regard to drawing/art?
I grew up in a family [comprising a] large community of artists, active and vocal political thinkers and teachers, all engaging in very many disciplines from theatre, cinema, politics, gender, history and philosophy to english, hindi and tamil. As much as there was no dirth of exposure I really found myself struggling to grasp the larger abstract concepts, which everyone around seemed most interested in discussing. It bothered me that I did not have a vocabulary to understand or participate. By the time I was four I was quite enamoured by the possibility of living like an artist and I was declaring quite vocally my desire to be one and expressing my intentions to understand what being an artist meant. Much to my surprise every discipline allowed for an artist. I would ask many, many questions and my parent community would try to patiently answer them, but most of their definitions and stand points on various isms and osophies would fly over my head and I remember being very frustrated by it. As a six-year-old things changed for me as two significant books came into my reach and I held on to them very dearly until I was 22 and lost one in lending and the other in house shifting—I still kick myself for this.
One was a second-hand coverless but full-colour, glossy, 120-page, centre-stapled vintage poster catalogue in tatters. I cannot recall the publisher but I think it came either from USA or UK. This book was set in thumbnails and had a page dedicated to each of its long list of contents, which ranged from painted heirloom seed packets, the great masters to some very kitschy 50s 60s inspirational posters, Disney up until Fantasia and some very pulpy soft porn imageries that exploited much of that period’s photographic experiments— topless, busty women morphed into apples, oranges and motorcycles.
This book was and remains the first time I laid eyes on the possibilities of creating images and the meanings that one could derive from them. I got my first glimpses of Kandinsky, Van Gogh, Dali, Klimt and Paul Klee here and I fell for them all. I spent most of my so-called ‘reading time’ with this one book just slowly flipping back and forth and lingering over one thumbnail after the next for many years. This book gave me a whole different and pointed set of questions to ask and somewhere a better context to grasp the responses. The questions led me to answers about materials, mediums, styles, observations, geographies, locations of artists, intentions and most importantly ways of seeing.
The second book was my mother’s—she is an actor and a translator—second hand copy of The Grumbacher Library’s ‘The Art of Drawing Heads and Hands’ and she would practice from it quite regularly. I think the left-hand side of the second or third spread of the book had black and white photographs of basic drawing materials like graphites, inks, nibs, erasers, charcoal, brushes and so on, and the right-hand side had a few but fascinating sketches of what was possible with these mediums listed. I was drawn immediately. I would sit by my mother for hours and watch her copy lines from this book—getting them right, getting them wrong, erasing, redrawing and sharpening away at the yellow pencil with ‘Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth 6B’ punched in gold and working it until it was too small to hold. That so much could be done with wielding a simple pencil was nothing short of wizardry. That book also unravelled the world of skin, musculature, bones, ageing and expression for me. It gave me the strong sense of what Study meant to an artist and how much time and practice it would take before I learnt to draw exactly the way that I intended to.
In a matter of year I was drawing on all the walls of our small house—mostly because I did not like the green walls and wanted to add something to it. If I could not reach high I’d get on the dining table and paint. Then I began painting under the dining table, on the refrigerator, on carefully kept academic notes of my parents. So they requested [material for me from] their friends who complied and started dropping off spiral bound one sided photocopied material that were no longer of use to them because I was beginning to run out of space and scribbling over theirs. These were my first and personal sketch books on which I drew only flowers for many many years.
Another memory: I’m not sure if I was seven or eight but it was a summer break when my father took me on a full-day tour to the Chennai Museum, then the Art Gallery next door and finally to the Chennai Lalit Kala Academy. It was and remains a very important day for me. We walked slowly from one display to the next as my father and I tried to keep pace with each other’s questions and responses. Some of the ‘isms’ began falling into place. From seeing ancient and contemporary Indian art under gallery spotlights to seeing a stuffed orang-utan and a massive whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling to eating the Lime rice, beef fry and boiled egg lunch my mother had packed in a leaf for us that we ate under a banyan tree outside the Chennai Museum—the day is etched in my head.
I still remember walking into the printmaking studio of Mr Palaniappan at LK as he carefully laid down his big demy prints for us to see and spoke about the whys and hows of his practice. He was the first ‘Abstract’ artist I met face to face and I felt very important. The meeting was all the more intriguing for me because he played with geometry, topography and very little colour but lots of lines that closed in to create shapes and spaces alien to me. I recall him holding up some of the prints for me because I wasn’t tall enough to see over the big drawing table. I came home that night with many new ideas, questions and my first chisel set which a sculptor at LK gave me because I was very opening drooling at it while he was chipping away on a big chunk of granite.
You work with many mediums; previously the Rotring pen was a key medium for many works. In ‘The Magic Bird’, it is paper collage that you have chosen to depict the tale. Why is this a most suitable medium?
The Rotring Isographs 0.1, 0.2 and 0.3 holding black and white ink still feature in The Magic Bird in areas where typography appears. I have been playing around with collages for a while now. In 2008 I worked on collages (towards the 4 book – Mouse Series for Karadi Tales) by digitally rendering and putting together various scans and photographs of textures and materials, which I had collected till then. By 2012 my sketch books had accumulated quite a few collages and I liked more and more the feeling and tactility of paper between my fingers, not to mention the act of laying them down to create visual impact. By 2014 collage had entered as a strong medium, which I was exploring in my personal artwork like with the Concerto and Xylem Series.
With The Magic Bird, collage was an affirmative choice because the book is about a word-hungry bird that goes around shredding paper and collecting scraps to weave up meanings. It was collage from the moment I read the manuscript for the very first time; I wanted to show paper by using paper.
Can you elaborate on the specific process of creating these collages, and also the intricacies of the materiality? For example, what are the kinds of paper you have used and why the monochrome tonality. Also what are the thought processes in the artwork with regard to the consideration of typography, considering the content of the story?
Affordability of quality art material—both with respect to papers, inks and styli—has and remains an issue for me. There is just too much paper and stationery in the world that I want. The more I work on projects these days the more I realise I would like to work on those that give me (or I end up taking, in any case) luxurious stretches of time, which allow me time to study over my work. As much as I drool over expensive weaves and textures, I often find myself in a position to be able to purchase only a few and this just limits my excitement for experiments. So for the last ten years I have been going to one particular offset printing house in Chennai that I’ve worked with since I was a design and illustrator intern from 2004 to collect their scraps. They keep aside all their extras and wastage (pre cut to various sizes) for me (which they would otherwise discard or sell cheap by weight) and I have the space to roam around their dusty go-down to take whatever I need. I have been working on and with these scraps and use them in the best ways that I can. I also have a digital printer here in Pondicherry—they toss out their massive scrolls of paper right from Gateway to Texture Stucco Boards when they start thinning out because they don’t feed very well into the big roller printer when the scrolls begin losing their girth so much. So I time my visits to that press in such a way that I can get my hands on these scrolls, which last me a few months and sometimes a year’s worth of drawing space. Most of the Gateway used in The Magic Bird comes from a scroll I acquired from this printer almost two years ago and are still in mint condition.
This scrap collecting and drawing on them, which I began as a ploy to meet an adversity, has allowed me to feel and work with so many kinds of paper over these years, because unlike going to an art shop and buying specific kinds of weaves and presses which I also do so very often, with the print shop wastage I never really know what papers I will meet I until I see them first hand, and I’m always surprised and come away like a kid with her birthday loot.
The off-white base boards on which I worked The Magic Bird was a standard 300 gsm acid free cotton weave Canson, Everything else crafted on these blank boards come from my collection of print-shop waste and scraps.
Colours and bright hues have been edging out my work over the last few years and I didn’t see it coming. Now I like to begin work with a limited playing field and get [I get a kick out] exploiting it. Understanding negative spaces takes a whole new form when working in monochrome. When I started with The Magic Bird I had some black boards, sheets and cards ranging from 80 – 300 gsm with a variety of textures, the mighty scroll of gateway and a lot of off-white boards, sheets and cards again with similar weights and one almost silvery plasticy paper, which came cut in 3 x 12 inch sizes. Some of this I had with me already and for the rest I made two trips from Pondicherry to my Chennai offset print house. I created a whole set of new textures on these black papers. Then I made something like a big shade card book with variations of grey, blacks and white by spraying inks onto them with a tooth brush, splattering ink, just running simple brush strokes over them, laying ink sprayed Gateway over the black and white sheets to arrive at more muted and sometimes diluted tones. And I used this as a sort of catalogue of hand-textured sheets to cut from then paste and craft the illustrations.
As I progressed with the book I began realizing some papers fold better than they curl, some hold ink better than others and so on. As a child I hung around with my folks on sets during their shoots and had seen the Gateway sheets used to diffuse and direct light and I had wanted to use it in my work to see if I could use it to play with light in illustrations for a long time. All this and more gave me room and ideas to play with. I also felt from the start that the works for The Magic Bird needed to be photographed and not scanned if it was to retain its dimensions and not flatten out. So I worked with a professional photographer Tarun Saldanha whom I regularly updated regarding the progress of the book from its very early stages, so that we could really figure out lighting possibilities that could bring out more dramatic but precise shadows.
I am prone to wording up my illustrations. Specifically with children’s illustration previous to The Magic Bird, it has helped with adding layers, details, typography; exaggerating or experimenting with sound and expression, word play and it is fun. With The Magic Bird—at the risk sounding cliché—I had to really collect, create and work through my scraps of typefaces and papers as well. I was given a clean slate with the words I could use both from the publisher and the writer of the book, and I took strength and space from that kind of trust.
The words appearing through the illustrations come from some of my most treasured reading material and books that I had kept or was currently taken to reading while crafting the images as well as my own bits of writing and notes over time. For the seven months spent on The Magic Bird my studio was not an easy or a pretty space to navigate for friends and visitors; they really had to find a spot where they could wedge themselves between my stacks of paper, scraps and piles of books that I was rummaging through.
Edited list/bibliography of texts appearing in The Magic Bird:
Asterix, Keith Devlin’s Man of Numbers, John D Barrow’s Book of Universe, Shakuntala Devi’s More Puzzles, Richard Feynmann’s ‘Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynmann’, the original Greys Anatomy, The Magic of MC Escher, Dr Suess’s ‘And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street’, Fritjof Capra’s ‘Web of Life’, Maurice Sendak’s ‘Where the Wild Things Are’, Sharbhani Das Gupta’s essay on ceramic artist Ashwini Bhat from her self-published artist book, Lynn Truss’s ‘Eats Shoots and Leaves’, Osamu Tezuka’s ‘Buddha’ translated in English, Ashwini Bhats’ copy of ‘Octavio Paz’s ‘On Poets and Others’, words from Rumi, Neruda and Ondaatje, my personal collection of design and art journals, bits from my own notes and just words and phrases that I liked the sound of piecing together at that point in time. Jumping between these texts gave me a range of characteristic typefaces, punctuations, typographic emphasis like italics or bold and sections of words to practice and work with. Deciding what goes next to which scrap, how much of the words to write, how much to keep, why or why not—all this has been a very satisfying and rewarding aesthetic experience for me. Plus I felt really good that I could make space for my precious Rotring Isograph [drawing pens].
I spent a good deal of time and sleepless nights worrying about the typography being specifically in English. Should I include more languages. If so which ones? If I didn’t use some languages—and I surely wouldn’t be able to use all of them in this book—then what would that imply? Is it possible to create a book that can visually engage a non English-speaking child? Should I create an entirely new language for this book? These were all questions that went through my head and which I discussed at length when I felt the panic most severe with my artist friend Ashwini Bhat (across months till I fried her brain) and she has seen and supported every piece of the book falling in place, until I learned to bring myself to ease by repeatedly saying to myself “one step at a time Mal, one step at a time”.
You have worked on many illustrations for children’s books. What are important considerations in illustrating for this audience?
Ideologically I am wary of the romantic notion (and I stand by the term ‘notion’) of the innocence of childhood—the untouched and unscathed wonder that is a child’s mind. I am equally wary of absolute equality between adult and adult, adult and child & child and child—and find this too to be a matter of natural selection. I feel this often leaves the business of growing up and learning to a child alone, and puts adults way up on a pedestal with their unmatchable yet definitive wisdom. Personally speaking I grow, experience life and contend with the challenges of daily life on a second-to-second basis as equipped or unprepared as a three, 25, 56 or 78-year old.
I strongly believe that creating content for children and adults alike come from acknowledging one’s own incapacities, ignorance, insecurities and strengths. Add to that fine tuning one’s craft, rather than a position of charity or imparting knowledge. The most learned can do with learning more much [in the manner of] the so-called slow or young learners, and under this light everyone could do with more patience and compassion because learning/life is not easy for anybody. It is as frustrating to communicate effectively as it is to comprehend completely.
My institutional training in the Fine Arts was a four year BFA in Industrial Design in Ceramics. I found the need to create images to be a much stronger call throughout my education, and I wasn’t surprised with my decision to not pursue a career in ceramics. A month before I finished with my graduation I went to a design house and joined as a trainee illustrator. I took a few days off, went back to college, wrote my exams and promptly returned back to my new work. I’ve picked up my illustration, design and performing skills on the job over the years. My arts practice up until today has relied mainly on devising ways in which I could create work that I like to make and I would like to see. I employ the the ideas with the skills I have at hand and by exploiting techniques I would like to explore further. This is the way I have done things, and the main lesson I’ve learnt from this is that everyone comes at it differently and with their individual quirks, life experience, skill sets and method of study. Trusting that is always (in my experience) invaluable.
Please continue this sentence: Play to me is:
Remarkable practice in trusting intuition.
+ images courtesy of 20twenty Public Relations and Malaviya PC