On January 26, 2015, I joined the country in mourning the passing away of the high priest of Indian cartoons — R K Laxman. And like every netizen worth her high-speed Internet connection, I spent hours trawling the web for news reports, old interviews, ‘10 things you didn’t know…’ and so on. It was then that I chanced upon a report that mentioned Lavanya Naidu, a young illustrator who had dared to take on the daunting task of re-illustrating the Indian childhood classic — Malgudi Schooldays. “Why fix something that ain’t broke?”, I wondered, making a mental note to get her book just to see what it would be like. And, Lavanya has done a great job of bringing to life the beloved town and its motley crew of residents — in multicolour brilliance — I am glad to report. Seizing the opportunity to interview her, I got her to head back to the drawing board and tell me about her tryst with the book, among several other things.
My first question, of course, is, “What prompted you to take on the challenge of re-illustrating Malgudi Schooldays?” She replies, “I was presented with the opportunity by the Penguin team, to re-illustrate the book in colour. Aside from being at a complete loss for words to express how happy I was to be working on one of India's favourite children's books, I was also extremely nervous about the expectations that came with it. But then again, I was attracted to the challenge, and simply had to do this! It’s an honour to be even associated with the legend in some small way.”
As for how she dealt with the whole thing, from starting line to finish, she explains, “The publishers had a clear vision; they wanted something new. Yet, there was the need to retain the old charm and simplicity, with more illustrations and colour! As a child, I read Malgudi Schooldays over and over again and fondly remember it being my go-to book. So, it was like revisiting an old friend.” The first step was to re-read the book, mark out the potential areas to visualise and illustrate, and get down to creating rough sketches. “We tried to select areas that are vivid in description, and sometimes areas that could possibly be made more exciting if visualised,” she points out, “Once the rough sketches were complete and approved, I got down to the final artwork. There were a lot of new ideas along the process, which we integrated into the final book, like the map of Malgudi on the flipside of the sleeve, more double page spreads, etc.”
Which character did she enjoy working on the most? She says, “That would most definitely be Swami! I think when you've read the book so many times, you feel like you know the character. He's like a friend and you already have an image of him in your mind; so it's even more exciting to get that down on paper.”
R K Laxman passed away mere days after the book was launched. Did he get the chance to see the book? “That (his passing away) was immensely sad news. I don't really know for sure if he had a chance to see it, and all I can hope was that if he did, he liked it.”
Does she think her version of the book is better, though? “Haha! That's such a trick question. No, I think R K Laxman's work is classic — there isn't any comparison here. His work is the key inspiration for all of the new art.” As for the overall response from the public, she adds, “From what I hear, the book has been doing really well. It has also been shortlisted as a nominee in the Best Illustrated Children's Book category for Comic Con 2015 and various blogs as one of the best illustrated books and best cover designs for this year.”
Moving away from Malgudi, I ask Lavanya who her other favourite illustrators are. “Ah! There are so many incredibly talented illustrators out there, but two whose work I absolutely love are Oliver Jeffers and Cyril Pedrosa,” she says, and adds, “I love to read, so even as a child I was always surrounded by books. A lot of my family would bring beautifully illustrated books from their travels, in and outside the country. So I was exposed to a lot of beautiful art as a child. Among my favourites are The Greatest Book of Bedtime Stories by Ann and Ken Mckie, The Story of Santa Claus by Tim Paulson, Sister Fox and the Rolling Pin by A Yeliseyev, The Roald Dahl Treasury, illustrations by Quentin Blake and many more.”
The animator/illustrator has done illustrations for Tinkle and Ruskin Bond, two big names in the realm of children’s books. What are the challenges when it comes to working on illustrations aimed at children? “I think one of the challenges is having to revisit your own childhood and look at the world, devoid of cynicism and opinions; to gaze with innocence and wonder. I always try to ask myself, 'If I was a child, what would I really want to see?'” she smiles.
And, finally, if she had to choose one other childhood classic to re-illustrate, which one would it be? “My Family and other Animals by Gerald Durrell. I absolutely love the author's way of completely captivating the reader with his adventures on the Corfu Islands as a young boy and his immense love for nature and its magical creatures,” Lavanya says as she signs off.
Tinkle, Ruskin Bond, R K Laxman..., the list of challenges on Lavanya’s drawing board is long - and she has completed them with aplomb. Revisiting her childhood and recreating the child in her...therein lies the key to her success.
Kudos to Penguin Books India for the idea and, like the illustrator, let us hope that R K Laxman got to see the book and that he liked the new avatar of the original classic.
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