Designing Adikahani : Tradition with a Twist

For this year’s Retell, Remix and Rejoice contest, we decided to use illustrations from the different books that we created to make up the Adikahani series. Some of you may have seen the behind-the-scenes pictures we shared from the workshops we held to produce these books. In this post, Gopika Chowfla tells us more about what happened at the illustrator workshops. 
When Manisha asked me if I would work with Pratham Books on a project to develop children’s books in tribal languages, I was really excited and instantly agreed. I have to admit, at first I assumed it was just an assignment to illustrate stories. But after discussing what the broader concept of this project as Manisha envisioned it was, it became so much more interesting and challenging.
The idea to hold workshops for writers and storytellers to collect tribal tales, poems and stories in local dialects was brilliant. When it came to design and illustration, we had many discussions about how to find a visual language that could use the traditional tribal imagery and art of the region. The fact is that kids, even in the remotest part of Odisha, are watching cartoon network and more familiar with Disney characters, Chhota Bheem and Pokemon than with the iconic native visual aesthetic that is fast disappearing from their lives. So the challenge was to find a way to make the books vibrant and engaging using an idiom that may be fading, but still familiar. 
The Saura painting style uses geometric forms, usually as single colour silhouettes. The paintings, often made on the walls of their huts have ritualistic importance and are imbued with symbolism. The challenging part was to use the traditional forms but build them into to characters with some identity and to make the narrative unfold with every page. I picked up some of the typical motifs – of people, dogs, trees and other elements and put them on a page to construct the scene of the story. I realised that there needed to be some intervention – like eyes and expressions – to animate the characters and make them distinct from each other. (A bad wolf needed to look different from a good wolf!) After doing the basic groundwork and some preliminary sketches, we decided that the workshop format would be the best way to achieve the results we want. Bhubaneshwar was a convenient meeting point and over a couple of days I worked with 4-5 artists to try and put the illustrations in place. The first day was less than spectacular and it seemed like what I was trying to do was far-fetched and needed more time for us to understand each other and to get the kind of drawings I was expecting. Some of the artists were not tribal and were trained in the classical art style which they found hard to move away from. The tribal artists have become so practiced in repeating the Saura motifs for commercial craft objects that it took some time to get them to shift into a different gear. But the learning was both ways and miraculously on the second day, 2 of our artists were getting totally into the spirit of the enterprise and creating fabulous material! What I loved was the confidence and ease with which they just put that black sketch pen on a clean white paper with not even the faintest pencil line as a guide and just fearlessly drew, as if the images were pouring out of their hand from some inner source!

All the drawings were done in black ink on white paper. These were scanned and sent to me in Delhi where Kalyani, a talented illustrator in my studio, painstakingly filled them with colour and designed each page to fit on the size prescribed for the book. We picked up borders and decorative elements from the original drawings to embellish the text pages. All of it was definitely a labour of love and all I can say is that learning from this experience we would love to do more books like these.
(Gopika Chowfla runs a very successful design studio in Delhi. She is a senior design professional with numerous prestigious campaigns to her credit and has mentored a host of young designers. She is always up for an adventure and good food!)

Wondering how you can remix these lovely illustrations to create your own story? Participate in the Remix, Retell and Rejoice Contest

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