Meet the Illustrator : Poonam Athalye

You’ve read about the serendipitous discovery that led us to the book ‘Takloo- The Little Salt Seller’. You’ve read about how Radhika Bapat came up with this story about a little boy in Anjarle village. In today’s post, Sandhya Taksale interviews Poonam Athalye – the illustrator who brought Takloo’s story to life through her subtle and enchanting illustrations.

As a child, Poonam spent most of her time with her drawing books. Some picture books left a deep impression on her mind and she rediscovered their enchantment while making animation films. Through her paintings, she wants to share her sense of wonder with everyone. She has been illlustrating children’s books since 2007.

How did this story come to you? And what did you think of it when you first heard it?
I met Radhika because of this book and we got along wonderfully. The first time we discussed children’s content we realized that we share similar concerns and likings. I was happy with the optimism in the story. I also liked that it was set in a very regional context and the characters had humorous idiosyncrasies. It made designing the illustrations of this book very interesting for me, as I had to go out and study the habits and behaviors of people who were like the characters in this story. I was quite excited to work on this book when I read the story for the first time.

The illustrations in this book are quite different. They bring in the fun element powerfully and enhance the story. The illustrations are delightful and pleasant but not unnecessarily sweet and cute. What was at the back of your mind when you selected this style and treatment for the story?

Both Radhika and I dislike the aseptic and painfully sweet children’s books that the market is flooded with. We both agreed on making the characters quirky and approachable. They are written in a way where they have flaws and make mistakes and that very human quality was delightful! We didn’t want the characters to look perfect in any way. 
So the technique I chose for this book was such that I could show some details while rendering. I chose to illustrate using graphite pencils but I also wanted to bring out the energy of the story using colour. So I used a combination of graphite pencils, watercolours and gouache. I have also used photographs in some places to make it look a little realistic. At the end of the day its not always very carefully planned and engineered. My whims also play a very large part in how I decide to illustrate a book.
There is a judicious use of colour. In many frames, one single object is done in colour and other things are kept in black and white. For example, Takloo’s red purse, mother’s green and blue sari, colourful leaves etc. What type of impact you wanted to achieve through this? 
Some elements in the character can be beautifully enhanced through colour. It is about drawing attention to these elements by drawing the eye to the bright colours. So I have used colour to highlight a few things that are important either to the story or to the character at that point. The pencil is used where I can detail out certain features to make them more pronounced like amma’s oily hair. This is very typical of a female character coming from that region. I like to use colour sparingly as it is very powerful especially in illustration. Even if I were to decide to use colour throughout the whole page I would use the same colour in different intensities or shades. It creates the effect I desire.
Now a days, even small children have mobiles in their hands. Do you think these children will relate to the ‘old style of photography ‘? One of your illustrations shows the photographer covering himself before clicking the photograph.
This story is actually historical in nature, which is Radhika’s memory of a story she was told. I was aware of the time period it was based in and it added so much more to the visuals by giving the whole story a context. Although the era or time period is never mentioned in the story I thought the illustrations could do the job of placing it in those times. The children born today or the ones who will read this book in the future will not be aware of the Daguerreotype Camera shown in the illustrations but it will create a sense of intrigue in them and it is these things about the story that they will remember. They will ask questions and want to know more and that is how they will learn new things. Children need to be shown unfamiliar and unusual things in stories as it builds curiosity, which helps in recall and holds their interest in the story. You need to give them something new and puzzling to keep them interested.
What are the elements in your illustrations that exercise the imagination and the fantasy world of the child?

I like to go back and forth between the realistic and the imaginary. It infuses a sense of magic in everyday life. There are times when the surroundings of the character seem realistic and then suddenly it cuts into an imaginary world. For example when Takloo is standing in the forest and the next frame he is looking at the various sizes of pots where sometimes he is smaller than the largest pot. It just expands the boundaries of what is real and what is imaginary. So the child would become more flexible in thinking and have a free reign imagining scenarios as she pleases. Also I have not always painted the trees green and the waters blue. Nature is full of colours and with this approach of not sticking to a fixed colour palette, I want to encourage a child to perceive colours in a different way.
How do you feel that this book is chosen for storytelling to celebrate International Literacy Day by Pratham Books and will be used by hundred of volunteer storytellers. 
I am very pleased to know that this book will reach many people and I hope it enriches their lives in some way. Also I am pleased that it is printed at an affordable cost in many languages.

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