An Interview by Ahona Das
This month, we have with us artist Ambika Karandikar, a.k.a @girlwithgreenmind, who started her journey as a children’s book illustrator in the pandemic. We talk about nature, art, metamorphosis & growing up and what it’s like to be an emerging kidlit artist in India!
Ahona: So, before we begin, tell us a little about you.
Ambika: I’m Ambika Karandikar – an illustrator and dancer from Pune and a nature enthusiast. I absolutely love being in nature.
I’m an introvert but once I get comfortable I can talk for hours and hours.
I don’t usually plan things. I like to go with the flow and explore different aspects of my life. I’m also a cat mom. We have two beautiful cats – Timi and Mimi!
Did you ever draw your cats or use them as models?
Yes. Absolutely! I created a series based on my cats’ behaviour as part of the Project 36 Days Of Type (a project that invites participants to expand the creative boundaries of letter or number design each day for 36 consecutive days). It was featured on Get Floof’s website.
What does the typical day as a children’s illustrator look like?
I’m an early bird. I start my work around 10am and try to finish everything by 7pm. I used to work at night but realised that wasn’t helping. Health comes first. I make some decisions very spontaneously. If I have something in mind for a while, I just take my sketchbook/iPad and draw it.
How old were you when you first started painting?
Ah! I don’t even remember. I guess I started painting even before going to nursery school.
Did you have a lot of hobbies as a child?
Yes, absolutely. At that time we didn’t have cellphones/laptops. I could play with a stick all day. I used to go swimming, take part in sports, draw/paint and learn dance as well.
Do you remember any childhood drawing you were excited about?
Not exactly! But one time we went to Dapoli, a coastal hill-station near Ratnagiri, Maharashtra. And we went to ‘bhakti mala’ there. It’s an isolated place surrounded by nature. It was absolutely beautiful and I couldn’t stop drawing. I still remember everything very clearly. I guess I drew that place in my sketch book for three to four years. Everytime I used to add some different element or detail.
Wow! That’s amazing! What do you like to draw the most?
I love drawing people, plants, animals and especially their details, gestures.
I like to draw anything realistic rather than fictional characters. But I prefer books, movies, serials which have fictional characters in them. It’s a bit complicated!
And what is your favourite colour?
Oh! It’s hard to pick one colour…but I think all shades of blue and green are very soothing.
Do you also have a green thumb?
Oh, yes! We have a small garden where we grow different plants.
How do you use your art to bring children closer to nature?
I try to collaborate with different organizations working on environmental issues. I recently illustrated for the Current Conservation Magazine that catalogued different species of flamingos, their lives and the threats they face.
I also worked with Jaya, the museum of Bombay International Airport and Kathanika for their live storytelling session as a part of their Utsar Festival 2020. The motive of the project was to showcase the art and culture of northeast and was based on a folktale from Manipur: The Golden Deer And The Golden Parrot.
I also mentioned that I worked on the Project – 36 Days Of Type, my series for which was based on cat habits and behaviours. Since it’s been published on Get Floof, it’s a part of their awareness programme. Get Floof works for stray dogs and cats. I also did an illustration for their feline T-shirt series. So all the money made from these T-shirts are used for the medical care and food for these animals.
What is your rationale behind accepting or rejecting projects?
Right now I reject a project only if I don’t have the bandwidth. Otherwise, I am open to exploring any topic, as that’s how I get to know what works for me. I started freelancing in 2020. So I have a long way to go. Maybe after a few years, I’d be able to decide on my preferences. That said, even now if the ideology behind a particular project doesn’t match mine or I feel that something is inappropriate then I don’t accept it.
What do you think is unique about illustrating for children in Indian children’s literature?
We are culturally very diverse and there’s so much scope for storytelling. I could spend a lifetime discovering India. If you just go to the northeast, you’ll find multiple tribal communities with different languages, experiences, and stories. To share all these things with our kids is absolutely necessary. That’s why I think it’s very different and difficult to illustrate for Indian children. To understand the mindset of a culture this diverse, is a very integral and intimidating aspect of illustrating for children. At the same time that’s also what makes it so interesting!
Do you like drawing, painting or sketching more?
I absolutely love sketching and drawing. Because in that, I’m still playing with the lines and it’s the initial stage of every illustration. I love exploring character development, storyboarding… the initial part of every book…It’s raw and still in process.
When did you start your freelance career as a children’s illustrator?
In my second or third year I started taking commissions. I illustrated a book cover for a friend. This came at a time when I never thought I would ever work in a publishing house. I always wanted to paint but I never thought I wanted to work on books. I wanted to exhibit my work in a gallery. That was my big dream but I got a lot of validation from the book cover experience and felt inspired to work more. After that, I worked with a few children’s magazines and that was the start of my freelance career.
After I graduated I started working as a full-time illustrator and graphic designer for an agency. I did that for two years. I gained a good amount of experience which was necessary for me as a fresh graduate out of college. Then, I realised I wanted to pursue a freelance career in illustration.
I met a few people from the industry who made a big impact on me. I met my mentor, Madhuri Purandare, a painter, writer, actor and singer. She has won the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award for her outstanding work in children’s literature. I also met Dr. Anagha Kusum, a Pune based artist, writer, researcher and educator. Both of them gave me very practical advice. Madhuri Tai left a deep impression on me. It was through her that I realised the importance of creating books for children in India. It was only much later that I had the guts to show her my work.
Among your illustrations is a beautiful drawing of a child looking at a butterfly sitting on their nose. Elsewhere, you’ve also spoken about the theme of metamorphosis in your art. Do you think ‘metamorphosis’ as it relates to growing up is a significant message behind your works or a metaphor you’d like to explore?
For sure. I think it applies to everything and everyone, but especially to that stage of growing up where you’re constantly evolving. We all are work-in-progress after all and I think it creates hope and gives us more chances to be better, doesn’t it? That way I’m not just stuck on one thing in my life. Ultimately I have to move on and live my life. Whenever I’m working, I always keep that in my mind.
Do you think you’ve found your distinctive artistic style? What were the roadblocks to this and things you did to overcome them and find your own aesthetic?
I don’t know if I have a style. I suppose it takes many years to figure this out and sometimes you never will. I can say from client feedback that my illustrations are cozy, comfortable and homely. But I haven’t really thought about it. I feel I am still exploring who I am as an illustrator.
I wouldn’t say roadblocks. It’s actually a process and of course it’s necessary. I try to look for different artists, study their work, process and this is not something which I can explain in words but after some time you develop your taste and start applying those elements and colour schemes in your artwork. Sometimes I do it subconsciously.
Any favourite children’s books from your childhood or children’s illustrators who inspire you?
Many. I’ll have to think about it actually…
…Quentin Blake, Pulak Biswas, Mario Miranda, Atanu Roy, Madhuri Purandare, Pundalik Vaze…
What do you wish the child reader would imbibe from your illustrations?
Books offer new ways to think and expand our life beyond time and place. I try to incorporate this newness into my art. I wish to stimulate the reader’s sensory awareness through art, evoking the faculties of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell in their imagination. I also like to cultivate curiosity through storytelling and art, raising questions in the minds of the reader.
You have illustrated picture books, book covers, storyboards and comics. How do you switch between these forms or what strategies or design skills do you have to implement for each of these requirements?
It can be difficult and frustrating to switch between projects but sometimes it feels good to work on different projects simultaneously as you get time to relax and switch to other projects instead of mulling over the previous one. That way I can think about it later from another perspective.
What would your advice be for emerging children’s book illustrators?
My advice is to listen to your intuition. Be passionate and Practice!
The real journey of life, as in art, lies in embracing change: in metamorphosis.
Ambika is a freelance illustrator and a trained Bharatnatyam dancer who loves to work on picture books and editorial illustrations for children. Most of her artworks are hand-drawn and detailed digitally. She’s diligently honing her visual storytelling skills for kidlit in India.
She’s a nature enthusiast and has created a natural space for tiny insects and plants in her garden, where she raises different species of butterflies and moths. Watching movies or documentaries, reading about nature, birding, planting flowers and trees around the house, and taking quiet strolls on Arai hill are some of her interests. She can often be found in her garden where she is in her natural element.