by Nancy AdajaniaMay 02, 2020
Imagine the smell of sweet, tangy chambakya fruit dangling mischievously from trees, flanked by a verdant rubber plantation. You walk a few steps and end up at a sparkling lake, wanting to jump in and swim along the fish with glass eyes. You hear a sudden ‘thud’ of a jackfruit falling to the ground. You tilt your head back and the blue sky smiles at you, punctured by the silhouettes of lofty coconut trees, as the sound of chirping birds and the smell of the jackfruit now lying open on the ground envelopes you.
Indian artist Anpu Varkey displays such whimsical memories in her latest work – Summer’s Children. Three years in the making, the monochromatic silent comic recollects Varkey’s own childhood memories in rural Kerala, a southern Indian state known for its verdant landscapes. From fish making visible ripples in the water to a coconut falling, Varkey manages to recall and translate to paper these fond memories of nature, all hand drawn in the pointillist method (a technique where small, distinct dots are applied in patterns to form an image). The self-published graphic novel has no words, except a few that illustrate sounds.
STIR speaks to the 39-year-old graffiti artist, known for her distinct public street art such as the massive Gandhi mural at the Delhi Police Headquarters and the zany cat mural in Shahpur Jat, Delhi. Eight years into the practice, she is still unafraid to experiment and share her vulnerabilities. Varkey tells us how Summer’s Children reached completion, and what it taught her.
Jincy Iype (JI): What inspired this silent comic?
Anpu Varkey (AV): The story is set in rural Kerala, and 90 per cent of it is drawn from my own memories. Because it is based on a child’s perspective (my own), everything is very visual, forming the book’s essence. This is also the reason why it is a silent comic. Children are more expressive in their actions - everything is extremely sensorial for them.
I was travelling to Bangalore a few years ago, and it triggered a lot of emotions, being closer to the south and the familiar landscape - the smells, the sounds, and the people. Having spent my initial years in Kerala, it brought back a lot of memories, which prompted the idea for Summer’s Children.
I immersed myself in the process, and that took two years. I then spent another year looking for publishers, which was quite exhausting because sadly, there is no market to sell graphic stories like these in India. It was humbling and heartbreaking to get a 'no' from everyone. So, I decided to self-publish, and that is also what led to an exhibition, an extension of the book, as the second edition of the series, ‘Young Artists of Our Times’ at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Delhi.
“Dot by dot, the episodic memory of dreams, plays, sounds and landscape of childhood come to visit and touch. Anpu is an attitude. That's what I like about her.” – Akansha Rastogi, Senior Curator, Exhibition and Programs, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Delhi
JI: Tell us about the setting and the characters in Summer’s Children.
AV: It is based purely on Kerala’s landscape and how much of an impact it had on me while growing up – how does a nutmeg grow, what the inside of a well looks like - the book has all of that!
It is not a children’s book, although the protagonists are two children. Essentially, it is two siblings in a vast landscape, and a simple day in their lives - looking at fruits, at an elephant passing by, observing adults and their activities, running and jumping into puddles. There is really not much happening in the book, it is not a thriller, it is not a drama, there is no moral or plot - there is nothing to get out of it.
JI: Why are the protagonists children? What do you want to tell us about them?
AV: The book is, in fact, mostly based on my brother and I running around fields when we were young. I did not want to reveal the kids’ genders because more often than not, when you pick up a book, you subconsciously look for a boy and a girl, it is a comfortable, set narrative. I wanted to leave it to the reader’s discretion, and not follow that trend. At first glance it might seem like two boys, but it is actually a boy and a girl. It also reflects my wish of no one being segregated as a girl or boy on the basis of what they wear and how they look.
JI: Your narrative style has evolved radically over time - from creating graffiti on walls to drawing a million dots on paper. How was the experience of creating the book?
AV: I had drawn with pen and ink before, but this time I wanted it to be different. I had to figure that out and arrive at a language that I wasn’t aware of - storytelling in a book format. It was purely trial and error. As I was trying it out, I found myself stippling and it miraculously flourished into drawings. It was a laborious process. I remember, halfway through it I went like, ‘why the hell did I decide to stipple a whole book?’ While giant walls take me less than three to five days to complete, these small sheets of paper took two years!
Here, as a graphic novelist, I am telling you what to look at and I am guiding you, as compared to a mural, where I am focusing on creating impact. It is one wall and people can make of it what they want.
JI: What did you learn about yourself through this journey?
AV: I think I learned storytelling, or rather, how not to approach a story. You know, you let the story grow a little bit, let it go haywire, and then you decide what to include, and what to discard.
I am the kind of person who thinks of something and gets right to execution, without thinking too much about the consequences. With Summer’s Children, it was a bit different because it forced me to think, analyse and pick my battles.
“If you want to do something, do it, don’t wait for things to happen to you. Make things happen for yourself. If no one is going to publish your book, are you going to wait your entire life and worry about the fact that no one is interested or doesn’t see the goodness in your art?” – Anpu Varkey
I also think that the more self-reliant you are, a lot of other forces help you out. I could have waited, but because I decided to self-publish, that’s how the exhibition came about, for which I was so grateful.I have also understood that you don’t just tell a story, there is a lot of living with it when you are writing or drawing a story. You enjoy the process, you cherish those moments.
JI: Given your labour of love over the last two years, how do you see yourself STIRring up 2020?
AV: I am currently working on a new story, maybe a digital comic, it is something I haven’t done before. It is centered around Kaikondrahalli Lake in Bengaluru. I am thinking of a gory, almost eerie vibe - frames of a bleeding dog, murky depths of water. So, this year, I am drifting towards darker, enchanting themes... I am stirring up the darkness in me.
Buy the book here.