Please tell us about yourself
It could be talent and creativity — and either courage or a certain happy-go-lucky approach to life. Certainly, Ashok Rajagopalan has all of this in plenty, besides a terrific, home-grown sense of humour. That is possibly the key to his fantastic run with art illustration. For many years now, his versatile and nimble fingers have been bringing to life an astounding range of characters from anglicised toons to lovable, son-of-the-soil characters like the adorable elephant Gajapati Kulapati, Mumbo Jumbo the Magician, Eecha Poocha, Thangi, Mor Khan, Kurumolagu and Amminikutty.
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“Unless I sign my name, nobody would recognise my illustrations or caricatures to be mine. I suppose I don’t have a style, unlike masters like Mario Miranda and others,” he says in his trademark self-effacing manner. But this versatility actually translates to a strength, because it allows him to illustrate every kind of storyline, and keep generations of kids (and adults) happy with characterisations that are both richly conceived and far removed from each other.
“When I began, I didn’t know art could make for a living. I learnt to dabble in art like all kids,” Ashok points out and adds impishly, “But I had great gurus to guide me — Michelangelo, Leonardo, Van Gogh, Monet, Turner, Uderzo, Mario Miranda… and many others. Luckily, drawing lessons come free of cost when you are ready to copy and learn.” Well, that is how Ashok learned art, though he did veer off into mechanical engineering, and then drifted into marketing with a DTP studio, until a tiff with his boss gave him the impulse to resign and turn to art.
“I told my then boss Kothandaraman that while I liked the company, I didn’t like the marketing job. I said I would resign, qualify myself as an artist and join the company again. But my boss just opened the door to the design centre and asked me to get going,” Ashok shares with a grin. Well, those were the days.
Ashok Rajagopalan tears a sheet of blank paper into four and proceeds to make one-minute sketches for the long line of children waiting for him. “It won’t look like you,” he warns a boy who peeps in, “It will look like a cartoon of you.” When the drawing is done, the boy scrunches his nose and peers closely at the paper. “It doesn’t look like me,” he remarks, while his friends chorus, “Look at the hair! It looks exactly like yours.” Ashok looks apologetic and moves on to the next child, “How do you normally smile?” he asks and the girl immediately bursts into giggles. “Drawing cartoons would be a lot easier if you children weren’t so adorable,” he says with a laugh.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
An illustrator for children’s books for the past 24 years, Ashok is a mechanical engineering diploma holder who has worked as a marketing official, and a freelance artist. “I became a children’s illustrator because I found it had a lot more life in it than perhaps other forms of illustration,” he says. Over the course of two decades, Ashok has illustrated more than 200 books for Macmillan, Oxford, Orient Longman, University Press and Tulika publications.
“The only aspect of engineering that I liked was the drawings we did in college,” he reminisces, “And then, I joined a company as a marketing executive. But I hated the job, the noise, being told not to talk out of turn, punching in and punching out. The whole thing seemed like a prison. So, I quit and did some work in advertising. But I wanted to do comics. I wanted to write and draw. I was a big fan of DC and Marvel comics and Peanuts.”
Peanuts influenced Ashok’s style as he began his career as a freelance illustrator. “I started drawing like a child does, and Peanuts and Ziggy taught me how to draw. The lines are pretty simple and can be replicated easily,” says Ashok. “When Chandamama launched a magazine called Junior Quest (in 1989) I called and asked if I could do a comic strip. They already had enough but liked my style. And so, I illustrated a story for them.”
I approached the editor, Aditi De, with sample illustrations. She gave me my first break. After that, I used my ‘published illustrator’ status to get work from textbook publishers. Magazines and books for grown-ups don’t require as many pictures as those for kids, so I found myself specializing in illustrating for children.
Tell us about your career path
After a stint in animation following this, Ashok dived headfirst into the world of children’s illustrations. He did cartoons for video films, created Mumbo Jumbo the Magician and Gajapati, which later featured in another popular comic by Tulika. “While working with animation,I made sure the illustrations were of good quality even if the animation was basic. I had worked with Radhika Menon for a children’s TV programme and when she started Tulika, she approached me to do some work for them. ”
Ashok has done illustrations for over 20 Tulika books such as Eecha Poocha(which was his first book), A Silly Story of Bondapalli, Gajapati Kulapati (also written by him) but most of his work is for children’s textbooks. While it has been tough to make a living as a freelance illustratorAshok says he has been lucky so far. “The sad thing about illustrating for children’s magazines is that most magazines close down in a few years due to lack of advertisement.”
Apart from his art, Ashok has also written three books; Witchsnare, a game book which was his debut, abridged versions of The Iliad and The Odyssey and has also published three books on Kindle. He is currently working on an online series called ‘Lemon, Salt and Soda’, a tribute to his favourite author, P.G. Wodehouse. “The game book was a challenge. The Odyssey and The Iliad are short easy reads. But of all the books I’ve written, it is Gajapati Kulapati that I am proud of. Parents recognise the book, their children love it and it gives me a sense of satisfaction,” says Ashok.
Ashok is now busy illustrating textbooks and an anthology of short stories. He wants to concentrate more on the fine arts. “I am also hoping to write more next year,” he says, “I don’t believe in age or experience making one better at something but I do believe in practise. I draw elephants well because I’ve probably drawn 2,000 of them in my lifetime. This is what I live by.”