Please tell us about yourself

Illustrations are such an integral part of children’s books. Before children can read, it’s the pictures that they truly connect with in books. Picture books with the illustrated characters have a huge impact on how children take to reading.

Illustrators like Tanvi Bhat are instrumental in shaping a child’s opinion about reading and books. There are so many beautifully illustrated books that captivate a child’s imagination – Tanvi’s are part of this group. Authors, parents and children are huge fans of her work, as are we – which is why we wanted to do an ‘Illustrator Spotlight’ blog on the talented artist.

Tanvi was nice enough to take the time to answer some of our questions so that we could get to know her better. So, without further ado, let’s meet Tanvi Bhat.

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GetLitt: What sparked your interest in illustration? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and exciting career?

Tanvi Bhat:  I am a self-taught artist. I was always fond of drawing but according to my teachers, never drew “correctly”. Which for a young kid can be so discouraging. 

Oh you would have to search for notes among pages after pages of doodles (and FLAMES). I had a super considerate bestie who would photocopy her notes for me before every exam so I could happily zone out and doodle in classes.

Growing up, I was always just okay at drawing and painting. I never felt I was good enough to make it into a career even though I enjoyed art quite a bit. I did my Bachelors in Mass Communication in Bangalore, not quite knowing where I wanted to end up. By the end of college, I wanted to be an animator.

After college, I studied traditional animation in Calcutta and later went to the UK to do my Masters in 3D Animation. Unfortunately, by the end of my degree, I fell out of love with animation, especially 3D. It was too technical for me and not as fun as I had imagined. However, I enjoyed illustration quite a bit.

I took life drawing classes and worked on my art skills. I came back to India and got a job at an animation studio in Bombay. Even here, I mostly drew concept illustrations for animated ad-films. There was this dingy old computer that no one wanted which had a Wacom monitor that I could draw on – this is where I did most of my drawing practice.

A year into this job, my colleague took me aside and asked me, “Do you really want to be an animator? You’re only illustrating, so why not be an illustrator?’ That was an epiphany for me. So an illustrator I became!

After that, I worked at a few boutique agencies where I only illustrated, and very happily too. I also worked on children’s books on the side. Eventually, I gathered enough courage to take the leap, and became a freelance illustrator for children’s books!

GL: How many projects/books have you worked on so far?

 TB: I don’t think I’ve counted lately, but if you include picture books, chapter books and book covers, I’ve worked on over twenty. It’s so hard to pick a favourite but one of my all-time favourites is Dream Writer, published by Tulika Books. I love the story and really enjoyed creating a dream world and a real-world side by side. I also enjoy working on Duckbill’s ‘Hole Books’ especially those written by Shabnam Minwalla. It’s a lot of fun bringing those mad characters to life.

GL: How closely do you work with the author?

TB: How closely I work with an author totally depends on the story. In some stories, the author will write illustrator notes, so I can understand some of the contexts that isn’t mentioned in the manuscript. In other cases, I get the story and nothing else from the author or publisher and I have complete freedom to tell the story as I visualise.

On Ashoka and the Muddled Messages, I worked pretty closely with Natasha Sharma, because there was a lot of historical research she had done and we wanted to keep it as authentic and accurate as possible.

Creating characters for each story is my favourite part of illustrating books. Usually, I read the story and just react to it with drawings. I make rough character sketches, and after a few prototypes, my favourite option emerges. Sometimes, after I’m done with a character, it’ll remind me of someone. I’m told my mother characters always have a bit of my own mother in them, but it’s not a conscious decision.

What actually goes on when author and illustrator meet?

TB: The sad part of working alone from home is that you don’t get to interact much with the publications and authors. BUT, I did get to meet Natasha before and after Ashoka and the Muddled Messages and every time I meet her, she has an infectious inspiring energy about her.

Is Ashoka and the Muddled Messages your first experience of illustrating a work of historical fiction? Did you have to do a lot of homework for it?

TB: Yes, it was my very first experience working on historical fiction. Thankfully for me, this time, Natasha was the one who photocopied all the notes for me. Some things never change. However, I did make a trip to Kanheri Caves where there were sculptures from the Mauryan era and it really did help with the drawings!

I love the depiction of Ashoka’s all-female bodyguard–they looked very Amazonian and liberated!

TB: Drawing the tremendous ten was the biggest challenge for me–their armour, the weapons and these crazy poses that they assume.

When I first read the story I was so intimidated! The comedy in the story is fabulous and I really wanted to strike the right balance in my illustrations where it isn’t parodying it too much but it’s still awkward and funny.

Who or what has been a major influence on your illustrating style?

TB: The visuals we get to see on Indian roads, cities and villages are so rich and colourful. Growing up in Calcutta, we were always made to notice the beauty and art in simple things. There’s so much art around us that it’s bound to leave an imprint on our minds. A few of my big illustration idols are Quentin Blake, Maurice Sendak, Pulak Biswas, Priya Kurian, Prashant Miranda, Anitha Balachandran and the list can go on and on!

Is there an existing book with illustrations that your finger itch to re-draw?

TB: Yes! I really want to draw Esio Trot. The story is one of my favourites and I want to know how I would do it. (But nothing can touch the original Blake’s illustrations for it!)

If not an illustrator, what would you have been?

TB: It was between being an illustrator and a story-spewing-fairy-with-colorful-confetti-shooting-out-of-my-ears. I’m glad I chose the first option!

GL: Which children’s book most inspired you as a child or in recent years?

TB: It’s funny, but I wasn’t a voracious reader growing up. I was more into movies! It’s only in the last decade that I discovered my love for children’s books especially picture books. In recent times, these are a few that have inspired me – Ammachi’s Amazing Machines (anything by Rajiv Eipe really), The Heart and the Bottle, Town is by the Sea, Little Monkey, Julian is a Mermaid. This list can go on and on!

GL: What’s the one thing an illustrator must keep in mind when illustrating a children’s book?

TB: Over time I’ve realised that it’s wiser to not ‘illustrate for children’ and just illustrate. Kids have a higher capacity to pick up on nuance and maturity than we give them credit for. So, I try not to make my story kid-friendly and just do justice to the story with my illustrations.

GL: Tell us three reasons you believe reading is vital for children?

TB: Reading excites me because:

  1. It can transport me to a different time or place or universe.
  2.  It expands my mind to be able to see different points of view.
  3. Stories are good for my soul.

GL: What’s the best reaction you’ve ever gotten from a child/parent who had read your book?

 TB: This one time at a literature festival, a child recognised me and cameup to me. She told me she’d read one of my picture books and asked if I had really drawn all of it. When I said answered saying yes, she exclaimed, “So you’re a true artist?!” She made my day!

GL: If you could illustrate any classic children’s book, which would it be and why?

TB: I’m a big fan of Roald Dahl, so it’s definitely Matilda, but I’d be terrified to even touch it because Quentin Blake’s work on it is iconic and brilliant!