Please tell us about yourself
Indian artist Proiti Roy has illustrated many picture books for children, as well as text books, book covers and magazine articles. Before ‘settling down to become an illustrator’, Proiti worked as a graphic designer in advertising and manufacturing, both in India and Bangladesh. She also worked with handicrafts in recycled mediums and taught art and craft to children in Kolkata for 12 years.
Proiti’s work has been published across the world – her most well-known books are What Shall I Make?, written by Nandini Nayar, and Ismat’s Eid/Nabeel’s New Pants: An Eid Tale, written by Fawzia Gilani-Williams, and both these books feature in 101 Indian Children’s Books We Love edited by Anita Roy and Samina Mishra (Zubaan (India), 2012). However, it is also well worth delving into Tulika Books‘ catalogue to discover the many other gems she has created in recent years. As with all Tulika’s picture books, Proiti’s books are available in different languages: English, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Tamil, and/or Telugu. As can be seen from this selection of book covers, Proiti’s style is varied and her skill consummate.
As well as picture books, Proiti is also the illustrator of the latest books in the middle-grade series ‘Aditi Adventures’ written by Suniti Namjoshi: Books 9-12, also available as a single volume, III.
Proiti was based until recently in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. She now lives in Shantiniketan, West Bengal, sharing her home with her many rescued dogs. She has a daughter who is also studying to be an artist.
- Welcome to Mirrors Windows Doors, Proiti. What was your path to becoming an illustrator of children’s books? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
Thank you Marjorie for having me over here… It’s a pleasure! I had been drawn into the world of illustrations since my childhood. Whenever they could, my parents would buy many books for us (my older brother, a younger sister and me). We would spend hours reading and looking at the illustrations. I was always fascinated by the pictures in story books as a child. The pictures would take me to another world… they still do! As I grew older, I developed a keen interest in art and craft and gradually started to get ready to study at an art college. After my graduation in fine arts from Tagore’s university in Shantiniketan, India, I almost immediately got married and moved to Dhaka, Bangladesh. There, I started to work in an advertising agency, where I learned a lot about graphic design, illustration and publishing.
Over the next few years, I started to freelance as a designer and illustrator; and I also started teaching children art and craft. So without really planning to do so, I was getting more and more interested and professionally involved in illustrations, particularly for children’s books. And I felt very happy about that… so I decided to take it up more seriously, professionally, and meet a few children’s book publishers. Tulika Books and Orient Blackswan were two of them. After doing quite a few books with them, I was now very sure that this was where I wanted to belong, and I hope I shall be a part of this world for a long time!
- Just by focusing on the trees in your different books, it is evident that you adopt a variety of styles in your art. What are your favourite media and techniques?
Yes, I do like to try out different styles and that depends on my mood as well as the story. I use black outlining pens, water colours, gouache paints, colour pencils and coloured ink. I would like to experiment a little more and explore other mediums. My techniques are generally very conventional and traditional.
View larger images of these and other trees, incidental or otherwise, in the Gallery below the interview
- Who or what have been the biggest influences on your art?
Children, nature, the animal world, works of literature, films, music, dance and different cultures of the world are my inspirations. And my mother, who is an artist of extraordinary talent, a very creative person in every sense. And then there are quite a few people in my life who have been inspiring: sometimes as a person; sometimes their talent, their work.
- What process do you adopt when you take on a new illustration project?
I start doodling and sketching the main characters and simultaneously work on different styles and techniques. Gradually I settle down with some ideas I like; then I start with the storyboard – and while I’m at it, I may make changes again and again. My work process is not very systematic… I often do things on an impulse.
- In Bon Bibi’s Forest, written by Sandhya Rao, is set in the Sunderbans, in Bengal, and indeed, the mangrove trees of the region, with their distinctive roots, feature on the book cover. The book is a retelling of the myth of Bon Bibi, ‘lady of the forest’; her twin brother Shah Jongoli, ‘lord of the forest;; and Dokkhin Rai, a man-eating, half-man/half-tiger monster. What were your favourite moments, illustrating this story?
Yes, it was a story I loved working on. I have been to the Sunderbans and it was a wonderful experience. I never saw nature so closely before! So Sandhya’s story brought back fond memories of my trip to the Sundarbans. I loved giving life to the characters with my illustrations… especially Dokkhin Rai.
- The blurb says of the book that ‘the textured narrative and dramatic, detailed illustrations evoke the distinct culture of the [Sunderbans] – the natural confluence of Hindu and Muslim mythologies, and the rhythm and concerns of everyday life at the edge of a forest.’ What were the challenges involved in illustrating a story with such a unique geographical and cultural setting?
As I mentioned, I had been to the Sunderbans but I got to know so much more about life there (the myths, the people, the culture, the geography) while researching for this book. To achieve a sense of secularism in the illustrations was a challenge. Bonbibi and Shah Jongoli’s characters needed a certain look in this regard. And blending imagination with the local colours, motifs, and myths and getting the right atmosphere in the story. My experience of visiting the Sundarbans had helped.
During my trip to the Sundarbans, we stayed on a boat for three days (it’s called a launch boat there), and that gave us an opportunity to interact with the boat captain, his young assistants and a local guy. We would stop at certain places but had to maintain complete silence. The life of the Sundarbans is absolutely beautiful and frightening, both. We spotted pug marks, saw a huge crocodile sunbathing and even spotted a tiger sitting on the bank of the river watching us calmly. I had never seen a tiger in the wild like this before and this was a breathtakingly majestic animal I saw in front of me. The deer grazing on the banks of the river, the mangrove or sundari trees as they are called locally, the launch ride… it was all so exciting and beautiful. And we even came across a boat that belonged to pirates… but that’s another story!
Photos from Proiti’s travels in the Sunderbans – tiger pug marks on the left
Proiti on her boat trip in the Sunderbans
- That sounds very intriguing! Bulbuli’s Bamboo, written by Mita Bordoloi, is a very different story – its gentle, narrative takes young children through Bulbuli’s day and her encounters indoors and out with the bamboo that makes up her bed, her soup, her house, the gate, the bridge, her boat – and back again, in reverse. I think you had some fun with perspective here?
When I read Mita’s story for the first time I felt there was a lot of scope to play around with the visuals and that these would have to be done in an interesting way, so that the repetitive pattern in the story-telling was supported appropriately by the illustrations. I loved the concept of this story. Though it conveyed a sense of serenity, I brought some drama into the illustrations with the perspective. I hope the combination of Mita’s gentle story and my illustrations worked together.
- Did illustrating the story make you think about bamboo differently?
Not differently but I felt good about the fact that other people would get to know about bamboo and its uses, especially children. I come from Bengal (a state in India), where bamboo is an important part of our lives. We depend a lot on its various uses. Just recently, I got some fences made from bamboo for my backyard, for my dogs, and I did think of Bulbuli’s bamboo!
- At the end of the story, Bulbuli falls asleep to ‘dream bamboo dreams’. In your illustration, Bulbuli is holding a bamboo branch with a rainbow-striped flag – what is the significance of that, and what prompted you to use that motif?
It’s interesting that you noticed! Yes, as children we would very often carry around sticks… any sticks: long twigs, broken branches, the top end of the bamboo that was of not much use… and we would go around feeling important. Maybe it gave a child a little extra confidence, or he or she felt like a leader… you know, just holding it and using it as a walking stick or tying a piece of cloth or a paper flag to it… one could do any nonsensical thing with it and be happy! I used the rainbow colours to signify simple happiness and also to give a touch of multicolour, as the rest of the book had a lot of green.
- Your illustration style in Bulbuli’s Bamboo echoes that of What Shall I Make?, which was selected by USBBY as an Outstanding International Book in 2010. Can you tell us something about that project?
What Shall I Make? was the second book I illustrated for Tulika. And it was love at first reading! The story was so simple and charming and I think everyone can connect with its scenario. The warmth that comes through in this little story was very touching and I responded spontaneously with my illustrations.
- Your other book that has received international recognition is Ismat’s Eid, the delightful retelling of a Turkish folktale. I love the way your illustrations convey each scene as a frame for the characters, almost like a theatre set, without filling in the backgrounds, and yet there are still plenty of details on which to feast the eyes (and ‘feast’ is the word, as there are lots of visual references to the food preparations). How did you go about researching and preparing your illustrations for this story?
When Fawzia Gilani-Williams’ story Ismat’s Eid came to me, I got so many ideas to illustrate it that I kept trying out different styles and techniques. I ended up creating about eight options and I got so confused which to go for that I took all of them to the publisher – and they liked them all! So it was difficult to choose but we settled for the style you see in the book.
I could connect with the story a bit because I was married to a Muslim from Bangladesh and was familiar with their festivals and food. Other than that, I have many friends who follow the Islamic faith and most of the details and observations that came into my illustrations were from my own experience. Yes, I did compose the illustrations like a theatre set.