Sunday, August 09, 2009

About Creating 'Amazing India'

Interview with the Scholastic newsletter, conducted by a student from The Lawrence School, Sanawar, about the process of writing 'Amazing India'.

Amit Vachharajani was born in Junagadh in Gujarat and spent a lot of his childhood reading, doodling and going to nature camps. He studied briefly at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad but got bitten by the film bug and moved to Mumbai for a career in film-making. Apart from illustrating for magazines and children’s books, Amit also works with international documentary film crews. He has illustrated two books for Scholastic The Mystery of the Secret Hair-oil Formula and Grandpa fights an Ostrich and other Animal Stories. His other books are The Puffin Book of Funny Stories and The Shepherd Boy, a Ladybird Favourite Tale.

Anita Vachharajani was born in Mumbai and grew up in a neighbourhood that smelled faintly of molasses. Despite having a childhood devoted almost entirely to books and sweets, she loves nature and is an eco-enthusiast. Apart from writing for children, Anita has also translated nonsense verse and traditional stories. Her stories have appeared in The Puffin Book of Bedtime Stories and her translations feature in The Tenth Rasa: the Penguin Book of Indian Nonsense Verse. Anita takes writing workshops for children and focuses on helping them express themselves more freely.

Anita and Amit live in Mumbai with their daughter and more books than they can handle.

In conversation with Rahul Vij, Class X, The Lawrence School Sanawar

Rahul:The illustrations, I am told have been drawn and coloured by hand; you have blended facts with imagination beautifully. Have you professionally trained in art and design? How long have you been in this field?

Amit: Yes, all the illustrations are hand-drawn and hand-colored. I used pen-and-ink and watercolors. Illustrating this book was a huge challenge. There was a lot of visual research to do – finding a clear and correct reference and drawing each picture so that it would be interesting and yet accurate.

Though my natural instinct is to make funny illustrations, this book required a realistic style. Sometimes I would get bored with drawing realistically and we decided to find some facts which would need funny drawings so that the book would also become more interesting. If you take a look again, you’ll find that the Koli and the film-star dancing in Maharashtra, the hippie running towards Goa, the tiger mask in the Sunderbans, the tiger and the ghost in Sariska, the boys at the Wazwan and the Manikaran Springs, are all drawn in my favourite cartoon style.

I have always loved to draw and drove my teachers crazy by doodling constantly – till I landed up at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad after school. I was there for two years and learnt a lot about art, conceptualizing ideas and of course the basics of drawing. After NID I ended up taking film making as my profession and didn’t pick up the brush for years till I met Anita and got interested in children’s books. She encouraged me to draw once again. Over the past eight years we have worked on some books together. I have also collaborated with other writers.

Rahul: What kind of research did you have to undertake to bring forth facts and figures about every part of India? Did you visit all these places?

Anita: Doing the research for this book was like re-discovering the wonder and magic of the Indian subcontinent. It was like going back to history and geography classes, except that this time we could choose what we wanted to learn – and we could have fun doing so! Ideally, we would have loved to experience every single thing we wrote about and drew, but given the wide scope of this book, that might have taken us a little over a lifetime to accomplish.

So we decided to focus on material from multiple sources: encyclopedias and books; the official Government of India websites on each state; and finally, the human source – where we would simply call up friends or researchers living in each state and ask for confirmation on the facts that we found. We checked and re-checked each piece of information many times.

But gathering the information was just one aspect – presenting it was the greater challenge. Because, you see, we didn’t want Amazing India to be just a collection of dry facts and figures. Each person or place, animal or forest that we read about, opened up our minds a bit more to the sheer diversity of India, to its vast landscape, its variety of people and ecologies, and its truly inclusive spirit. So more than just list out plain facts, we wanted to share the excitement of living in a country with so much diversity, and so many natural and man-made treasures in it.

Rahul:You must have collected thousands of facts about each place, how tough was it to condense and present them all it in a double-spread for each place?

Anita: Yes, we had lots and lots of details. Imagine that the Indian subcontinent’s artistic, ecological and historical heritage is part of a huge maze of knowledge, facts, legend and history. We wanted to offer you a peek in – one that would hopefully make you curious to look harder and deeper for yourself!

But we also had to work within the restrictions of the page size. The text, the map, the table, the illustrations, the arts and crafts section – all had to fit in. Deciding how much information we could use, on which topics, was a constant struggle. For example, do you know the famous Lalbagh Gardens of Bangalore? They were laid out in 1760 by Hyder Ali. Between fighting various battles against the British, his son Tipu Sultan painstakingly collected different species of plants for this botanical garden from Afghanistan, Persia and France. Later, Indian and British horticulturists added to it. This was such a lovely nugget because that garden is still visited by every tourist in Bangalore. It had to be dropped, unfortunately, but we managed to squeeze in the fact that Tipu was the first to send for silk worms from Bengal and start 21 centres to develop Karnataka’s silk industry.

We wanted to create something exciting and visually rich, and so we chose to present a mix of facts, laced with a bit of humour. It bothered us that history, art, culture, geography and ecology are usually presented very dully in our books. Our aim was that each child who looked at Amazing India – irrespective of his or her age and interests – should find something engaging, attractive and useful in it. We did focus a little more on ecology, though, because in India today, animals, wetlands, forests, farms, rivers and mountains are all in grave danger.

Rahul:How long did it take you to put this book together?

It took us about two and a half years, between researching the information, doing the visual research, the writing, the drawing and the designing.

Rahul: How did you come up with the idea of using a ‘?’ sign for any new fact that would raise the reader’s curiosity?

Anita: I was simply curious about some terms. I didn’t really know –technically and precisely – what a national park, a biosphere reserve, a wetland, a world heritage site, a Buddhist chaitya or a vihara were. I didn’t know exactly what Project Tiger did, or how an ape was different from a monkey. And I certainly didn’t know how a monolith was different from a dolmen – though, as it turned out, there are monoliths, megaliths, menhirs and dolmens all over the Indian subcontinent.
And I imagined that if it was tough for me, it would be tough for my readers too. Which is why a small reference section at the back made sense. The choice of the ‘?’ mark as an icon was easy – after all, at the bottom of all our knowledge is the need to ask questions!

It was also a sneaky way to pack in more. For example, when I was trying to understand what exactly a wetland was, I read that mangrove species which grow in wetlands play a key role in keeping seaside cities safe from erosion and floods. The Ramsar Convention held way back in 1971 in Iran recognized the importance of wetlands and mangroves, and worked towards preserving them. I wanted to share this fact with readers, but there was no way to do so within any one state. The ‘Are you curious?’ page became a nice space for slightly more detailed explanations.

Rahul:I like the book cover very much. How did you decide what must go on the cover? How long did it take you to design it?

Amit: It’s great to know that the cover caught your eye. I put a lot of thought into what it should look like and tried many ideas on paper. The most important thing about the cover was that it had to be visually attractive and had to have a promise of what was inside the book. Above all it had to be inviting enough to make a child want to open it. Once I had the design, the fonts and the background color in place, putting in the illustrations did not take much time. The cover must not have taken me more than two to three days from idea to final design. The tough part was choosing which of our favourite illustrations would go on the cover. Those favourites that did not make it to the cover got their place on the title page and in the introduction.

Rahul:Do you plan to do any more such books in future? If yes, what theme would you choose next?

Anita and Amit: Anita is writing for two anthologies and has four picture books coming out this year. One of them – Nonie’s Magic Quilt – has just been published. It is a completely crazy story told as a poem and has been illustrated beautifully. She has written stories about ghostly grandmas, elephants, lost owls and others. Amit is in fact illustrating two of her picture books. Doing informative books like Amazing India is very, very hard work, and though writing fiction is challenging too, it’s a lot easier in terms of actual footwork. Having said that, we do have an exciting idea for an informative book – again on India – so watch out for it!

here's international children's writer uma krishnaswami on amazing india in her blog. she'll be reviewng it a little later...

Read more reviews here.


Banno said...

My 2 copies of Noni already gone. Need more. Same with Amazing India. Great books, really.

Anita and Amit Vachharajani said...

Thanks so much, batul... glad you liked it. let me know when you want to order more...

Sadhana Ramchander said...

Nice. You both must write more. Waiting to get hold of your books...

Saee Koranne-Khandekar said...

You guys are absolutely amazing--I have seen some of Amit's work on the Ladybird books thanks to my niece, and have really really loved it. I'm looking for Amazing India, too. And anything else you have!