My Interview with Mymcbooks on View from a Zoo

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Mymcbooks Interviews Illustrator Sunayana Nair Kanjilal.VFAZ


White Summer


With summer approaching fast, I thought I’d upload a painting that reminds me forever of a white summer in 2007 – it was dreamlike, washed out in brilliant light and etched in my memory for reasons known only to my heart.

By now I’m a pro at painting from photos taken by my husband – my earlier posts are proof of that. I wish I could put up those photos but that’s for another kind, because I do not want your attention diverted to the original thing – selfish I am. My blog is about imitation. It’s about painting. Photography, though a form of imitation, does not fit in this space.

The piece that I share with you here is a watercolour painting. I simply love the medium. I like it that I can finish an 8×10 watercolour piece within a day. It’s like churning out tasty one pot meals – easy.

The painting shows a tourist in Mumbai photographing two white horses with one of those handy cams that you no longer see in use these days. 2007 was not long ago and yet a thing such as a handy cam seems so obsolete today. In the photograph, the caretaker’s torso is visible between the two horses with his head comically hidden behind the horse in the front. I readily omitted him due to aesthetic reasons, or it would have looked like the caretaker had a horse’s head. This is the Mumbai University campus, or somewhere around it, where you see many Victorias (a remnant of the colonial days) moving about. No longer what they used to be, these horse carriages have drawn a lot of flak lately for ill-treated and malnourished horses. Protests have been held in as far as Europe to stop the torture against these beautiful animals. And why not? They need not suffer the whims and fancies of humans.

I like the top bun and bohemian outfit of this tourist. That was a joy to paint, not to mention the faces of those beautiful white horses and the greenery in the background.

This is from Mumbai, to all the tourists who come to our chaotic city. Welcome!



Sikkim, in the north-eastern region of India, is heaven in April. I remember how, after my wedding, we took to the hills of Gangtok and Pelling. The flowers were in abundance; it was springtime. Orchids, fuchsias and beautiful roses grew in the wild and it was hard to put a price on such abundance there, what with the same sold for a fortune in a city like Bombay.

I made this watercolour painting on canvas, of all things. Yes, a framed and primed canvas – the kind that you find in hobby and craft stores. Most people express their surprise at the fact that I used watercolours on canvas instead of on paper, but it wasn’t difficult at all, perhaps because it was a well-treated and primed canvas. The painting has no damage marks yet (it’s been 3 years) so I guess it’s not such a bad idea to use watercolours on canvas.

So I painted this one from a photo taken in Sikkim, where a little boy sat down to rest after climbing trees to pluck a few orchids. As I clicked his photo from our vehicle, he became a tad conscious and tried to hide his orchids, perhaps for no good reason than to hide one’s recently coveted prized possession.

I dedicate this painting to the hard-working hill people of Sikkim, their beautiful babies, furry dogs and abundant natural wealth.

Antiolinists and Non-existent Worlds

For a while now, I’ve wanted to become a children’s book illustrator. A child’s world is boundless. As we grow into adults, our imagination is bound by the outside world – the real world. It’s sad how, as adults, we shrink our thoughts down to facts, numbers, quantified details and the mundane. It’s sad to be in the real world sometimes. Pay attention to what children say, and, although at first you may fail to fathom logic in their stories, you realise that they are far more creative and imaginative than adults. They perceive things through their true form, backed by their vivid imagination and memory, not through some projected image that is learnt by experience and teaching in a rigorous school of thought and training. When they write, they write without inhibition, when they paint, they paint from the heart. Later, as they grow up, they stop being their natural selves on account of some external conditioning. Social conditioning is such. It kills the self and trains us to become the clone of an ideal.

Fortunately, for an adult like me, who is constantly amused by adult social interactions and opinionated conversations, I sometimes find my recourse in children’s books. I will never get back the experiences I’ve had as a child, but at least I can recreate my childhood by indulging in a bit of fantasy through art.

The initial mulling over this illustration brought me some random images – a big red mushroom (I’ve always been fascinated with giant mushrooms), an ant taking shelter from the rain, and some foliage. A lot of Alice in Wonderland images floated about in my head. They were impressions from all the illustrated children’s books I grew up on. I didn’t know what else could come into the picture. The draft illustration was initially done on my phone. In the final version, I let the ant remain, but changed it’s posture and apparel. Then, I thought of doing away with the rain. The illustration was still in it’s nascent stages, when I was sort of thinking aloud in front of my husband, and suddenly exclaimed, “The ant plays a violin!”. So that was it. The ant had to play a violin under a huge red mushroom, never mind if it didn’t make sense. Bah! As though stuff like ‘The World Wars’ made any sense ever in the adult world! My husband aptly titled the sketch ‘Antiolinist’.

So I had two of the ant’s spindly legs holding the violin and the fiddle stick. Another leg (arm for that matter) holds the music sheet. The ant is well-dressed, although a little wanting in cover on the lower torso. It stands poised on two strong feet, replete with shiny boots and pulled-up socks. The eyes are large and deep.  I did the illustration with a pencil, darkened it with a microtip pen and then coloured it over with rust and brown coloured pencils. Some say the illustration tells a story. What do you feel?

Dance like Colleena

Very often, dance has mesmerized me the way music does. Watching Odissi makes me sway gently in tandem with the dancer’s wave-like motions. I like the fluidity of this dance form as much as the elegant outfit and jewellery. If you are watching a live performance, try slowing down the shutter speed of your camera and you will see graceful curves and waves created by the dancer – just like the waves of the sea dancing gently on the fringes of a beach, perhaps in Puri.

Danseuse Colleena Shakti is by far the most graceful Odissi dancer among her contemporaries. Although not Indian, her features do not clash with Indian costumes, which makes one focus on her evocative performance. Her physique is lithe and she looks like a goddess in her dance costumes. Her passion comes across beautifully on stage…and of course, I love it that she chooses her outfits so well. I have never been too fond of garish gold jewellery, always preferring the more low-profile white metal. Perhaps that’s why, Odissi, with it’s minimalist filigreed-silver jewellery and head-dress made of sola (a type of indian reed) and jasmine, appeals to me more than Bharatanatyam, with it’s heavy gold temple jewellery.

I had challenged myself to paint a danseuse (specifically an Odissi dancer) in silk, floral and silver finery. Colleena’s photos immediately caught my fancy and this sketch was made from one of her online profiles. Here’s a link to Colleena Shakti’s biography and work.

I sketched the entire figure with a pencil and then darkened it with a black microtip pen. The filling was done with watercolours. It took around two days to finish the fine details on the saree costume, especially the jewellery. What I liked so much about this photo, apart from the dancer’s gorgeous features, was the rich red costume. Although the face is not captured accurately, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole process of creating this piece. I do hope you enjoy viewing it as much too.

Wheels of Prayer

Perspectives are what all of us have. What sets you apart from me is how your perspectives are defined in life. The word ‘perspective’, a derivative of the Latin term ‘perspicere‘ or ‘to look through‘, aptly defines a vantage point or view that is specific to the observer’s eye. It cannot be replicated by someone else, unless the person stands where you do. Perspectives also have a way of confounding you. For instance, if you happen to travel the length and breadth of India, a myriad perspectives form on the journey, not just visual but also cultural, structural, societal and regional ones. Why else would India be called a ‘melting pot’?

In April 2012, we had planned an escapade to beat the sultriness of Mumbai. Rain was not anticipated soon and like every Mumbaikar, one dreaded the yawning gap between April and June – June being the month that brings in the soothing monsoon. A trip to Dharamasala materialized well. As we climbed to cooler heights in our bus from Delhi, we felt we were transported to the heavenly abode of the Gods. Dharamsala lay silent in the idyllic hills of Himachal Pradesh, fortified by the great Dhauladhar range.

This is the place where His Holiness the Dalai Lama had settled and spread the word about Peace and Buddhism, two catchwords that can never be separated. Along with the apple-cheeked, ruddy hill people of Himachal Pradesh, you also see an equal number of Tibetans here – those that escaped Tibet following the Chinese offensive, to settle in and around Himachal Pradesh.

I refrain from saying that Dharamsala is ‘occupied’ by Tibetan refugees. That’s a harsh term with many political leanings and no worthy meaning. My perspective allows me to safely say that when Tibet was troubled by the oppressive Chinese, it’s people didn’t have an option but to flee across their border, although some stayed back only to meet their tragic end. The shivers are still felt and seen. Even as we enjoyed our trip in the hills, we came across a peace march for yet another incident of self-immolation in Tibet.

As early as 1959, India had offered refuge to the Dalai Lama and his fellow Tibetans. It was probably the ethical thing to do at the time. We let them stay. Who are we to define imaginary borders? They are as unreal as a mirage in the desert and as juvenile as hopscotch. Borders only breed feelings of alienation and contempt, and keep the border security forces busy. More than 50 years after the exodus, Tibetans in India still pray and hope for peace in their native land. Dharamsala was once a sojourn for these refugees, but now it is home to them. They have established numerous trades and businesses, lending a different flavor to our culture in the forms of Tibetan art, music, food, and language. Monotony of any kind does not help the creative soul, the wanderer and artist, so I’m glad we have assimilated such diverse cultures.

I have a sketch from the Dalai Lama’s temple in McLeod Ganj. One side of the squarish structure is flanked by an obscure gate at a busy market street, and the other side overlooks the valley and pine trees below. If it is true that places of worship give out positive vibes, then it is truest for this temple. We circled around the inner sanctum, set in yet another square, enclosed by cylindrical prayer wheels on four sides. Turning the wheels in a clockwise direction is said to give out positive energy. The inscription on them read ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’, a six-syllabled mantra that holds the essence of Buddhism. The mantra reverberated in my heart long after returning to the city. It has an amazing calming effect on the mind.

The sketch was obviously made from a photo after I returned to Mumbai, because I rarely sketch on the scene. Live sketching is something I need to develop; it is the mark of a good artist. But thank goodness for digital photography, for I would have lost many an opportune moment! The perspective in this sketch was challenging, especially because I had to draw the wheels according to their graduated height and width, but the results were satisfying. The whole sketch was first drawn with a pencil, and then darkened with a black microtip pen. I love those pens and their oozing wet ink. I coloured the monk red with a microtip pen too, so as to define the subject in the picture.

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