Lines, water and beyond

The aim of art is not to represent the outward appearance of things but their inward significance – Aristotle

howrah bridge

When you illustrate a novel, what you should do – illustrate some special moment or happening in each chapter of that work, or imbibe the comprehensive thematic landscape portrayed in it? Either way, it should have a distinctiveness that is attached to the novel, but at the same time detached from it too. Sure, I had thought of these questions right from the beginning of my artistic life. However, I kept on drawing and recurrently asked these questions more intensely from the beginning of the New Year day of 2022, and it went on till the month of March.

It was on the New Year’s Eve that I got that phone call from Kolkata. The person on the other end was none other than Joshy Joseph, the National Film Award winning a filmmaker and writer. Though we have not met in person or even had a telephonic conversation for that matter, we were known to each other in many ways. When he called, the names of his books, ‘With Mahasweta Devi’ and ‘Kolkata Cocktail’ came to my mind. However, when he asked if I could do the illustrations for the maiden novel by poet M.S Banesh, based on Kolkata, I was really surprised.

Whether it is writing or illustrating, I get involved in smaller works; hence I was startled for a moment before that unexpected requirement. However, frankly speaking, when he insisted from the core of his heart “We would love Soman to do the illustrations”, I was puzzled a bit.

The author of the novel is a well-known poet in Malayalam. I had enjoyed and at times even stunned, reading his poetry collections such as ‘Nenchumvirich Thalakunikunnu’, ‘Kathu Shikshikane’ and ‘Nallayinam Pulaya Acharukal’. I was sure his maiden novel would definitely present profound experiences. On one hand I was concerned whether I had the inner strength to illustrate that creative work. Also, on the other hand, the dearth of time due to the busy schedule of teaching assignments towards the end of the academic year was another concern. Above all, I was not sure whether I could do justice to the novel in creating a visual narration or rather an interpretation of the work.

In any context of illustration, I have a strong desire to make certain that line is able to interweave with the deeper meaning of the work, thus making the reader feel refreshed. The possibility of illustration is that fundamentally being an independent mode of expression how it explains and develops another independent creative form. In a jugalbandhi combining the scale of lines and language, dedication is essential. In this context I felt that it is a crisis to achieve that fusion.

Within a week I got a copy of the novel by post. ‘Jalabhara Dinarathrangal’ (Watery Days and Nights). The title of the novel is quite unique and innovative, same as the names of Banesh’s earlier works.

Amid various tensions and anxieties, I casually read the first four chapters. A creative work that is extraordinary in theme and narration, with deep allusions, it made me puzzled in the beginning. Then I came back and read it once again from the first chapter. By then, Banesh had sent some photographs, taken by renowned photographer Bijoy Chaudhury, including the images of Rabindra Sethu and Vidyasagar Sethu, as also the oldest building complexes in Kolkata that are over a century old. Also, there were a few photographs resembling the faces of Ozu, the central character in the novel, a few Bengali women and old men apart from the photographs of Kolkata streets. I guess those photos intended to set a mood for the illustrations.

I wondered over and over again as to what kind of a visual narrative I should use here without causing any impediment in the reading of the novel while at the same time complementing its mood. Meanwhile, Joshy shared a few more videos and images. Despite the rat race of the routine life, ‘Watery Days and Nights’ flowed quietly in my bag.

While going through the novel on many occasions, I kept on exploring the style I should adopt for illustration. Quite a few people who have seen my drawings and sketches used to say that generally my style is the manifestation of the tribal art in a modern way, both in terms of depiction and spirit. However, here I wanted to discard that style and create a new visual interpretation of the novel that provides a treat of memories and literal flow.  Even then the crisis remained as to how I should visually interpret this novel, which still evokes reminiscences at the same time setting the stage for another cultural landscape.

For a novel that has river, water and vessels which determine its theme and narrative, as symbols and representations, illustrations that have the sensation of a current would be more suitable, I felt.  There was also the question as to whether I could rediscover myself. I remembered the words of Thomas Merton: “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” Then I realized that it is no use merely standing on the shore of the stream created by Banesh and looking at it. I threw myself into the depths of the novel, and the whirlwinds and currents rippled through me.

One day, as the thoughts got strong, I made a drawing based on the opening chapter, hugging its current, and sent it across to Banesh – a composition where Ozu, the Pope, mother, water, streams, birds, fish, grass, flowers, and the intoxicating evenings all soulfully merged. The answer was: “The murmur of the water from the goblet and the scaly surface… excellent. This is enough.”

Even though the intoxication in the reply made me ecstatic, the second chapter, ‘The turbulent water’, was drawn with utmost fear. Mahasweta Devi enters that chapter. Moreover, the Howrah Bridge, which I have never seen, stretches straight across there. Unexpectedly, the music of some band passed through the street. Ozu, Mom, Dad… and then a film presence that is intertwined with the emotional plane of the novel. When I shared the second drawing, the response of the author was such that it elevated my confidence to the next level: ‘The turbulent water with a three-dimensional radiance…’

I remember doing illustration for the third chapter, ‘Walking over the water’, which was done very naturally. Village women who came to complain to Mahasweta Devi, and the Didi who consoles them. It was easy to bring to life Mahasweta Devi and the Bengali women in that dynamic atmosphere through the lines. “Amazing! That snake, the fly and the blackness…” the novelist’s words further stamped my confidence, and it sprouted further. When it was posted on Facebook with a short note, the response was encouraging.

I shared a few drawings with my best friend and critic Deveshan Perur. Deveshan’s message was extremely inspiring and he wondered how the illustrations were successful in making the viewer experience the anthropology of the Bengali people in this way. Illustrations for chapters four, five and six were quite fast. Joshy, the ‘co-accused’ in this novel project (through creative inputs), enthralled me with the message: “We will have a separate exhibition of your drawings in Kolkata … wonderful!” Since I have not held an art exhibition even in Kerala, leave alone outside the state, I felt it was a great recognition for me.

Russia’s war against Ukraine broke out while the reading and illustration were on in full swing, amidst the rat race of life. One day Joshy called, “Now read chapter ten of the novel once again.”

I shuddered as I read that chapter, ‘Bency’. There the terror of war was portrayed in a prophetic manner. “… My dad used to say that even though the Cold War is over, the United States and Russia have concealed in submarines the nuclear weapons that are eagerly waiting to reduce this world and our civilization to ashes in a matter of seconds… It was like violating the water and placing the sperms of nuclear weapons. Is dad talking over phone to Dada that the presidents need only a few minutes to give consent to explode all those bombs in one go…”

The words ‘terrible and triviality’ exploded within me like a cluster bomb. I left chapters seven, eight and nine and started working on an illustration for chapter ten. It was also posted on Facebook with a note. But, after drawing it, I felt that more than the novel, it reflected today’s war. Joshy’s response also confirmed that feeling. “This is too busy an image… I felt a little breathing space is what the image demands…”

I reworked on that illustration. Lonely and insecure Bency, the ocean at her feet, a gigantic submarine and the nuclear weapons that flow out of it. I portrayed the milt of unrest floating in the streams among the fish. Meanwhile, Joshy’s messages took wings: “Somaaaa,  me not making any hurry or interfering with your work or pace… but in Kolkata, photographer Suvendu Chatterjee and in Chandigarh, poet Surbhi Goel as well as Senior lAS officer VS Kundu have already become great admirers of your images… so, we are all waiting for the new images…”

I enjoyed illustrating chapter 7, ‘Spatial Water Illusion’. I was successful in transparently depicting the sights that were clearly seen through the water in the light of the torch. I took great freedom in illustrating chapters eight, nine, eleven, twelve and thirteen. I felt the text and the visual narrative were heading towards a new meaning, new possibility. The illustration for chapter 11, ‘Mahasweta Devi’, slid into history and culture.

‘In the pale light of the table lamp, Mahasweta Devi turned her face, with light fallen on one half, and was about to ask me something. Then she looked suspiciously towards the direction where father sat.’ Though I illustrated this part, the lines marched to many other directions as I started drawing.

In fact, art is not about conclusions, it’s all about ways. I remembered the words of Elbert Hubbard: ‘Art is not a thing, it is a way’. When I read the chapter ‘Mother’s Fiction’, I remembered my mother. “Even when she was grinding on the stone, I felt from her looks and expressions that her concentration was on the words of my dad.” This novel experience has no Bengal-Kerala distinction.

Chapter fifteen, ‘Amma Ariyan’ (For my mom to know), is one that is not mystified too much by the abundance of lines. It is the simple scene of a tree and three men almost becoming one in mutuality and empathy. “If it had been a family portrait done about that moment many years later, the subtitle, ‘Trinity on the banks of Hooghly’ would have been apt. It was this phrase in the novel that sprouted into this illustration.

I was compelled to draw three illustrations for chapter seventeen, ‘Knap’. The pictorial language for this chapter, depicting the rituals associated with death, and written in poetic language, posed a major challenge. I chose the best of the three for the novel. However, the last chapters, titled ‘Goblet’ and ‘Appanariyan’ (For my dad to know), were drawn with great delight. When the novelist saw those drawings, he responded: “The transformation from the first drawing, as you swam from one to the other, is evident; it’s great.”

MN Vijayan

In all probability, in the last chapter, the emotional intensity and gravity of the characterization of M N Vijayan have come to the fore. The culmination of the illustration was an unforgettable experience with the father, the clock on the wall and Vijayan Mash coming together. Later, when all these drawings were put together, I felt the illustrations for the first chapter and the sixth chapter should be redrawn. So, I drew new ones with added vigor and vivacity. Moreover, many of the illustrations done for the earlier chapters were polished further with new visual elements and symbols. I would say the reading of the novel and the illustrations gave me the opportunity to renew myself. Now, I realize with a shudder what a huge loss it would have been if I had opted out of this project of illustrating such a novel.

I experienced with an amazement as to how philosophy, environment, the exclusivity of personal relations, loneliness and the movie culture are expressed in the novel in a language that is possible only for a poet. Legendary writer Mahasweta Devi, who is the personification of cultural alacrity, is a prominent character in this book, which overflows with the natural phenomenon of water that surges like a compassionate presence throughout this novel.

There is no doubt that the illustrations for this novel, which evokes enticing imagination and amazing concepts, have elevated the plane of my artistic life. The mesmerizing experience of going through the lives of so many unknown human beings, characters and sensations is also equally important for me. I thank this novel, which made possible these immortal lines that would never end up being waterlines.

Dr. Soman Katalur is a renowned folklorist and artist


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