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Illustrating a point

Published : Feb 20, 2016, 10:51 pm IST
Updated : Feb 20, 2016, 10:51 pm IST

This world is but a canvas to our imagination,” wrote Henry David Thoreau.

Illustrations by Rajkamal Aich
 Illustrations by Rajkamal Aich

This world is but a canvas to our imagination,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. This is how Delhi-based artist and graphic novelist Rajkamal Aich lives his life: Imagining the unimaginable and then creating illustrations that resist easy categorisation. They are neither puns, nor are they what one might term ‘visual metaphors.’ Rather, they employ an associative logic whereby disparate objects are collaged into impossible, dreamlike images that are nonetheless psychologically cohesive. Through dissonant object pairings (which tempt the viewer’s interpretive faculties), Kamal makes visible the un-visualisable: A Brahmin Hulk, a Sikh Spider-man, the Bengali Vampire who sucks out all the ras (juice) from the rasgulla, Barfi Man, who throws barfis like ninja blades and doesn’t like anything that’s round in shape and Elastic Chhara who cuts off all the elastic from people’s underwear, among several others.

The son of an artist, Rajkamal may have taken to art inspired by his dad’s paintings but he chose to pick up a digital pad instead of the pencil as his medium to create his out-of-the-box designs. An illustrator at a leading daily in Delhi by profession who moonlights as an artist, the question that he had asked himself was, “Why doesn’t India have a superhero ” Well, we’re not counting the West-inspired vigilantes like Shaktimaan and the ones with Shah Rukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan and Salman Khan. “In that process, I began thinking about superheroes that I had grown up watching splashed with colours of India, attributes of people I know, soaked up in all that’s going on in the country. Thus, it became the genesis of the Indian Superheroes project,” Rajkamal says. “I was raised — or should I say educated — on comic books and cartoons just like many of you. I remember once one of the characters walking in manner that defies gravity, turning to the audience and saying, ‘In a cartoon, you can do anything’. Even a child can appreciate the sort of pun of the coyote running off the side of a cliff and once realising that he is suspended in air, beginning to fall. In this way, the potential to subvert a commonly held belief or expectation is in some way what I do as an illustrator when I am successful.”

Similarly, breathing life into the Indian Superheroes project inspired by food made him believe that anything was possible. The series has seven to eight superheroes inspired by food items. You have Mishti-Doi Man, the first superhero Rajkamal created. There’s Jalebi Woman, Idlii Man, Samosa Man, Barfi Man and Laddoo Boy among other glorious options. He is not here to make a path breaking statement, he asserts. “My process is in fact an exercise in free association, of connecting dots. I mine society’s visual heritage, searching for parallels that can be drawn that play on the viewer’s familiarity with any given subject. And the strength of a visual metaphor largely depends on how successful this sort of rearrangement of the human narrative is. It is important to note that both the literal and interpretive meaning of a picture is what tells the story. I am counting on the viewer’s familiarity with individual objects and then to make sense of the cognitive dissonance,” he points out.

Like any storyteller Rajkamal makes you visualise his characters and their stories. So what’s next “I suppose what is most relevant is that we are visual and spatial creatures first whereas reading and interpreting language is learned and developed over a lifetime. I do ‘read’ books by the cover and I am as obsessed with reading, as with how words can be packaged. Just as a teacher can inspire a student to learn, ultimately an illustration should inspire one to read. But sadly nobody buys art in India. People crib to buy a normal digital print costing `300. However, I am extremely glad and grateful that people see it fitting to pair my artistic interpretations with text and I hope that this trend continues.”