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Brahman ghosts and shape - shifting tigers meet in the illustrated pages of Tales of India

Design Log 25 May

Illustrated by Svabhu Kohli and Viplov Singh, Tales of India pools together 16 folklores from West Bengal, Punjab and Tamil Nadu. Oozing with intricate details, the artworks are as charming as the tales itself. We take a look inside.

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Tales of India, an anthology of 16 stories transcribed by Indian and English folklorists in the 19th Century

Tales of India, recently published by Chronicle Books, brings together folklores from three states of the country that brim with wit and magic. A Brahman ghost, a pretentious rat and a scheming tiger who marries a girl meet in the pages of this anthology, beautifully illustrated by artists Viplov Singh and Svabhu Kohli. The duo was roped in by the team at Chronicle Books to visualise these stories that were transcribed by Indian and English folklorists in the 19th Century. 

In their attempt to explore illustrative treatments, Svabhu and Viplov reached deeper into history, going back to the 17th Century when the Indian miniature painting technique was basking in glory. They dug into the gut of the art movement, tracing its rise from the Pala dynasty in Bengal that pioneered miniature painting in India. It later spread to the rest of the country as each region developed its local style. Borrowing elements from the different interpretations of the art, Svabhu and Viplov illustrated each of the stories with painstaking detail, highlighting the tales of whimsy and derring-do. The duo spoke to us about the the makings of the book.

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The illustrations and the ornate borders that hold them take cues from miniature painting techniques from the 17th Century

How did you get commissioned for this project?

Chronicle Books had been bringing together the third book of folk stories collected from different parts of the world. These books form a series called Tales and each book is dedicated to a single country. Emily Dublin and Lizzie Vaughan from the Chronicle team chanced upon our artwork for An Insignificant Man, an indie-documentary, and invited us to draw Tales of India. We were drawn to the project for its content, and the prospect of propelling these stories from our land out into the world really excited us.

Contemporizing these age-old lores for a global audience must have taken careful consideration when narrowing down the illustrative style. How did you arrive at the visual aesthetic for the stories? 

On reading the book, we found the flavour of the stories to be humorous and dark, painting imagery of diverse myths, cultures and folklore that inhabit our land - a similarity we could identify in the visual storytelling found in Indian miniature paintings. We were keen on exploring this style and reimagining its aesthetic for a contemporary audience. The paintings paved inspiration for the usage of flat perspectives, framed borders, motifs borrowed from textile patterns and other details such as character features, postures and gestures.

The folklores can be traced back to Bengal, Punjab and Tamil Nadu. Did you pick up any cultural signifiers from these regions to add as elements to the illustrations?

Certainly. Details in the attire, hair, motifs, jewels and terrains to name a few elements, hint at where the characters come from, what they do and the space and situation they currently inhabit. An illustration can only be effective if it communicates information through subtle details to understand the cultural backdrop. The artworks are layered with signifiers that link the people and region to the stories they are a part of.

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A sketch from The Indigent Brahman and the final illustration

When taking on such a vast project it must be important to break down the design process into parts. Could you take us through the project as you approached it?

The pre-production, which is the most intense part of creating the visual language, was initiated by collecting a bank of Indian miniatures and studying their stylistic details and reimagining the elements that were relevant to these folklores. We then created rough sketches of the opening illustrations for each chapter and laid it out in sequence.

Moving into the production stage, we experimented with various painting styles, played around with compositions of different levels of detail, elements and colours palettes. It began with densely detailed artworks and evolved into a minimal approach. The frames and patterns that hold the illustrations were inspired by the floral details found in the borders of Mughal miniature paintings. The post-production involved fine-tuning the details and palettes for each section, and colour balancing all our artworks.

As you leaf through the book, one can see a gradual shift in the tonality of the colours synced to the mood of each story. How did you zero in on the colour palette?

The story narrates itself in three parts; we were keen to work with distinct palettes for each section. Initially, the palettes were designed to create a sense of time as you move forward in the book; each section reflecting the hues of morning, evening and night.

After a series of experiments with the artworks and after locking in on a minimal approach, we coloured each section highlighting their respective moods. We went through an intense process of working on multiple drafts before finally arriving at our palette.

Initially, the artworks were created with saturated colours, making the pages really vibrant. This impacted the mood of the stories that had a lot more shades in their storytelling, some of which could have been lost in the intense hues. We moved to a more desaturated palette, deriving our colours from the hues found in miniature paintings in muted tones of greens, pinks, yellows and blues.

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(Clockwise from top) Illustrations from Prince Lionheart and His Three Friends; Bopoluchi; The Lord of Death and The Brahman Girl That Married a Tiger

Being a collection of 16 traditional folktales, how important was reading in the creative process?

Reading is always the most important part of our process. To create a series of illustrations for 16 lores requires you to understand the sensibility each story is written with. Instead of only concentrating on drawing a specific scene from the story, we aimed to capture its mood. They were rich in fantasy and divine comedy and we wanted that tone to shine through our illustrations as well.

When illustrating a publication, what are the key aspects to keep in mind?

Whenever working with a number of illustrations, the more content you draw, the visual language changes. Storyboarding and making plenty of thumbnails and rough drafts is a key pressure point, which if not done well throws the rest of the process completely off-track. Time management and maintaining a visual consistency is the ultimate challenge.

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A spread from Eesara and Caneesara, a folklore from Punjab

Was there a particular story that stayed with you, individually?

Viplov: The Begger and the Five Muffins is centered around the apparent funeral of a village’s favourite begger couple that reflected a playful idea of the love they shared. The couple were pretending to be dead with the condition that the first to move would get the lesser share of the five rice muffins (idlis) they had.

Svabhu: The Bear’s Bad Bargain traces the story of a couple tricking a bear into surrendering honey in exchange for warm khichdi. In the end, the couple scare him off keeping both for themselves. It is a reflection of man’s interaction with animals in a nutshell.

The two of you have collaborated on several projects together from commissioned pieces to designing the poster for An Insignificant Man. Tell us about the dynamics of your collaborations.

When collaborating, our primary objective is to create reflective experiences. We have constantly developed our communication over different projects, learned invariably from each other and managed to strike a balance between our individual styles. Both of us are aware of our strengths and weaknesses and and have created a space of honest feedback that helps us in overcoming our own limitations.  We understand that the work we create has a life of its own and put in sincere efforts to represent each artwork in a way that it can be true to itself. This shared energy makes the process exciting and rewarding for the both of us.

Get your copy of Tales of India here.

Design Log is a weekly design document logging every relevant art and design occurrence in India.