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Walking through Krishna Chandran’s imaginative world of familiar characters

Design Log 24 May

Kerala-born, Paris-based artist Krishna Chandran A. Nair has always had an affinity for conjuring surreal characters out of his imagination. His most recent series of Indian portraits in oil pastels traces his memories of home while adding his signature sense of humour to the mix.

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Krishna Chandra's speciality lies in envisioning and creating unique characters 

There is something unreal and striking when one looks at a character sketched by Krishna Chandran A. Nair. Fluid in his use of oil pastels and watercolour, the artist and animator creates character sketches where the person looks familiar, yet you can't quite put your finger on whom he or she reminds you of exactly. This is a recurring feature of his ongoing series on Instagram, where he creates character sketches of Indians in oil pastels and writes hilarious back stories to contextualise and make the character real.

Growing up in Kerala, Krishna developed a fondness for drawing and animation. His father’s love for doodling and creating humorous characters further inspired him to keep drawing, and when he first heard about the animation course at National Institute of Design (NID), he jumped right into it. The education changed his life, and he has since worked on numerous shorts, like Echo, Frenc like Pour l’amour de Dieu (For the love of God) and Tout va bien (Everything's Fine) among others.

Busy pursuing animation film direction at la Poudrière, école du film d'animation in Valence, France, Krishna makes time to chat about his never-ending love for creating characters that don't exist, the need for storytelling, and his influences, among other things.

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Characters from Krishna's ongoing Instagram series

Take me through your journey as an artist. 

My father bought me my first set of crayons when I was around three years old. As a kid, I had more drawings in my notebooks than notes. I remember drawing small illustrations of the stories on my English and Hindi textbook margins. The scribbles on my notebook margins evolved into flip book animations, which eventually led to me secretly opening Flash on my school computer to animate things like Adnan Sami dancing to Lift kara de

As I grew up, I started to carve characters and objects out of chalk during classes, which is how I developed an interest in sculpting. Just as I was being urged to take up Engineering like my other friends, a friend of mine explained to me on our cycle ride to school about a college called NID where they teach students animation. He said, “You get out of the college and jobs offering a salary of Rs.20,000 are just waiting for you.” The 16-year-me was blown away at the idea of getting so much money to sit and draw all day that I promptly applied.

What is the inspiration for your recent Instagram series featuring portraits of Indian characters drawn in oil pastels with funny stories that you create for each person?

As I started making films, I drew mostly for the projects I was working on or for ideas for future projects. I used to sketch a lot using pencils as they were easily available, and maybe also because colours used to scare me. To free myself from the fear of using colours, I started drawing with them. Oil pastels were a lot of fun and easy to draw with, and I fell in love with the medium. But during the making of these films, I almost forgot how to draw mindlessly. Sometimes, the mind surprises you with new ideas when you let it wander. So in an attempt to get back to doing that, I started sketching random characters, and then cooking up a story about them right before putting them up on Instagram.

My biggest inspiration is my father; he writes and doodles during his free time and his stories have always revolved around characters he has met or seen in his life. They tend to be quirky and funny, sometimes dark and sad, without losing its humour. I grew up reading them. It has had a big influence in the way I think. Being away from home, my characters on Instagram are also a way of me trying to stay in touch with my background. The stories are an exaggerated amalgamation of things I’ve seen, experienced, heard of or imagined.

Characters designed for Krishna's father K.C.Anilkumar's Malayalam book titled Sundarakallan (The Beautiful Thief)

In terms of visual inputs, I grew up watching cartoons that came on Sunday evenings on Doordarshan, followed by Cartoon Network and occasionally Disney movies when their VHS tapes/ CDs were available. As a kid, I tried to mimic these styles when I drew my characters. These played a big role in me choosing to become an animation filmmaker. At NID, I was exposed to animation movies from Japan and European countries. The works of Japanese studio 4°C, films by Sylvain Chomet and animations by Glen Keane and Richard Williams have also inspired me greatly. Closer to home, Sekhar Mukherjee, my mentor at NID and Vaibhav Kumaresh (whom I interned with) were of great support to me as a young design student.

How do you bring each character to life, and give them such an unmistakably Indian identity as well as a unique personality and story? 

I enjoy developing characters, their back stories, their likes and dislikes. The characters I put up on Instagram usually take around 30 minutes to draw, depending on how carried away I get. I consciously try to make them all look like they belong to the same universe; for example, by giving them all triangular noses. As I sketch, familiar faces or interesting/funny characteristics come to mind and I try to incorporate those into my drawing. As a contrast to their quirky, sometimes morbidly intriguing personalities, I try to give them neutral expressions or at most, a simple smile, to show how oblivious they are to their idiosyncrasies.

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Krishna consciously tries to make the characters for his Instagram series all look like they belong to the same universe by giving them unique features like triangle noses

I don't follow many rules for the colours. I scan through my pastels and go for the first colour that strikes me. I try to keep the whole process as informal as possible. In the end, if the sketch makes me laugh or smile, I put it up on Instagram. The stories then take about half an hour. I try not to spend more time and if I am not happy with the story I wrote within this time frame, I come back to it later. The character limit on Instagram forces me to keep the stories short. They usually start with a brief introduction to the character, which involves the flaws of the person and it usually ends with what they are currently doing in life or consequences of their actions. I love to use exaggeration in my stories and try to push its limit as much as possible.

Do you view the Instagram project as practice or is it more meditative in nature?

I usually let my mind take me where it wants to go while sketching. I start with mindless scribbling and try to see what comes out of it. Sometimes, these lead to ideas for films as well. I make an effort to observe people and their activities whenever I can. Watching a lot of films, especially one after another during film festivals, discussing films with other filmmakers or sometimes even random conversations with people catalyses my imagination and I get inspired almost instantly to make films of my own.

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Despite living in France, Krishna's imagery still contains many Indian references 

What are the non-art related activities that you enjoy/keep you sane?

I wouldn’t call myself a singer but I enjoy signing. I try and compose songs on my guitar when I get the time and hope to learn Hindustani classical music some time in the future. I also love cooking; it is sort of a stress-buster for me. I go into a meditative state while chopping vegetables and it’s a good break from the day. I also enjoy travelling with my wife.

What are you currently working on?

Currently, I am working as the first assistant director on a series at a studio in Paris, about which I can’t reveal much due to confidentiality. Meanwhile, I am also developing my next short film. This is the first time I’m attempting a dark theme about a traumatic experience of a child in Kerala.

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