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June 04, 2018

Making Of An Artist: In Conversation With Sumedha Sah

Text by Preksha Sharma

Architect-turned-illustrator Sumedha Sah loves the freedom that working on children’s books give her

There is an honesty with which Sumedha Sah converses that puts one at ease. Her well-articulated answers have a spontaneity that is reflected in her art and illustrations. An enterprising editor from the publishing house Full Circle Publishing, was quick to spot a child-like vocabulary in her work in an exhibition in an upscale café in Delhi. It was a natural fit for a children’s books imprint they were planning to launch. The Making of Dog, a children’s picture book illustrated by Sah, was among the first few titles published by Tota Books in 2014. That was Sah’s first book after which she published five other titles. Her sixth book, My City, My Dogs, her ode to Mumbai and a good bye of sorts before she left the city, was published early this year. Photographs of Mumbai city form the backdrop to the illustrations of adoring canines, who curl, stretch and play in the foreground. You can see the architect in her playing with the proportions of the buildings of the city in this book. The cover has an outlandish appeal with a giant dog snuggling the Gateway of India, Mumbai’s iconic and most recognised architecture. “With architecture, you have to think about a lot of things for your imagined vision to come together. You have to think about the structure, the material, what the civil engineer would allow and such,” says Sah. The idyllic township of Auroville became her first artist residency of sorts where she worked a day job as an architect and moonlighted as an illustrator. In the late ’60s, when it was being founded, Auroville had a mega structuralist vision of architecture and urbanism. It is still an innovative architectural lab that looks for structural and material innovation within the frameworks of sustainability. When it was time to leave Auroville, Sah had decided to study sustainable architecture, and had formed an artistic discipline by practising daily. “Illustrations allow me to create whatever I imagine. With this medium, I am like a child. And that works well with children’s books,” she elaborates.

Creative minds engage in a long, and at times agonising, struggle to discover their artistic signature — style and elements that would differentiate their art from others. For Sah, this deeply intimate, almost meditative, exchange with the self came so naturally that she didn’t even realise it. “When I started drawing, I didn’t know that illustrations had different styles. I never even gave it much thought. I was just doing what I liked. In fact, if I had been to an art school, perhaps I would never have become an artist,” she says with an easy laugh. The playfulness and the simplicity of her illustrations are easy to recognise. And her work shows the confidence and steady hand of an architect.

“My training in architecture gave me a sensibility and exposure. It showed me how to see, by that I mean how to recognise a good piece of work, how to understand colours, forms and shapes. That ‘eye’ is the most important. It’s the foundation,” she explains.

The first commissioned assignment for Sah came from a reputed travel magazine for an illustrative map of Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve. From commissioned artworks in publications, Sah moved to illustrating for children’s books, and on the way taught herself the necessary software to be able to design them. “While illustrating the page, you think about the composition — where the words will be placed, where the artwork will be placed, etc. For that I had to teach myself Photoshop and Illustrator,” she says. After the basic layout, the in-house graphic designer takes over to work on the typeface, font, etc. Art on a digital platform could feel drab and distant to an artist used to the sensory and tactile pleasures of touch and texture. Sah grew up watching sunrises and sunsets in Nanital, a laid-back Himalayan town. As an antidote to the frenzied pace of Mumbai, she combined her love for hand-drawn art and hand-written letters to form the Snail Mail Project that became a huge hit on the internet. The idea of making an original artwork in a response to a hand-written letter by a stranger caught the fancy of the digital generation. She received letters from all over the world, the first one coming from a boy in Poland. One of her favourites was from a country she had never heard of. “A girl wrote to me from a country called Micronesia. It’s an island nation in the Pacific. I had to Google it,” she says with a laugh.

Though the Snail Mail Project is on pause for now, there are still about 60 letters that need to be answered. “I am taking a break till I settle down in this new place. But I will start answering them soon,” she says. After spending three years in Mumbai, Sah has moved to Mysuru with her husband. “I love Mumbai, but neither me nor my husband are city people. We wanted to move to a smaller place to set up our own design collective,” she says. They are calling it the Mysore Collective, and it’s meant to be a space that encourages collaboration between people from different creative backgrounds. For now, Sah is settling into life in the new city, enjoying her art routine in the mornings and long walks in the evenings.

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