• A storm is coming.


    This one landed on my lap some four or five years ago, not long after I'd quit my job at the New Indian Express and was loafing around Bangalore without work, succumbing by slow degrees to depression and creative desolation. It began with an email from a friend, introducing me to another friend of his. This friend-of-a-friend (yes, this is going to be one of those stories), I was told, was a hotshot journo working for TNIE in Chennai, and he had a script for a graphic novel, which he was going to self-publish, and he was looking for an illustrator, and would I be interested in working with him, because it was going to be awesome and I was jobless anyway so what the hell?

  • In 2008, I joined the staff of a local listings magazine called The Bengaluru Pages. TBP was owned by MP/businessman Rajeev Chandrasekhar's Jupiter Group, and it shared its offices with Radio Indigo. This was the first time I had worked for a periodical, the first time I had stepped into a proper radio studio (where I got to record a couple of funny voice-overs for ads, for the first time), the first time I had my articles published in a magazine, and the first time I was earning enough to be able to eat out regularly at expensive restaurants. It was all happening, and it was awesome. By the end of that year, my byline was getting seen all over town, and ditto with my waistline.

    TBP was amazing for both my career and self-esteem. Putting together a 100-page magazine every two weeks, illustrating for it, writing for it, editing for it, spending nights at the office for it, and hitting up PR people for free movies, events and meals for it, all of it teaches you to properly balance working hard and playing hard. It teaches you discipline and it teaches you abandon. These are the sort of experiences that you should actively hunt out if you want to understand your true limits. TBP made me grow the **** up. But TBP also taught me to abandon any Ozymandias-ish pretensions I had about the longevity of my work, because the magazine shut down after less than two years of operations, burying with it hundreds and hundreds of pages worth of time, creativity and sheer effort that its little team had invested in it. Man, but I still miss working there.

    |Note: As the magazine is dead, my TBP illustrations now belong to me. If you'd like to reuse any of them, write to me. This is shameless and morbid, I know, I know, but it's also good commerce!|

    Here's a sampling of the illustrations and designs I created for The Bengaluru Pages. Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

    Paper-collage illustration for a special travel issue of The Bengaluru Pages
  • Most of the work presented below (barring one illustration at the very end of this post) was done for The Magic Store of Nu Cham Vu, a children's fantasy adventure written by my father (Shreekumar Varma) and published by Puffin. The book is full of surreal and magical characters and situations, so illustrating it was a great workout for my visual imagination.

    A note on the book cover: The final cover design for the book (seen at the bottom of this post) was not done by me. The Disney-Aladdin-style typography isn't something I would have gone with, nor do I approve of the dull colour scheme and composition. The cover does use a portion of one of my illustrations, though, but it's been rather poorly cut up without my final approval. (If I sound belligerent and defensive, it's because I am, slightly. Then again, I'm also an inveterate control freak.) In any case, you'll see all my original concepts and artwork for the cover below, so you can compare the lot for yourself.

    Nu Cham Vu's magic cat, from The Magic Store of Nu Cham Vu, Puffin

  • The first major book project I worked on after completing The Insect Boy was Penguin's The Tenth Rasa, an anthology of nonsense -- poems, stories and songs -- from India. This was in 2005, if memory serves. This book was edited and compiled by Michael Heyman, Sumanyu Satpathy and Anushka Ravishankar. (Heyman, who has since gone onto shepherd more, bigger and exponentially frabjuous nonsense anthologies, is now considered the leading nonsense-rasika in the biz.) They came up with such hilarious and imaginative material for the book that it remains the most fun project I've worked on. Oh, and mine isn't the only artwork in the book: two of my co-illustrators, it is my distinct privilege to claim, are Sukumar Ray and Edward Lear!

    My brief from the art director at Penguin was to come up with simple line drawings that could scale easily, along with a colourful cover that properly conveyed the idea of the title. This idea, as you've probably guessed, is that the navarasas are all well and good, but that the complete range of human emotions is effectively inaccessible without the tenth and most evocative rasa: nonsense. You'll see what I came up with for the cover, as well as the interior artwork, below.


    Book cover illustrations and hand-done typography for The Tenth Rasa, Penguin

  • This is a continuation of my earlier post on the work I did for Jackfruit Research & Design / Art, Resources & Teaching from 2006-2007.

    The following are pen-and-ink illustrations I drew for Love Bangalore, the first Bangalore edition of
    Aussie publisher Fiona Caulfield's 'Love Travel Guides' (which are wrapped in silk, printed on expensive handmade paper and unapologetically cater to the type of wealthy traveller who dies violently in the second act of an Hercule Poirot movie). These illustrations found mention, I was later thrilled to find out, in the July 2008 issue of Creative Review.

    A vegetable vendor


  • A couple of years after I graduated from design school by the very skin of my teeth - equipped with a diploma in fine arts that was recognized (then) by no known university, a terror of commitment and five years' worth of dilettantish dabbling - I became a professional loafer in Madras. I started hanging around at the British Council library all day, acting in the odd amateur play, taking on the sort of low-paying jobs that required only trace amounts of effort, watching thiruttu-DVD movies through the night, piling on flab like bones were going out of style and generally cluttering up my parents' home. It was like The Graduate, but without the scuba gear and Mrs. Robinson. Who am I kidding - it was horrible.

    And then there came shining through the murk a job opening at this tiny arts organisation in ye olde Bangalore, like a lighthouse in a rocky fjord of aimlessness. I think this came at the fag end of 2006, if I remember right. Jackfruit Research & Design / Art, Resources & Teaching (A.R.T.) - the 'design' firm - consisted of a library, two art historians, a DTP operator and no designer. It was a modest start-up run out of a teeny tiny dollhouse office in Cook Town, the salary they offered was time-capsuled from the '80s, and no one else in the business had ever heard of them. But it also offered a clean slate: I had no expectations, I desperately needed an escape route, the arts library was superb, and the office served a delicious and healthy lunch (with fried fish once a week!). So I took the job.

    And what a great decision it turned out to be, especially in retrospect. The advantage of working for a tiny-but-ambitious organisation - particularly if you give in to the prevalent delusions of oncoming grandeur and allow your situation, however modest, to expand and fill up your psyche - is that you will work and try stuff and create things like you have nothing to lose and everything to prove. At Jackfruit, I hustled to take on every kind of project that I could lay my hands on (even as Jackfruit hustled and entrepreneured their way into every kind of project that they could lay their grubby hands on). I designed promo material and collateral for art shows, helped curate and design travelling photography exhibitions, illustrated books and posters, researched, wrote and designed signage for a historic Rajasthani fort, and got to travel and engage with sundry creative types across the country. By the time I quit my job at the end of a year (the aforementioned synthpop-era salary became unsustainable, particularly in light of the rising costs of rent and beer), I had gained a portfolio, some exposure, a bunch of experience, and loads of confidence. Oh, and a cutely daft modicum of arrogance, even. I still look back on my time spent at Jackfruit, as well as my colleagues there, with endless affection.

    Below is a selection of the work I did while at JRD/A.R.T.

    |Disclaimer: much of the following work was either guided or art directed by Annapurna Garimella, the proprietor and lead researcher at the firm, who usually initiated the concept discussions on all the projects we took up. So I can't take full credit for the ideas represented here - only for the final visuals.|

    Poster for the Emerging Artist Award, 2007, commissioned by the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (FICA)
  • And then there was some work that I did on a couple of Hachette books for adults, while I was freelancing a few years ago. The artwork you see below consists of the cover and some pieces of interior artwork for Vijay Nair's The Boss is Not Your Friend, followed by the cover of Zac O'Yeah's Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan. The interior art for the former was left out of the final book (I was told that it was too cerebral for the target audience - which, bless 'em, was probably just a polite way of saying that the cartoons sucked). The Scandinavistan cover, meanwhile, ranks among my best work. I thoroughly enjoyed working on it.

    |Go here to look at some of my artwork for Hachette's children's books.|


    Final cover for The Boss is Not Your Friend, Hachette
  • Hachette India started its children's books division fairly recently, and I was privileged to contribute to some of their early projects, around four years ago. The cover designs and illustrations you see below were created for special one-off books that Hachette commissioned to capitalize on random Hallmark holidays - in the current examples, specifically, for Friendship Day, Mother's Day and Father's Day. The illustrations are fairly straightforward and risk-free, as you can see, but that was precisely my brief: to just make them friendly, colourful and appealing on a crowded bookshelf, nothing more, nothing less. I'll leave it to you to decide if I succeeded or not.

    Rough sketch for Friends Forever book cover
    Friends Forever, Hachette - Friendship Day stories

  • Kicking off my series of rough/rejected/unfinished work samples is the following set of artwork from various Scholastic projects. 
    |Some of my finished, published work for Scholastic can be seen here.|

    The first few images are rejected covers for The Insect Boy, followed by rough as well as finished pages from The Mathematics of Twins. The Mathematics... was a really fun book that I couldn't complete work on, unfortunately, due to a scheduling clash with a photography exhibition that I was then helping set up. The book was subsequently taken up and completed by another illustrator, but the publishers ended up using my cover design (but I'm putting it under the rejects pile anyway, because the character illustrations on the cover have since been replaced with the other illustrator's work).

    This one was "too scary for younger readers". I prefer it to the final design, though.

  • A large share of my early freelance work in the children's publishing industry was done for Scholastic. It was late-2004/early-2005, and the new editors at Scholastic India had just initiated an upgrade in their book production values (which were still a far cry from the beautifully-realized work being put out by their American and British divisions). I was a rookie illustrator, fresh out of design school, but these editors were kind enough to trust me with the drawing and redesign of their new titles. Here are a few illustrations, pages and covers from these books:

    A Friend Called Buddy, Scholastic India




    The above images are from a read-and-colour book called A Friend Called Buddy. Colour-in books at Scholastic were, until that point, poorly drawn, one-dimensional efforts held together by ill-conceived page and cover designs. My task was to bring more depth and detail to these books, and to enliven their style and design from cover to cover. The Peacock Who Forgot How to Dance (written by A. Edathatta) was another book I illustrated and designed in this series (see below).