Pehli Udaan — Vignettes of Indian wildlife in a picture book

Pehli Udaan, written by Amit Kumar and illustrated by Prashant Soni

‘Pehli Udaan’ is an illustrated anthology of stories of the wild, transporting you to remote jungles of Central India to witness the exciting, sometimes dangerous encounters between people, prey and predators.

Amit Kumar’s thrilling accounts of a mother bear protecting her cubs, of elephants coming to the rescue in a safari gone astray and a bird’s first flight, are filled with vivid details that are brought to life in Prashant Soni’s beautiful black and white illustrations.

Picture Courtesy — Prashant Soni

Prashant Soni talks about the challenges of illustrating this book during the lockdown, tips to handle burnout, how one can create drama in illustrations and what to keep in mind when illustrating wildlife and subjects in natural surroundings. (Translated from Hindi)

Me — Tell us about how this book came about.

Prashant — Sushil bhai* had sent the stories to me, somewhere in January 2020— I had sent him some of my sketches of tigers some time ago, perhaps that’s why he thought that I would be the right illustrator to work on these stories.

Picture Courtesy — Prashant Soni

And then in March the lockdown was announced. I have never seen such a time in my life — to be cooped up at home all day and to see the streets outside silent and deserted. I have seen a day’s curfew but to live in that prolonged state of restrictions and isolation! Its influence was so deep that my mind was not in my work. I have really struggled to work on this book.

*Sushil Shukla of Ektara — Takshila’s Centre for Children’s Literature & Art

Me — But to your credit, the illustrations are fantastic — in spite of the struggle that you experienced…

Prashant — Well, that’s because I reworked the ones I was dissatisfied with. (laughs)

Me — When you first read the stories, what were your thoughts?

Prashant — It is wonderful that such stories are being written in Hindi. There has not been much work on stories with these themes and settings — stories of shikar, stories of the jungle.

This is the first time I have worked on such a book. I think this is a lovely accomplishment by Amit ji ( the writer), the stories are so vivid that the images come to your mind instantly and you feel “I want to make a picture of this!”

I also love working in black and white…I am quite happy with many of the illustrations in this book.

Picture Courtesy — Prashant Soni

Me— How much time did it take to make this book?

Prashant — Around 5–6 months. It was really a time of distress, not just for me but everyone, everywhere in the world I think. There was also no phone call from the publishers demanding that the work be finished and sent.

Me — Did you have a lot of back and forth with the publishers?

Prashant — Not really .They gave me a lot of space, time and room to experiment. They told me, “You can go ahead and draw what you like.”

Me — What was your process of illustrating this book?

Prashant — At first, the book was supposed to have only 6 stories, and then three more stories were added. I had sent in the sketches I had made for one story and that decided the illustration style for me –realistic illustrations that would have to be composed within the page. There are no flat cuts in any of the illustrations.

Once I found the kind of illustration that would work well, I stopped sending in sketches and worked on the roughs on my own, I figured out what layout would be suitable and I gave the final touches.

Me — What aspects can illustrators keep in mind when illustrating wildlife?

Prashant — The Jungle has richness to it, isn’t it? There is a silence, a calm atmosphere, and there are animals absorbed in their day to day living, lurking in the undergrowth, hunting prey. There is an entire atmosphere which lies in the little details. It would be good to capture that.

Picture Courtesy — Prashant Soni

Me — Have you visited the places mentioned in the stories?

Prashant — No. I think visiting jungles, wildlife reserves is a kind of disturbance to the natural world. I don’t like that. I have gone to forests very few times — all of us have at some point or the other, I guess.

There are some amazing TV channels — Discovery, Nat Geo, and I watch a lot of the programs aired on these channels. In these, you can have a very close look at the jungle. Whatever connection and fondness I have for wildlife is through these TV channels. I respect nature a lot. Everybody loves nature, but to respect it, that’s a different thing altogether…

Me — Indeed. What kind of research did you have to make while working on this book?

Prashant — I saw some reference images on the internet. But you never make an exact copy of what you find. Also, you will not find reference pictures that fit the story you are illustrating! So you take a call, build a visual from different photos, make a layout ready, then you study the animals… Study is a continuous process whether working on commissioned work or not. You refer the photographs once or twice, do a couple of sketches then you get a grasp on the form, and anatomy of animals. Since I have been in this field for a while, it doesn’t take very long.

Picture Courtesy — Prashant Soni

Me — Tell us more about the illustrations…

Prashant — I have used an ink pen for the lines, ink wash for tone, and in some places Rotring pens (0.3 and 0.5). I love working with a Rotring pen…I also love black and white, it’s very good at creating drama.

Picture Courtesy — Prashant Soni

Me — Speaking of drama, how can illustrators bring that out in the artwork?

Prashant — There is some action in the illustration that draws your attention, apart from the details already mentioned in the story.

You show the incidents through gesture, body language, movement and see to it that there is some exaggeration in it — when you exaggerate the text in the visual — you can recreate any emotion in the illustration.

In every story you read there are thousands of illustrations that can be based on the details, you choose the one that can create the most drama — it is not an abstract process in that sense, you have the written word to rely on as a limit, you get wonderful images running through your mind because of what you read.

Me — Are there illustrations in this book that are close to your heart?

Prashant — Yes, there are some that I really like, my first favorite is the bear attack (laughs)

Picture Courtesy — Prashant Soni

There is that illustration with the tigress resting after having killed the deer…you know tigers never immediately eat their prey, they kill it and then they rest for a bit, catch their breath — I really liked how that one is illustrated. This was one of the illustrations that I redid.

Picture Courtesy — Prashant Soni

Then there is that double spread on Page 8, 14 and 15. I guess you could say I like all the illustrations with tigers in them (laughs).

Me — I love the composition in the illustrations…

Prashant — This is probably the influence of those wildlife documentaries on discovery channel, NatGeo etc — they have amazing camerawork. There are film makers, wild life photographers who make amazing documentaries — if you have an interest in wildlife photography, you should watch these channels, each program better than the other, it will obviously influence the artist…I have a very strong interest in composition — they keep the camera in a certain spot at a certain angle, frame the shot for the movie…

Picture Courtesy — Prashant Soni

Me — How did you get into this field?

Prashant — From my interest and passion for art, it naturally followed...

I used to work at a medical store and one day I was sketching on the prescription pad… You know whenever medical representatives come; they give these prescription pads free. I used to sketch on them…so there I was sketching, and a person associated with an NGO that made textbooks and study material came to the shop and saw my work — he told me ‘why don’t you come and participate in a workshop with us?” So that’s where it began. I have not looked back since. Those were my first illustrations. Whenever I got a chance to attend such workshops, I took them.

I have been working as a full time illustrator with Vidya Bhawan Education resource centre since 16 years. My first freelance illustration project was with the government in 2000, then I continued in this field.

I used to paint too in between — I have had 2–3 shows, exhibitions too but even during that time, I was always illustrating…I don’t get to paint these days so I mainly illustrate.

Me — How did you get interested in illustration?

Prashant — Since childhood, there was always an inclination towards books in our home. Beautiful Russian books translated to Hindi! I knew about illustration ever since I was a child because I’d seen illustrators’ names mentioned on books and magazines.

It was also a culture of comic books at that time. In my hometown, Nathdwara there were children’s libraries. This was our entertainment. We didn’t have TV in our houses; The TV came much later…In Nathdwara, we had a library called sahitya mandal and they used to stock up on a lot of comics. Every month there would be a good collection of children’s books. It was always crowded…you know how ration shops have queues? Kids used to line up like that outside the library! (laughs)

It was all great fun…Now the form of entertainment has changed. I don’t really see most people around me that interested in books, which is sad. The demand for books is low and the illustrator does not get paid well.

Me — So you think books are important…

Prashant — Of course… Books are the best medium to understand the world around you. You get so many things from books — information you could never even have thought of. Things that parents cannot give, books can.

Me — Do you think going to an art college is important to be a professional illustrator?

Prashant — Well, I have not studied art. It wasn’t schooling but passion that got me here. In fact, the first certificate I have actually got is from Riyaaz.

Going to Art school doesn’t always mean that the student automatically becomes an artist — there are so many Fine Art graduates that I have seen who don’t know to draw, don’t understand basic anatomy, don’t sketch outdoors…Maybe college can give the right space and atmosphere. I don’t really know since I never went to one.

Also, not all colleges have good teachers…I was lucky to come across one sir who made beautiful work in terracotta. He used to come around to the medical store too. My journey into painting began because of him.

I could say the same about illustration — the people associated with this field met me. My career really took off thanks to all these helpful people.

Me — Tell us about your time at Riyaaz.

Prashant — I have been illustrating since 2000 and some of my work had been published in Chakmak magazine, this was when I got acquainted with Sushil Shukla. When Riyaaz was started, Sushil bhai told me about it and asked me to join. It has been a great experience. For me it was a wonderful chance to learn from masters who have years of experience in illustration and Fine Art.

In Riyaaz, the importance of the context in which the text is based was explained rather well . Context becomes really important in fleshing out the detailing — it adds a real authenticity to the visual that you create.

With your detailing you can mesmerize the viewer into taking in more from the illustration — he will spend some seconds in engaging with the picture, but if your illustration falls flat, if there is nothing in it that can catch the attention of the reader, they will just move on to the next thing.

Me — What do you enjoy most in book illustration?

Prashant — I love making picture books that are completely illustrated, the ones with little text. They are very enjoyable to make! But if you are an illustrator, you have to do all kinds of work– Like in this book there are more stories but less illustrations — ‘Pehli Udaan’ is for slightly older children.

Illustration is challenging. You could get just about anything and you have to make it work. Sometimes you get a creative block…

Me — What do you do when you get a creative block?

Prashant — I Rest. Completely (laughs)

In office, I get a lot of work, sometimes so much work that I go a little crazy thinking about it, 700–800 illustrations but you have to do it.

In the beginning, it was alright because I was young (I’m talking about 8–10 years ago) and that was the age for it (laughs) but now I sometimes refuse freelance work when work pressures from my day job become overwhelming.

Now the volume of work is a little more manageable.

Me — How do you handle the pressure of having a full time illustration job and freelancing at the same time?

Prashant — At office, you are working on the material handed out to you and then you have only Sundays left. Then you also get holidays. Work on freelance projects in whatever free time you can manage!

Sometimes I get very tired, and then I don’t worry about anything — the other person’s disappointment, stress about deadlines, delaying work, anger, phone calls, what will they think, what won’t they think. I remove all such thoughts from my mind and I rest.

Actually, I have learnt these things from Atanu da, he has delayed work and given the finished art after months of having received them but whatever work he does finally give publishers — the patience, passion and high quality he puts in each and every illustration is worth the wait I think.

I would definitely want to do good quality work and honor deadlines at the same time but sometimes it is just not possible. So you have to try and dodge them and get more time if possible — Many publishers also fail to realize that it is not possible to work that fast.

The publishers receive stories as a finished piece and then start seeking illustrators. They don’t ask illustrators how much time they need and the poor illustrator, he is dead (laughs). He earns his livelihood from it, at the same time he wants to be creative and show artistry…and ends up working under a lot of pressure.

I am very clear about how much time I can devote now, I tell the ones giving me freelance work right in the beginning — I have a job, I have a family…I can only accept work that have longer deadlines.

Me — Do you have any advice for people wanting to get into this field?

Prashant — Well, any field that you get into will demand hard work. Those who are passionate and deeply interested will do things with a sense of enjoyment and they should definitely come into this field.

Those who work without any real interest, or who do it just for the heck of it might not last very long. I think it happens naturally. It’s a demanding field and only those who hang on because of genuine love will continue to work at it.

I think whoever wants to make this a career would have to understand that an illustrator will have to do all kinds of work — every time you may not get a picture book to work on, sometimes you get textbooks, sometimes other material, illustration is an entire world in itself — those who are in love with illustration will do everything with enjoyment, after making every book, he or she will think that - in my next book, I will do it this way –so in their mind, this thought process keeps continuously happening, so their body of work also keeps increasing.

Slowly one begins to see a mastery in their work, an improvement, a better standard of quality — and then after a long time has passed, they forge a style of their own, a way of artistic representation unique only to them.

Me — So when do you decide that your illustration is complete and you won’t fiddle with it anymore?

Prashant — Well it happens when you are working on the piece, if it is not going too well, you redo it…or keep it.

I had a lot of time on my hands while working on this book — I was at home, my kids would be up to some mischief or the other with school being closed. I couldn’t really get a quiet, good space to make art in.

I would feel that I want to rework on the art. As an artist you are sometimes dissatisfied with the kind of work that you make, what others think and say about it comes much later…

Before anyone else, you yourself decide whether something is taking a good shape, going the way you had visualized, because the book is a sort of collection and you see all illustrations as an entire work — and then you see that one picture is being discordant– all the others are great fun but this particular illustration is a little annoying and not really getting on well with the other. So then change it again…you have to be in the process to know it, I think.

Me — Do you have time to work on personal projects and outdoor sketching?

Prashant — No I don’t get enough time.

Well, the entire day you are sketching on the job, which is not the same of course, but still you are in touch with the craft.

Sometimes I do a little study. I reference images on the internet — to get the anatomy right, to take the context of things into consideration.

Me — Tell us about illustrators that inspire you.

Prashant — The first person I would mention is Atanu Roy, I really like his work — every picture of his is entertaining and enjoyable. I keep waiting for what he will come up with next!

I grew up reading books illustrated by Atanu da, Jagadeesh Joshi. NBT books by Pulak biswas, Micky Patel…Their work is inspiring.

‘Pehli Udaan’, published by Jugnoo Prakashan is available here and here . ‘Pehli Udaan’ has been featured in the Parag honour list 2021 — a curated collection of noteworthy books in English and Hindi.

For work -related queries you could get in touch with Prashant Soni —

The idea behind this series of interviews is to give readers a glimpse into the world of children’s publishing and picture book illustration in India — what illustrators actually do and how they work their magic. Stay tuned!

Read the interviews with children’s book illustrators Ishita Biswas , Sunita , Deepa Balsavar, Bhargav Kulkarni, Ruchi Mhasane, Ashok Rajagopalan, Priya Sebastian, Karen Haydock, Archana Sreenivasan, Atanu Roy

Children’s book illustrator, translator and copywriter based in Bangalore.