Following the Friend of Numbers: Q and A with Satwik Gade
Our hot off the press picture book Srinivasa Ramanujan: Friend of Numbers written by Priya Narayanan and illustrated by Satwik Gade, follows the singular fascination of a mathematical genius.
In the first of this two-part series, we spoke to the illustrator to get a glimpse of what went on behind the scenes. What appeals to you about illustrating a children’s book? I grew up reading some beautifully illustrated children's books. I vividly remember the joy it brought me and the way it shaped my imagination. In my teens, I became very sure that I wanted to do the same for other children when I grew up. I used to think that telling a story was all about narration, but working on children's books taught me that storytelling is really about expression. While making narrative drawings is about skill and representation, expressive drawings are just pure fun, where you can play fast and loose with all the rules. In a sense, it’s about taking the joy inside me and putting it on display with the hope that the joy is infectious. Does your creative process involve research for illustrating books like Bhimrao Ambedkar: The Boy Who Asked Why and most recently, Srinivasa Ramanujan: Friend of Numbers? The bulk of the research is done by the writer and editors. And they just share all that research with me. And I can ask them questions and clarify things without making the effort to do the research myself. That said, with both Ambedkar and Ramanujan, I had happened to read, several years earlier, source materials that the writers based their work on. It was a happy coincidence and really helped me free my style because the content was already in my head. But clothing, landscape, hairstyles and other little details that add to the big picture only come through painstaking research. In that regard, thanks to the internet, illustrators today have it really easy! Research that could take days for artists that I grew up reading, I can just do in minutes. Earlier artists would have to base their drawings on written descriptions found in archival material and encyclopedias. But today we can see the actual images and get the details just right.
Mathematical genius Ramanujan’s story is your third book with Tulika. How do you like mathematics as a subject, do you get his fascination with numbers? As a student I was interested in maths but the interest would vary with each teacher and their teaching style. In my high school, coaching for competitive exams ruined any enthusiasm I had for mathematics. Only one tuition teacher managed to keep me interested mathematics by trying to bring some joy into the subject. And then in my 20s I rediscovered my love for the subject when I read a book called Alex's Adventures in Numberland. That is the kind of book that makes enthusiasm for a subject infectious. The vibrant pictures in this book are intelligently themed around the numbers and patterns discussed in the story. What went behind while portraying these things? The magic squares (kite page), number sequences and other elements that come out in the drawings which can't be found in the text were my additions to the book made possible because of Alex's Adventures in Numberland. All young adults should read this book and if the kids are really young, parents should read it and tell them stories from this book. Another adult writer who finds mathematics in art and art in mathematics is Dan Brown. His stories are thrillers but embedded in the narrative is a wealth of mathematical and artistic curios and antiquities. That also rekindled my interest in mathematics and kept me ready for a book like Srinivasa Ramanujan: Friend of Numbers. I had also read The Man Who Knew Infinity, a biography of Ramanujan that the writer Priya Narayanan, used as source material. An uncle who had read it bought the book for us to read when it was originally published. This book doesn't talk so much about mathematics as it does about the life and times that Srinivasa Ramanujan lived in. It has vivid descriptions of Cambridge and the culture of mathematics that people like Godfrey Hardy propagated in Cambridge. Also it focuses on the work and sacrifices that go behind the making of a genius.
How do you overcome creative blocks, if you have any? If someone knows the answer to this question, please tell me! Creative blocks are the worst. As my long suffering editors are well aware, my creative blocks last months sometimes and there is nothing I can do except sit and wait. I feel that, maybe, just putting pen to paper and forcing yourself to just draw something can break a block and create something beautiful. But this doesn't always happen. Sometimes seeing someone else's inspiring work can help overcome a block. But it might just make me too dejected also! But one advice that I read in a book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance resonates with me: if you are not able to make a whole drawing, then zoom into the task. Just take one small element and focus all your energy on that little element. It might trigger a release! Can you name two of your favourite children’s book illustrators and tell us why? I have a ton of favorite artists I grew up reading. But I want to give a shout-out to two contemporary artists who really inspire me everyday: Sandhya Prabhat and Prabha Mallaya. Sandhya's colours and textures are just eye-popping. She uses all bright colors and manages to contrast them, which is the very essence of Indian crafts. Prabha Mallaya is more in the mould of western artists with illustrations that are uber-real or magical-real. Her animal drawings are just something else. Both of their artworks are incredibly expressive. Any upcoming projects, we’d like to know. I haven't taken on a new project to focus on my MFA which I am doing a decade after my Bachelors. So I want to do it right. Also I want to write and illustrate a book by myself. So I am hoping that will be my next project. Maybe my experience studying in the US will provide fodder for the book. Fingers Crossed. Grab your copy of the book Srinivasa Ramanujan: Friend of Numbers to trace the inspiring mathematician's trail! Satwik Gade is an artist and designer with a special interest in illustration and typography. He enjoys reading books and is inspired by Indian mythology, comics and Impressionist art. Illustrating children's books is his biggest fear and he is enjoying facing it!
February 14, 2020