Gitanjali Rao on Begum Akhtar and those viral Facebook wish fulfilment selfies
Here are excerpts of a conversation with the phenomenally talented artist, animator and film-maker Gitanjali Rao — whose “time-pass” album on Facebook you will undoubtedly have checked out this summer. It consists of Wish Fulfilment Selfies or ‘Wishfies’, which we quiz her about… as well as her debut graphic non-fiction work, Akhtari, on Begum Akhtar, featured in First Hand, an anthology that has just released from Yoda Press.
1. What can you tell us about working on Akhtari — It’s a very moving story. What drew you to Bibbi or Begum Akhtar’s story? i.e. what made you want to tell this story?
I have always found the stories of women artists who lived in the centuries before me, very interesting to know and recreate. Those whose art has been recorded but very little about their lives. The tawaif culture, its history and its ramifications on a woman’s life and artistry is what draws me to this period. Begum Akhtar’s voice and story is something I have grown up with, learning bits and pieces about her leading to more curiosity. Also as an artist, the style of Mughal and Kangra miniature paintings has been my favourite for animation. This style and period therefore has been my preoccupation for a while, both in animation and now graphics.
1a. What led you to want to focus on her childhood?
This was a decision taken more by the author than myself considering we were to do a 10-12 page story, not longer. We knew we wanted to tell the story in a slow pace, more like the Vilambit in a raga and not a fast-forwarded Drut. So we had to decide on a part which could be an end that leads to another beginning. Her childhood fitted in best.
Being an animator, I can do pretty much anything in Photoshop and very convincingly too, so it was more of photo-shopping fun than anything else
2. I’ve read an interview where you said your ideal would have been an animated documentary? Are you glad in retrospect that you went with the graphic non-fiction? What were some of the challenges in telling the story this way…and some of the rewards?
I still want to make the animated documentary! Especially after making the graphic non fiction. The two medium are very different and can express very differently. Having been used to making films, I had to wean myself from the visual storytelling techniques of a frame in film in order to do justice to the page in a book. But the reward is the book got published, unlike a lot of my films that don’t!
3. How does a collaboration like this work — can you take us through some of the back and forth? Were you both writers and illustrators, or how did you and your co-author work on this one?
Rajesh Devraj wrote the story, I only illustrated it. He has much more experience than me with graphic novels, having worked on a full length graphic novel, Sudarshan Chimpanzee. Though important decisions were taken jointly, we each worked more or less in isolation on our parts. I worked out the style and look initially, then he began the writing. In the beginning, I would make pages after pages and keep changing them until the tone of the writing and illustrations matched, then he would make changes to the writing to make the two work even better. As I progressed, the pages came more easily. Also the decisions to not be literal, to let the illustrations do the talking while the words added the information that the visuals didn’t provide flowed better.
4. Your ‘wishfie’ project has also been immensely popular… Not for nothing did it go viral! Can you tell us a little bit about what led to that project and what your favourite images are?
It began as most time-pass creative work does for me. I often make sketches, illustrations or bits of animation and out it up on Facebook to see what the audience reaction would be. This was just one of those. Since I had got my first smart phone after much resistance, three months back, I shot my first selfie and found it devoid of any interest unless it could be an impossible kind of selfie. So I thought of who would I want to shoot myself that I could possible never. Who I would like to be seen with? Frida Kahlo and Amrita Sher-Gil came instantly, being artists and a possibility of looking like them in their times and their places.
I also tire easily of repeating themes so soon after personalities, I decided to change to more impossible things like animated characters, paintings and iconic photographs. The reaction of course took me completely by surprise.
5. How did you pull off the photos? And was it as much fun as it looks, to us as viewers?
It was absolutely simple and quick. I never spent more than two hours making them. I would hunt for pictures on the net that I could easily replicate in a selfie. The display them on my screen and throw in some parts of the costume and what little makeup I have, shoot a few series of selfies, choose the best and then most of the work was done on Photoshop. Being an animator, I can do pretty much anything in Photoshop and very convincingly too, so it was more of photo-shopping fun than anything else.
I know a lot of people believe what they see but that cigar with Che was a marker pen and I never owned a pearl earring for Vermier’s painting.
6. What can you tell us about any future projects/ films you’re working on… Will you explore graphic novels/ fiction or non-fiction as well again, do you reckon?
Absolutely! I want to now do a full length graphic novel on begum Akhtar, since I have only just started telling her story. There is so much more to her life. More such biographies of women from those times. Perhaps an Amrita Sher-Gil or Ismat Chugtai. In which Like the wishfie series, I would feature as an interviewer to marry reality with a possible fiction.
Otherwise I am working an animated feature called Bombay Rose which is a European-Indian co-production.