Books, Comic Strip, sketchbook

Spend time making things for no known reason

A book that has given me immense joy is Making Comics by Lynda Barry. While she herself is a big inspiration, her books are inimitable and exceptional. Ms. Barry teaches drawing and comics to young children and this book is a set of those exercises and her unique insights around drawing, imagining, and teaching. I’ve often done some of the exercises with our little tornado and his friends when they needed to be calmed down, and soon we are all giggling at each other’s drawings.

Typeface copied: Astronef Super

Here’s an exercise where she asked us to imagine ourselves as Batman, and draw what we did the day before. I had gone to the Aadhaar Centre nearby, worked from home, and went for a walk with a friend.

Ms. Barry also believes that anyone can draw, and so do I. My drawing wasn’t anywhere near the best in design school, and in the animation studio where I interned, our boss had despaired over my unfit-for animation drawings. He used to challenge me to do 20 iterations of bird flight cycles, or 50 iterations of floating balloons, and I persevered. All by hand, of course.

What happens through repetition and practice is that you get better by training your hand to follow your eye or your mind’s eye, as closely as possible, without any gen loss. The repetition also allows your conscious rational mind and your ego, to quieten, and you’re in flow until there are just the forms on the page…

“There’s the drawing you are trying to make and the drawing that’s actually being made – and you can’t see it until you forget what you were trying to do.”

Lynda Barry, Notes from an accidental professor

If you think you don’t know how to draw, this book is for you. Ms. Barry starts with basic stick figures to help you start envisioning. She also says,

It’s not your job to judge whether your drawing is good or bad, your job is to keep drawing.

Lynda Barry on Design Matters podcast

This insight itself has set me free.

Title from Picture This

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Design, Event

Sketchnoting @DesignUp22

Last week I had the greatest pleasure of attending DesignUp 2022, the first in-person Design conference in India in 2.5 years. As always, DesignUp has a high bar for quality and this time also it did not disappoint. There were wonderful talks by the speakers and unconference events.

Here are some of my sketchnotes from the conference:

It started with an insightful talk by Nav Pawera on Design in Agriculture

I loved how Nav’s talk took us on their journey of research and design, as the team figured out the relationship farmers had with tech, the role that ground agents (Sahabat Jiva’s) played in their research, evolving the co-creation sessions, and finally at the end of the first year, that the team learnt to get over their own biases as designers! Such a huge learning, that shows amazing self awareness as a team.

Graphic designer and illustrator Kriti Monga shared her insights from living a designer’s life, around the themes of craft, curiosity, courage and living a creative life

Her projects showed how she leans into using her hands and the physical experience to guide her toward exploring ideas further into experience beyond the visual.

Krish Ashok‘s talk on Strategic Laziness was funny and clever.

Writer and designer Lauren Celenza‘s talk spoke truth to some uncomfortable topics we never articulate, about being designers in tech. Her thoughtful and insightful talk resonated with me and the experiences I’ve had in my career in multiple ways.

This quick sketchnote below was for the panel discussion on Design for Bharat moderated by Suresh Venkat.

The second day started with a talk on music and structure by musicians and designers Drupad and Neeraj Mistry. A lovely zen-like beginning to the Sunday morning. Unfortunately, my iPad gave up and I had to draw on paper.

Anek: Design in Diverse Societies by Prof Girish Dalvi was phenomenal, and deservedly got a standing ovation from the audience. Civic signage in India include multiple languages – but English always stands out. Girish informs us that it is because the Indian language typefaces have not been properly designed to scale. As he led us through their process & journey, we learnt about type forms and the craft beyond the digital that is needed. Thanks to their type foundry Ek Type, open sourced via Google Fonts, we now have these ubiquitous typefaces used from signage to media to even WhatsApp forwards!

My friend Ayaz Basrai of The Busride Labs shared their work on the India Futures Project, a speculative design project on the future of India around multiple themes. It was marvelous, challenging our current perspectives with dark visualizations laced with humor. Like a Powers of Ten, it took us to the hive mind of bees and zoomed out through the talk to the overview effect experienced by astronauts in space…

I missed a bunch of talks in the middle, for example my friend Ashish Goel’s talk on courage, Meeta Malhotra’s talk on getting designers a seat at the table, as I was prepping for my own talk on looking for Creative Joy at work. Here’s Rasagy, Meera Sapra and Manali Mitra sharing their captures of my talk.

Designer Ruchita Madhok shared lovely stories about stumbling upon design history 😛 and turning inspirations into passion projects.

During the event, I also helped out with the Unconference events, Sketchnoting with Rasagy and Storytelling with Suresh Venkat, learning as much as we shared, and being totally blown away by the creativity of the participants.

I had forgotten how wonderful and inspiring conferences can be, and DesignUp recreated all that magic all over again, a passion project by designers for designers. A big shoutout to the volunteer team (in which I play a bit part), led by Jay, Shiva, and Narayan.

To see more coverage head over to the DesignUpConf Twitter page.

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Books, Reflection, sketchbook

A busy, bustling, still repeated dream

What life is, a minute’s pause, a moment’s thought, and I am grateful every day to have this practice of journaling.

Here are some recent pages from my sketchbook, unedited, unpolished, straight from my mind to the paper, drawn in usually less than fifteen minutes.

A skecbook spread. Drawing of me waiting under the sun and reading. At the passport office. Waiting in the crowded room for a long time. Thoughts about efficiency and people, employment in India. And thoughts on the UX of the passport system software.
A visit to the local passport office
A double spread. A boy asking Do you know centipedes lived in the time of dinosaurs?
Daily drawing at dinner
A double spread. Walking and how to use creative imagination in your spiritual practice.
Notes from a podcast

This was the podcast episode I made notes of, though it’s not my favorite episode. And surprisingly, I have been reading more about spirituality all of a sudden, but coming in through poetry, like this wonderful, magical book In the Shelter: Finding Home in the World by poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama, who also hosts the podcast Poetry Unbound. In the book, Padraig has an amazing chapter on prayer “Hello to the imagination” which changed my perspective of it as an opaque ritual that was not for me.

You will find meaning
Where you give meaning.

The answer is in a story
and the story isn’t finished.

Pádraig Ó Tuama
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Books, sketchbook

Un Verdor Terrible

A few months ago I finished the book When we cease to understand the world by Benjamín Labatut. It’s an interesting non-fiction novel, the first of its kind that I had read.

Mr. Labatut says, “I love the way that physics deals with fundamental questions. It asks itself certain questions, and it gives concrete answers most of the time, but not all of the time. I’ve always been fascinated by fundamental questions, and science is, to my mind, the only part of human awareness that is still asking those questions.”

The title of the book, literally translated from Spanish, means, “a terrible greening” and was inspired by a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, “The Extraction of the Stone of Madness (The Cure of Folly)“.

I really enjoyed the book, because fiction sometimes gives you the power to go beyond what we know, “the strangeness of everyday physics”, to what we don’t know, an idea I first encountered through the stories of Richard Feynman, who held uncertainty at the center of his intellectual and creative life.

Read the book review here.

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drawing, Life, sketchbook

Notes from a podcast

You may be aware of my constant endeavours toward becoming a more kind and compassionate person. When I was younger I used to dream about a divine collision, later on, Pema’s books have guided me on this quest. These notes are from the On Being podcast Remembering Thich Nhat Hanh, Brother Thay.

“Look into the heart of your anger and see where it comes from…the seeds of compassion in the mind need to be watered. When you have compassion you suffer much less. Look at fellow human beings with compassion in your heart.”

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Books, Life, sketchbook

I knew their joys, none of their sorrows

Let me be honest, I don’t read Bengali literature frequently, so it was with a lot of trepidation that I started reading অগ্নিসম্ভব (Ognisombhov/ Inflammable ) earlier this year. It’s a novel set in the second half of the twentieth century in Kolkata. Written by my aunt Reeta Basu, it’s loosely based on the lives of my grandparents and their family.

For me, this book was a revelation into these two generations: the generation of my grandparents, who came over from the eastern part of Bengal (that is now Bangladesh) before the Partition of India; and that of my mother and aunts, who grew up in the late sixties/early seventies in Kolkata. It is illuminating how much society, and our outlook has changed within these fifty-odd years, especially in its expectations and attitudes towards women.

The second part of the narrative, called অগ্নিকুসুম (Ognikusum / The spark), is set in the past decade and the main character is drawn from our generation.

When I was growing up, the Bengali books I mostly read were the Feluda books by Satyajit Ray and the historical fiction by Sunil Gangopadhyay. Though I’ve also read a smattering of other Bengali fiction and our bleak literature canon in school, and apart from Pratham Pratisruti, I hadn’t come across a strong feminist perspective or many well-crafted female characters in the Bengali literature in my youth. So what stood out for me here was the specifically Bengali female gaze of the narrative, carried through by the inner monologues of the main characters, and the empathetic and compassionate depiction of all the characters.

For me, reading these two books was a very special experience.

Even though it was fiction, the characters that were based on my grandparents (my mother’s parents) were very lovingly drawn, right down to their inner lives and the little details of their day-to-day rituals. The history unfolding around them influenced their generous natures and community-driven values. Getting to know them through this book, learning about their challenges, the integrity of their choices, and how little they asked from life, was a proud and humbling experience. They have always been revered and cherished by us, and they are even more of an inspiration now. I felt lucky to get such a rare and deep connection to our family history.

The narrative arc illuminated how rapidly lifestyles have changed for middle-class women of that milieu – from being mainly confined to housework and child-rearing in their homes, to having the opportunity to be employed and financially independent in the seventies. Even then, it was no cakewalk – without a supportive husband, who didn’t see it as a detriment to his male ego, and an acceptable profession – it was fairly impossible. The academic profession, teaching in colleges or schools, was acceptable, but most other professions were deemed unsuitable. In these middle-class circles at the time, society and the norms it imposed were rarely questioned. In the second book, the daughters of the current generation make their own non-conformist career choices, and that creates great unrest among the parents – first for choosing an “unsuitable” profession, and then, the realization that their daughters were independent and empowered, and that their resistance was futile.

Another theme that was insightful for me was the rise of individualism in the second book. In অগ্নিসম্ভব, the sisters were good, dutiful daughters, who accepted their father’s decisions as final. On the rare occasions they had a different opinion, they did not dream of expressing themselves, and always accepted their father’s choices as the righteous ones. On the other hand, we saw ourselves reflected in অগ্নিকুসুম, where the main character doesn’t hold back in expressing herself through her behavior and life choices.

While reading this book, I finally understood the discord that had defined much of my adolescence and early twenties – my expectations and those of my parents were clearly at odds. Around me, I saw cousins being highly individualistic and took my cues from them, but what I didn’t realize was that the rules were still different for girls and boys! My parents were not prepared for this either and their tolerance (or the lack thereof) was the cause of some radical life choices.

Wise men have said if you don’t know your past, you don’t know where you are going in the future, and these books really serve that need – for us to know the world of women and their history, through their own voices.

There’s a lot more to read and discover in these books, so don’t hesitate! In Bengali and available online from Joydhak Publishersঅগ্নিসম্ভব and অগ্নিকুসুম.

Title from a poem in this book

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Life, Reflection, sketchbook

The days happy in their confusion, the world as it really is, but not quite

A typical week in my life, pretty sure so many millions of women across the world have these exact same days…

I’ve been thinking, I haven’t seen myself or people of my demographic reflected in mainstream media for nearly a decade now. While that frees us up to define who / what we want to be, that’s one reason I keep on documenting my life.

A century later there might be no record of what Indian middle class urban working women did, in all their diversity.

Luckily I’m not the only one – Women at Leisure is a great record, our friend Smriti is a prolific blogger too, and there are probably more such personal documentation out there that I don’t know of.

Good thing that women have always journaled, at least for the past few centuries. It’s probably because they have always been silenced officially and have had to seek out a way to express themselves somewhere.

My own great great grandmother Rasasundari Devi was the first Bengali woman to write her autobiography.

This was at a time, around 1810-1830, when even basic literacy was denied to women in Bengal, so she had to teach herself to read, and after nearly twenty years, to write. She started writing her autobiography in her fifties when her children were grown. Around the same time, social reform in Bengal had barely started in Calcutta, but she lived in a village away from all this, and so was completely self-taught.

With such precedents, we would be throwing away our privilege if we did not use a bit of it to bring about a collective voice for those not represented in the mainstream. I know we can do more, and I’m speaking from my very entitled perspective, but it’s a start. It’s a purpose – to stop whiling away time and channel it towards expression.

Title re-purposed from a poem by Jim Moore, American poet.

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