Beauty and her wee beasties

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An eye-popping romance between a girl and a monster has earned veteran illustrator Shyam Shankar funny glances, says Poorva Rajaram

What’s your palette? Veteran illustrator Shyam Shankar
What’s your palette? Veteran illustrator Shyam Shankar

KUMARI IS taking the lead in this romance; she drives the moped, her lover obediently sits at the back; she chisels away at a rock, hammer in hand, her lover looks on uselessly. Kumari is as she sounds, a full-bosomed sari-clad Tamilian woman. Her docile lover in each frame, however, is a grotesque monster. Meet them all in a subversive and bilingual picture book for adults, Kumari Loves a Monster, from the Chennai-based publishers Blaft who have swiftly created a reputation for off-beat charm.

Rashmi Ruth Devadasan of Blaft says the concept came to her after the title got stuck in her head and refused to leave. “Think of it as a photo album, full of Kodak moments between a girl and her boyfriend, except the boyfriend is a monster.” These are not ordinary nightmarish monsters keen on abducting women, the kind that feature on the covers of erotic horror or vintage ‘sexploitation’ pulp. “They are gallant, and quite happy when ladies take charge,” says Rashmi.

Shyam says, ‘I started drawing in Class 2, hated school, dropped out and have been drawing since’
Shyam says, ‘I started drawing in Class 2, hated school, dropped out and have been drawing since’

Veteran water colour illustrator Shyam Shankar brought these monsters into their full-bodied hideous existence. Shankar is an epic all on his own. The English reading world discovered him when he created the bespectacled, gun-toting nubile covergirl for The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction two years ago. But Shyam has drawn 40 illustrations a day for the last 30 years. “I started drawing in Class 2, hated school, dropped out and took up illustration full time. Since then I’ve drawn for Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam and Tamil magazines and pulp novels, never Hindi though.” He has no desire to aggrandise his life’s work with any artistic pretensions, “I don’t really have a style, I just do what the customer asks. I was taught very early to appreciate the business side of my profession.”

When asked to define art, he says, “Making illustrations that reach the maximum number of people, so that everyone, regardless of their background, can enjoy my work.” Interspersed with giggling, Shyam describes how flabbergasted people are when first confronted with his latest work. He attributes the book’s paralysing effect on readers to the shock value of a Tamilian girl cavorting with a plug-ugly.

The sense that there is no all-encompassing higher purpose to their work but the frisson, is echoed by Devadasan, “People ask me if it is a metaphor for the human condition. I just say it’s a fun picture book.” In light of the recent fetishisation of pulp fiction and art by urban intellectuals, it’s refreshing to see the pair avoid treating pulp as a cause. Neither of them proselytise, with the tired air of martyrdom, pulp as an unrecognised art form. They simply work on creating new sources of piquancy.

Photo & Illustration Courtesy: Blaft

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