Artist Anpu Varkey’s latest book is a non-textual graphic novel about a summer day in Kerala

Even though the book was rejected by several publishers, prompting her to self-publish, over the last decade, Varkey has slowly carved a niche for herself in contemporary art practices outside of gallery spaces

Her most vivid memories of childhood are of the time artist Anpu Varkey spent at her maternal grandparents’ rubber plantation near Pala in Kerala’s Kottayam. There, in the sultry heat of summer, young Varkey would wander through the groves of jackfruit, coconut and plantain, chasing grasshoppers or watching tadpoles. Sometimes, when dusk brought with it a summer storm, she would catch the big, fat raindrops on her tongue.

When she began working on her second graphic novel, Summer’s Children, self-published like her 2014 book Jaba, the memories of those summers guided the 40-year-old Bengaluru-based artist. “This book is about memory and loss as well as an ode to a Kerala summer. I was brought up by my maternal grandparents. This story has been with me forever, but when they sold the land, I was in an abysmal loss. I wanted to immortalise that time and place… All my early memories were visual and they were deeply embedded in me. I just had to draw them out. I never revisited the place, it was all done from memory,” says the artist.

The book, almost wholly without text, is the story of two brothers whiling away time on one such summer’s day, delighting in fresh fruits from trees, chasing chicks around the coop or watching an earthworm curl up when touched with a stick. Not much happens, but in the ordinariness of the day, Varkey lays bare the arc of childhood and its capacity to find joy in the mundane. The black-and-white illustrations, done in pointillism (a technique in which small strokes or dots are applied to a surface so that they create a visual when looked at from a distance) took her over two years to work on and have the grainy quality of memories, an effect that Varkey says fell into place on its own. “I started by doing some trials for it, and, somehow, nothing felt right. I knew I wanted it to look like a sepia-tinted silent movie, and since memories are hazy and blurred, to offer the same feelings to the viewer. I chanced upon pointillism and it fit the sentiment,” she says.

Even though the book was rejected by several publishers, prompting her to self-publish, over the last decade, Varkey has slowly carved a niche for herself in contemporary art practices outside of gallery spaces. Varkey’s murals take viewers on a different tangent from the works of graffiti artists such as Daku or Zine. Unlike their political stencilling, Varkey’s work is both elaborate and detailed. In 2015, as part of the street art project called St+art Delhi, Varkey had assisted German artist Hendrik Beikirch in creating a life-size mural of Mahatma Gandhi on the facade of the Delhi Police Headquarters in ITO. Since then, her art has lit up cityscapes around the country, especially in Delhi and Kerala.

Varkey says street art, that happened to her serendipitously, has opened her up to a wholly new approach to her practice. “Learning and working from the streets has helped me overcome many things — being short-sighted within my artistic process being one. I didn’t want to define myself, I wanted the process of learning to be abundant. The scope of making and doing things for yourself supersedes the limitations a gallery affords. The viewership on the streets is 10,000 or more; making books also becomes a way in which people can go back with something you have made, independently curated. It’s where you become your own market and define its parameters,” she says.

The rewards, though financially slow in the beginning, compensate in terms of instant audience feedback, and, afterwards, more community-based projects. “Hardly anyone in India enters gallery spaces. My viewership has no distinction, it’s everyone who is on the streets — from your chaiwallah to the person commuting to office, to someone driving a vehicle, to a kid or an elderly person. I’m constantly talking to people when I’m on the streets…Through this, I understand what it means to work on the streets. People smirk or smile, pass a comment while walking, cycling or in groups — you can never anticipate their reactions,” she says.

Even as she is busy painting murals for an upcoming art exhibition in Kerala’s Alleppey organised by the Kochi Biennale, there is another book on its way. “It’s a tale about a lake — a melancholic, deeply moody, surreal tale. The timeline is from nautical twilight to sunrise, an eerie time of the day. It’s all colour and has a new style sequence, too,” she says.

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