16 January, 2023

Meet the visual storyteller

Bhargav Kulkarni says he owes his success as an award-winning illustrator of children’s books to the training provided by the Riyaaz Academy for Illustrators co-founded by Tata Trusts

Bhargav Kulkarni trained as a painter before becoming an illustrator of children’s books
Bhargav Kulkarni trained as a painter before becoming an illustrator of children’s books
Bhargav Kulkarni trained as a painter before becoming an illustrator of children’s books
Bhargav Kulkarni trained as a painter before becoming an illustrator of children’s books

Pune-based painter and illustrator Bhargav Kulkarni was fascinated by children’s books, especially their cover designs and illustrations, from a young age. “I was a curious child and would study the cover image of every book I read. I used to wonder how the artist designed the book cover and what dictated his choice of colour palette, and would make it a point to read about the artists and their illustrations, whenever possible,” he recounts.

However, he began his career as a painter after graduating in fine arts with painting as a specialisation. He started out by making commissioned works and murals, and even held exhibitions of his art. But, while he enjoyed painting, admired a number of artists and followed their work on social media, he always dreamt of walking in the footsteps of his favourite painter, illustrator and author, Chandra Mohan Kulkarni.

“I love all his illustrations and designs on book covers and paintings. They captivate me to date,” says Bhargav, who is also an avid reader.

Even so, he didn’t feel he was equipped to make the switch from painting to illustrating. Till Mr Kulkarni told him about the Riyaaz Academy for Illustrators.

The Riyaaz Academy was founded in 2015 by the Tata Trusts’ Parag Initiative along with Bhopal-based non-profit Eklavya, which develops educational programmes, and illustrator Atanu Roy as a platform for budding artists and young illustrators to explore different forms of illustrations. Its certificate course aims to refine the perception, professional skills and intellect of students interested in illustration, especially picture book illustration.

No sooner than he learnt about it that Bhargav decided to enroll to study the art of illustration. That was five years ago. Today, Bhargav is an award-winning illustrator, who has illustrated over 15 children’s books in Marathi and Hindi. He works with publications such as Ektara, Jyotsna Prakashan and Room to Read, and his illustrations are routinely featured in children's magazines in Hindi and Marathi. He has also won multiple state-level awards and participated in national art competitions held by organisations like The Bombay Art Society, Art Society of India and Camlin Art Foundation.

Bhargav believes that he owes his success to his learnings at the Riyaaz Academy. The academy encourages its students to look at illustrations from a child’s point of view and trains them to become sensitive to the fact that children in India today are growing up in a multilingual and multicultural world. Riyaaz illustrators are also trained to incorporate humour in their work since that appeals to children the most. At the same time, they address social biases, champion values of sustainable development, equality of gender, caste and religion, and break stereotypes through their work.  

“I learnt a lot from the Riyaaz faculty and also from the guest lectures,” says Bhargav. While his background as a painter helped him “understand the rhythm of illustrations better”, he says he also had to unlearn a number of things “to make space for new learnings and techniques”. “Illustrating needs an entirely different approach. I developed a new understanding of the meanings of words during the course,” he explains.

Assignments, workshops, presentations and demonstrations form the core of the learning programme at Riyaaz. Bhargav recalls how the students were asked to make illustrations based on a poem or a text. These exercises enabled him to overcome his earlier difficulty in interpreting texts. “Looking back, I realise how important those exercises were,” he says.

He adds: “Of all the courses I have come across, no one imparts the kind of understanding and detailing of the subject that Riyaaz does.”

Bhargav wasted no time in applying these learnings as soon as he completed his course five years ago. “After joining Riyaaz, I realised the imbalance that exists between the number of children in our country and the quality books available for them. Riyaaz is bridging this gap by providing a link between illustrators and publishers of children’s literature,” he says.

Today, Bhargav is an accomplished illustrator with scores of publications and awards to his credit. He has illustrated multiple books published by Ektara, like Shyam Sushil’ Bakri ke Saath, Rajesh Joshi’s Neend Kis Chidiya Ka Naam Hai? and Arun Kamal’s Hawa Mithayi.

“Children’s books bring together the two things I love the most – literature and visual arts. I feel at home as a children’s book illustrator,” says Bhargav.

Apart from pursuing his own work, Bhargav is now spreading the art of illustration by conducting painting workshops for other aspirants like himself.

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