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Prabha Mallya: The Interpreter Of Beastly Stories

In conversation with the talented illustrator of some of our most loved books

The young artist who wields the pen behind several stunning book covers, posters and graphic tales.


It is difficult to classify Prabha Mallya – this young and talented artist wields the pen behind the illustrations for some of our favourite books (a new edition of Vikram Seth’s Beastly Tales From Here & There, Ruskin Bond’s Tales of Fosterganj, Nilanjana Ray’s The Wildings & its sequel, Ranjit Lal’s Birds From My Window, and more) and has several book covers, comics and graphic tales to her credit (such as this one for Manta Ray’s Small Picture, familiar to regular readers of Mint). She is also blossoming into an irreverent writer and has recently forayed into designing apparel for the eclectic Kulture Shop.

This writer discovered Prabha’s world of illustrations while reading Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings -it’s the kind of book that you’d love to read together with a young child, although a solitary reading is just as enjoyable! Since then, we’ve spent many pleasurable hours on her blog, and felt more than a little envy of the sheer range of creative expression available to a talented artist like her – somehow the world of a wordmeister appears so much more limited, and in some ways more challenging, now.

My Big Red Bag in an email conversation with this gifted illustrator.

Prabha, Thanks for talking to us. We absolutely cannot imagine The Wildings without your illustrations and the beautiful lettering of the blurb (we have a new favorite every time we flip through the book – the current winner is the one in which Mara is confronted by Ozymandias). We are curious to know how you started your journey as an illustrator, and if you have a formal training in drawing?

Thank you, Hina! I started out studying Mechanical Engineering at BITS Pilani and actually enjoyed it quite a lot. But I was spending way more time drawing , painting and making outdoor sculptures, and came to realize that art was something I enjoyed way more! I thought then that I needed to be in an environment where I was doing this all the time, so after graduation I decided to study for a Master’s degree in Visual Communication at IIT Kanpur.

My time at IITK not only introduced me to different types of design, it also gave me plenty of exposure to a variety of aspects associated with design. More importantly, I got a lot of time for practice and to figure out what I could do with all this new information!

It wasn’t long before my work at IITK began to lean heavily into the world of books and print – I was learning to design magazines, making hand-drawn posters and deconstructing graphic novels. It was around this time that I learnt about illustration and how one could be an illustrator. To immerse myself even more in drawing-for-a-purpose, I decided to pursue a Master’s Degree in Illustration at the Savannah College of Art and Design, USA. I started working as an illustrator soon after completing my studies at Savannah in 2009.

I was going to ask you how you collaborate with an author like Nilanjana Roy in the development of a story, until I discovered that you did all the illustrations after the manuscript had been finalized! Do you find this helps your brief, or are there any challenges?

This is usually the case for most chapter or book illustration projects. It’s easier to co-develop a script with a writer on a project like a short comic, where the illustrations provide more heft than they might in a book. On the bright side, keeping the writing independent of illustration bestows creative freedom upon both the artists – they can develop words and pictures in their own particular ways!

Since The Wildings was a finalized manuscript, I went about the illustrations with the fresh mental kick of a reader who has just enjoyed a great story. As I read the book, I felt like I could pause and take a closer look at unseen details; or perceive certain scenes as if they were taking place in a movie; and this made it easier to construct my visuals. I also met with cats in my neighborhood in Stanford, California, and observed their outdoor lives – they inspired several of my cat illustrations for the book.


Does being in a different location create any difficulties when collaborating on a project? 

Email and the occasional Skype or phone call have usually been adequate for my illustration-related communication. For both the books (The Wildings & its sequel, The Hundred Names of Darkness), Nilanjana, Bena Sareen (at Aleph) and I had numerous email conversations about the illustrations, all through the process of crafting them.

Luckily, we were in agreement on many of our impressions about the real and imagined urban wild, and also on how illustration and design can add a whole new layer of love to the books. Before starting to work on The Hundred Names of Darkness, I got to visit Nilanjana in Delhi and walk around Nizamuddin , the home of the Wildings.

Can you share your inspirations and fellow artistes whose work you admire? Are there any rituals that are essential to your creative process?

Books as volumes of stories, and as designed objects are really inspiring. I’m a big fan of so many artists over the Internet, but I’m especially thrilled by graphic novels, anime, music album and gig poster art. I’ve been taking more pictures lately, and in the process I’m learning to think and compose my illustrations – just like a photographer! Little details of my environment often finds its way into my work. Right now, there are birds, trees and bunnies that I watch through my window!

As for rituals, there’s usually a hot cup of tea on hand, and music to listen to while working!


Can you tell us about a project or illustration that you’ve enjoyed working most on, and why?

I loved working on my graphic short story for The Obliterary Journal Vol 2 (called On Making Wet Food at Home for Your Growing Kitten). I usually write as a way of constructing an imaginary situation or thought experiment to answer some questions that have occurred to me. I like that this story continues to bewilder me because it doesn’t answer any of my questions (and raises a few more!), turns some rigid boundaries into grey areas and has characters who feel very real to me. Somehow, the flow of the story, the words and the ideas for the illustrations were all concocted almost simultaneously; and it was so much fun I’d like to work like that again!

We at MBRB are huge fans of Vikram Seth’s poetry. What was it like working on the new edition of Beastly Tales?

Let me tell you that Seth’s poetry sounds even better when he reads them out aloud!

To make the book more appealing to young readers, it was brought out in a new picture-book style edition with illustrations in colour and tricksy characters that children would enjoy. Ravi Shankar’s illustrations for Beastly Tales were what I’d seen when I’d read a few of the Tales a long time ago – it wasn’t easy to let those go, especially the iconic crocodile and the Hindustani singer-frog. I used some of my own sketchbook work as a reference for the kind of mood I was trying to get my illustrations to portray. And soon I had the new characters down on paper and then it was relatively easy to build an illustrated world around them!

Was Seth also involved in your illustrations?

Yes! He was involved in helping us get the visual tone of the illustrations right, and it was he who picked the sample illustration upon which all the other illustrations were eventually based.

Which is your favorite Beastly Tale?

It’s got to be The Monkey and The Crocodile!


Book illustrations, mini comics, posters, book covers, and now retail through Kulture Shop – do you find any differences between these medium, and if so, which do you enjoy the most?

The underlying idea behind all of these medium is the same – there is a visual whose task is to communicate directly, often instantly, with a viewer-reader. The differences are in the role they can play. A book illustration shows characters and settings, adds detail to, or emphasises parts of a verbal narrative – and in wordless picture books, the illustrations show rather than tell the story! In comics, each panel is an illustration, but the page is made up of several illustrations stitched together to help progress the story. Illustrations for book covers and posters are both promotional by purpose, and have to work together with typography and design to communicate all the information about the book or the event. Illustrations for retail need to have a certain object value in addition to conceptual content.

It’s hard to choose amongst all these, because each application helps me think and draw in different ways. But I would say that poster-making has a certain special appeal because that’s what I wanted to do the most when I had just started to study design and illustration. A lot of my personal work leans towards making poster-like mélanges of drawings and hand-drawn lettering.

To your mind, what is the most important trait for a good illustrator?

An illustrator’s job is to show a concept visually with a picture created especially for the purpose. So I find that being a visual problem-solver is perhaps the most important part of being an effective illustrator.

Animals appear to be a recurring motif in your work – is that by choice or chance? And you also seem to be big on cats – I was very amused to read about Lola Kitty on Nilanjana’s website. Did this love for animals bring you together with Nilanjana, or was it just serendipity?

It was a bit of both!

Growing up in Goa, I had a huge collection of books at home – including a varied lot of animal books (for example, fuzzy rhymes about puppies, natural history encyclopedias with detailed illustrations of animal skeletons, the classic animal stories like White Fang and The Jungle Books). My neighbourhood – before it got built over by countless apartment buildings – was teeming with violently green thickets of plants, in which one could spot mongooses, snakes, and a wide variety of birds. Of course, there were the inevitable clan activities of the street dogs and roof-cats and pigs, and the lumbering hordes of buffaloes and cows. We’ve also have had two or three generations of sparrows nesting in the house!

I watched these goings-on, finding them as dramatic and fascinating as those books I was reading. Now as an illustrator, I continue to read about and draw wild creatures a whole lot!

After graduating, I began to work at Pencil Sauce, Bangalore, an illustration studio filled with light and love and wonderful people. And the official office cat, Lola. I found this kitty immensely inspiring, I was always drawing her doing those wonderful things cats do. She often found her way into my client projects as an innocuous, curious or indifferent side character. And one day, this little sidekick was noticed enough to take center stage in Nilanjana’s books about the Wildings.


What are you working on these days? Given your explorations with graphic story telling, can we expect a full fledged graphic novel from you sometime soon?

Right now, I’m working on a picture-book with Red Turtle. I’ve also been going on long walks and bike rides, seeking out interesting trees, animals and birds around my neighbourhood to draw in my sketchbook. There’s so much to learn about the way living things survive and grow and change in their environment – but most of all, drawing them from life is so much FUN.

Though I have been making graphic shorts for my blogs (here and here for example) and with Manta Ray, I’ve been eager to do a longer story – and I’m actually working on one now!

What are you reading these days?

I’m reading the collected short stories of Angela Carter, a fat volume called Burning Your Boats. It’s wicked and subversive, and often carries a sense of impending doom in a carefully-constructed beautiful room.

Lastly Prabha, this is a question we ask all our interviewees – if you could go back in time and have dinner with one person from history, who would that be?

I can’t really pick one :) This dinner would look more like a last supper hosted by AA Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, and include David Bowie, Marilyn Manson, Led Zeppelin and Douglas Adams. I don’t think anyone would die though, there would be some delicious food for sure!



All illustrations are the property of Prabha Mallya 

2 Comments on Prabha Mallya: The Interpreter Of Beastly Stories

  1. It’s wonderful to see such a lovely and well ‘researched’ interview… happy to know that Prabha has such ardent fans outside the comics & illustration creator communities. :)

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