Namrita, Amitabh Bachchan’s niece, talks to us about the inspiration behind this wonderful book, her relationship with her daughter, her artistic practice and her grandfather, the poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan.
What is your best childhood memory? Think of a moment that fills your being with pure joy and transports you to a time of innocence, of dreams, of endless possibilities.
Hold it in your heart like a tender flower as you leaf through artist Namrita Bachchan’s picture book A full circle. In these pages where image and verse merge, you will meet his five-year-old daughter, Noah, flying a kite, playing with butterflies, gazing at the ocean and immersed in the joys of reading. It was published by Harper Design.
It is a calm and affirming book that will calm you down when life seems too hard for you. Namrita speaks of it as “something meaningful” that she wanted to preserve for Noah, “something of an anthem that she was to carry throughout her own life as a kind of heirloom.” In this interview, she talks to us about the inspiration behind this wonderful book, her relationship with her daughter, her artistic practice and her grandfather, the poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan.
A full circle brings together different strands of your artistic practice – painting, poetry and photography. Could you tell us about what this creative process was like for you, on a visceral level, and in terms of setting up what would become a product in the market? It would be great to hear how you went about making choices related to hardware and media, keeping the economics of publishing in mind.
I was formally trained as a painter and printmaker, as well as a graphic designer, I always wrote as a form of personal expression, and over the years I picked up a camera, spent time in a darkroom and, more recently, my phone is above all my photo gallery!
It is wonderful and natural to work in the field of picture books, because it combines many skills related to these disciplines. My photography feeds my image making and the writing kind of happens organically. That they find unity in the folio format makes sense because I am drawn to understated, esoteric, and intimate experiences. Picture books themselves are as old as the hills and yet, curiously, they remain a space for originality and experimentation. There are so many ways to combine images and language to tell stories.
I always make creative choices instinctively, and my materials evolve with each project. Whatever practicalities needed to be considered, they came next in the editing part of the process so as not to block the flow. As it concerns A full circle was concerned – these product and market details were solely in the hands of my editors – Harper Design. And I’m happy to say they chose sensitively and appropriately.
To what extent does your training at the Rhode Island School of Design and the Parsons School of Design still influence your artistic practice? Do you ever break the rules, create new ones?
I was incredibly lucky to have received the education I received, I hope to be fair to her by questioning and honoring the many things she taught me.
This book was born out of your relationship with your daughter Noah. Would you mind sharing some of the entertaining, empowering and poignant moments you remember from this collaboration? What does she think of the way she was portrayed by you?
She loves the book and considers it “our own,” so much so that if I sign a copy for someone, she insists on signing it too. It’s very nice for me because it reflects her sense of belonging to this thing that represents her and of which she was the inspiration. I share my home studio with Noah. She has her space to play, work and create, and I have mine. Although there were instances of her jumping into my chair out of the blue and liberally altering my works as she saw fit! Needless to say, some of these vandalized illustrations weren’t included in the final book because of this!
I’m curious about the title of the book. How did the metaphor of coming full circle and the circle as a geometric shape speak to the artist and the mother in you?
Well, the poem comes full circle, in that we repeat the line “the more I read, the more I enjoy” to start and end, so it’s fair to say that the work has named itself. I just found an unmistakable resonance in it on many levels – emotionally, philosophically, instinctively, creatively, personally and collectively – and I knew it was right. I love the deep symbolism associated with form – both empty and full as a form, and as a line with no beginning or end. For me, there is something simple, wise and timeless about circles.
There is a meditative and prayerful feel to the book, especially with the lines “the sweetest/ I breathe,/ the least/ I despair”, “the nearer/ I look,/ the farthest/ I see/” and “the least/ I compare,/ the sounder I sleep.” How would you describe the role that faith, philosophy and a sense of the sacred have played in your life?
Well, I consider myself a spiritual human being in that I have the deepest regard for the role of the spirit in our mysterious existence…and I am grateful if this sense of the sacred is implicitly reflected in my work. .
I was particularly drawn to the line “the more I read, the more I delight” and the accompanying image of the little girl watching the butterflies hover in the sky. What were some of your favorite books when you were a kid? How different were they from the kind of children’s books you encounter now as an adult?
It’s always difficult for me to think of specific books, as much now as then, because my daily life has always been accompanied by the act of reading… I always read something. In terms of children’s literature, the common view and understanding of children themselves has grown tremendously over the past few decades since my own childhood, so children’s books have had to embrace a much wider scope. You can’t undermine the young spirit like you used to. And that’s just as it should be.
How did you discover reading as a delightful activity in your childhood? What role did your grandfather, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, play in this?
I don’t know exactly when I discovered reading, but my mother would tell you that I was a very articulate child – learning to speak, write and read very early. When I was five or six years old, I was writing poems that she was spell-checking. I still have a diary of them and they are strangely touching. We also wrote weekly Hindi letters to my grandparents, and my grandfather would record us reciting his poems during our visits. I remember it very well.
A full circle reminds me of his beautiful poem “ek bachpan ka zamaana tha/ jis mein khushiyon ka khazana tha/ chaahat chaand ko paane ki thi/ par dil titli ka deewana tha.” Did that serve as your inspiration when you worked on the poetry and images that went into your own book?
This question made me smile. No, actually I don’t, but I guess I’ll always think about it while watching A full circle from now on.
In the past, you have created and exhibited works of art responding to his famous collection of verses Madhushala. How do you look back? What are some of his other works that speak to you?
Illustrating Madhushala a few years ago allowed me to connect with my grandfather on a deep creative level, and it was a great privilege. Regarding his work, for personal reasons, I am especially attracted by his autobiographical writing because it sheds so much light on the past century, on our family history, on India and on the language, while keeping its intrinsic poetry.
What are you currently working on?
Another book, made of word and image, light and dark, line and color, reflection and game!
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.