Debasmita Dasgupta is a passionate advocate for social change and worked for a decade as a communications specialist with many international non-profits including the United Nations, OXFAM and Asia-Europe Foundation. Originally from Calcutta, India, she is an illustrator and graphic novel artist. In 2015, she was awarded one of the 50 Creative Fellows by the National Arts Strategies (USA) and Arts Fellow under the Royal Society of Arts (UK) in 2016. She is the founder of ArtsPositive, a not for profit organization, championing arts for change initiatives.
We were thrilled to be able to interview Debasmita about her incredibly worthy and inspiring work.
1. How did you become a full time Illustrator?
I studied development communications so I could work in the development sector. I got to work with a lot of artists and I really enjoyed their artistic process myself; it is extremely creative but it is also complemented by a lot of facts, research and understanding, which I like. I loved my job in communications because my experience there has been the foundation of who I am today. Illustrating was a passion but I didn’t consider making it into a career then because I hadn’t been to arts school.
Then, in 2010, my first illustrated book was published by Katha India, which definitely gave me a real deep sense of satisfaction. I was working in Delhi at the time and this incredibly inspiring children’s book publisher, who creates books for underprivileged communities asked me if I would illustrate a book for her. Surprisingly, she wanted me to reimagine one of Bengali poet and Nobel Prize winner, Rabindranath Tagore’s works, to mark his 150th anniversary by illustrating it to give it a contemporary feel. I accepted and drew around a full time job to finish the book.
Afterwards, I felt like I wanted to continue doing it but it still took awhile to make it full time. I think this whole social media revolution is a potential platform for artists. Art has become so much more democratic now, it is for everyone so that exposure has helped me too.
2. Tell us more about the work you do?
My primary identity is as an illustrator and graphic novel artist so I work on a lot of book and magazine publishers, and development agencies across the globe.
Currently, I am developing a comic book plus illustrations for an animation on ending Female Genital Cutting (FGC) based on a true story in Northern Senegal.
I am also working on two books; one children’s story about a princess who loves lifting weights, and an illustrated book of sonnets inspired by the lives of fifteen acid attack survivors from different parts of the world.
3. What are some of the challenges you encounter?
My area of work is very specialized and extremely challenging; whether it is about acid attack survivors or girl child rights, it needs to be checked and tested because of its cultural tone. They might just look like inspiring stories but there are many points of view to consider and engage with and different social messages that overlap too. That’s the beauty of it.
Depending on the scope of a project, I often partner with organisations working directly with communities. Let’s say for Doodle with Dad workshops under My Father Illustrations, many community-based organisations help me to coordinate these events since they have a trusted relationship with communities.
The journey of an illustrator is lonely and that can be challenging. Your presence is on social media but at the end of the day you are alone, spending hours with your work. I’ve never met 80% of my clients so we talk online or by video conference. I like to talk but I can be completely anti-social and very focused which is rewarding after finishing a story and seeing it all put together.
For many freelance illustrators getting funds for their passion projects is also a real challenge. You need funding support and there are limited platforms that offer grants. There is also this notion when you are creating for a cause, it should be done for free. This is very important as an artist. I say that to my artist friends and budding artists; make sure you always ask for a monetary incentive. It is not just about you but its effect on the whole community.
4. When did you realize there was a need for your work?
In 2012-13, a gang rape happened in Delhi and it almost felt like a slap in the face because it suddenly felt like it was okay for anyone to do anything. The whole story made me feel helpless. Then the media started saying that Indian men are perpetrators of violence and will do bad things to women and I thought that there was something very wrong about the way it was being presented.
Journalists have a responsibility, as do artists because you are in a position of power to influence and change rather than just use shock therapy to reach people. I looked at my family and my father has always been someone I’ve looked up to. He is an actor, director and playwright and he has always encouraged me to do what gives me happiness.
I looked at my husband and male friends, who are also Indian, and they are nothing like the media’s negative portrayal of men in my country. Afterwards, there were so many men protesting against rape on the streets and no one was talking about them. It was at that point, I felt like it was important to present another side of the bigger story. That is when My Father Illustrations was born, which is a platform to share true stories of fathers around the world who are defending the rights of their daughters.
Also after I saw Shabana Basij-Rasik’s story in her TED Talk which helped me come up with the right angle for my work too.
5. What do you want people to understand about your work?
My creations are how I see the world. When something inspires me, it really motivates me. My way of showcasing something is so it might inspire others to change or rethink; one positive story creates another. That’s the whole point of creating these things.
I find that the more negative I am about things, the less it helps me. I used to get very angry about certain things but then I started to understand that I couldn’t convince people with anger. The answer to violence is not to retaliate with more; you have to find an alternative.
Kailash Satyarthi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, works mainly saving children from child labour and slavery. At his acceptance ceremony, he told a story that stayed with me. He talked about a forest that was on fire and while all the animals were running away, suddenly a little bird started flying towards it. The lion, the king of the jungle, tried to stop the little bird because he could only carry one drop in his beak but the bird was adamant and said, ‘I am doing my bit’. Such a simple and powerful message. You cannot force people to be convinced. I believe that taking action speaks and hopefully someone will notice.
I like the term, ‘art for change advocate’ to describe what I do. Learning is never wasted and people miss that. Sometimes you don’t understand why you are doing something but it is always useful and it comes back to you. It is also important to meet like-minded people for inspiration and growth, as some will never be able to understand what you’re doing.
I enjoy breaking down myths about art and artists, I really want to burst that bubble. The internet has made things accessible but an abundance of information shouldn’t be your only license for creating good art. For that you have to learn to process and convert that information into your learning through hard work in order to evolve your craft.
6. Describe your creative process?
It starts with a lot of visual research. For a picture book, Mina Vs. the Monsoon to be released by Yali Books New York end of this year, I illustrated the story of a little girl, Mina, from northern India who is Muslim, lives with her mother and likes to play football. I started reading the script over and over, highlighting the areas that I could visually tap into to complement the story and then I wrote down my notes.
In terms of visual research, I have to consider who the main characters are and research the shapes of the eyes and facial structure, clothing and shoes. The little details are important so I cannot just do this based on my imagination; like the socio- economic features of the interior of her home to decide what type of utensils they would use. Sometimes the publisher will also input.
Another important consideration is the colour palette. I prefer to use bright, primary colours but it has to be an appropriate palette for that particular book. For that commission, I chose earthy colours inspired by nature, like ochre because it is set in the monsoon season and very green and the sky is grey and used those inspired by nature.
Afterwards, I create a dummy book with stick figures, just to get an impression of flow. I am not supposed to do the layout design but I prefer to place the text to see how my illustrations can complement the text. In the visual of this story, I added a little cat, who lives in Mina’s house. A cat is religiously appropriate so that kind of thorough research is very Important. Thankfully, the publisher really liked the additional character.
Next, I share that with the publisher and the editor and art directors are kept involved. 80% of my illustrations are hand drawn. I always do pencil sketches and then scan them in and colour them digitally. For technical reasons, it is better because with painting, you need a really strong scanner so it is much easier to digitally produce.
After I finish my the final illustrations, they are then put it in the layout and there is a lot of communication between me and the design team and they might need final tweaks. Then, for a development project, going into the field and pre testing the characters is essential.
7. What is your favourite medium?
I usually colour my hand-drawn illustrations, digitally, I love it. I always use Adobe Photoshop because there is a wider variety of brushes with a more organic feeling which is a really enjoyable process.
8. What is the difference between the projects you do for book and magazine publishers and development agencies?
Development agencies use real stories that have happened on the ground so the research and feedback is rigorous. At every stage, there is a pre-test of the entire storyboard. If you are trying to represent a particular community then they need to actually identify with the characters.
Publishers have a different purpose because everyone needs to identify with it. Magazines are much faster and the timeline is short and sometimes the process is different. Maybe it’s just conceptual art. Recently, I did a commission for Pulp Toast in SG. The stories were abstract and my illustrations had to be black and white and based on my interpretation of them, not just secondary research. My specialisation is in children’s art but I can be very diverse.
9. How would you describe your illustrative style?
If I am drawing human characters, especially women, I think that people would mention the big expressive eyes I like to use, normally they can relate to that and recognise it in my work. I also love to use primary and block colours. I used to use black borders too but now I don’t use them anymore. My illustrations often have very thick textures and patterns.
10. Who has influenced your style?
Style is an evolution. If I look at my illustrations from 10 years ago, even though a lot of my friends and followers say they are distinctive, they feel different from me. It is good to evolve and grow up. My thinking and expressions were different so with time and age that changes. I have never been formally trained but learnt by looking at other people’s artwork.
My all time favourite artist is Marjane Satrapi, she is Iranian-born French artist and best known for her graphic autobiography, Persepolis. Even though I don’t follow that style there are certain elements, like her use of thick lines and big eyes that I like. The most important aspect of her work that I admire is her storytelling and how she presents humour.
I also like Guy De Lisle, a Canadian cartoonist and animator. He used to mainly travel because his wife was with Doctors Without Borders. I like the way he journals his travels and there is some sort of humour in it. I can also relate to and have experienced some of the same things on my travels.
11. Who inspires you?
There are so many people and incidents that have inspired me. Definitely some of my family; my father is an actor and director and one of the most artistic people I know. The little things in my life that he has told me, I have followed and always used.
I used to go with him to his rehearsal rooms in the theatre and when they had their performances and I would always be in the green room and watched the changes with makeup, which really stayed with me. The theatre community has so much enthusiasm and spirit.
I am from Calcutta and there has been a group theatre movement in West Bengal, started at the time of the partition in India. It was based on community artists coming together and creating certain forms of art, which is for people, by the people. Again, that is something that stayed with me because my father was part of the group theatres in Calcutta. I have always wanted to use the education and experience I have had in a meaningful way and never wanted to do entertainment only commercial art. I didn’t have a feel for it.
12. Do you see yourself as an educator?
No, not really as an educator but definitely someone who wants to share her knowledge and experience. I run workshops because I hope that it inspires other artists. The word, ‘educator’ is heavy and it is a very big responsibility to educate someone. I can only share my thoughts and viewpoints and hope that that helps.
13. You have championed many issues. Which one is closest to you heart?
All these issues overlap but I have worked on anti-human trafficking campaigns for a long time, working directly with child survivors. Their whole ethos of never giving up and always managing to smile after so many terrible things have happened to them has been one of the most important learning experiences for me. They are full of hope and aspirations. We complain so much in our lives and yet we are so lucky. After many young women are rescued from brothels they stay in shelter-homes until they are taken back to their families. Often they can’t go back to them as it is a taboo so they often have to stay in the shelters.
Once, I met a little girl called Sosa (name withheld) who was 10-11 years old. She followed me around all day and kept asking me about a place and if I was from there. I asked the counsellors why and apparently she was taken from there at around 5 or 6 years old and trafficked. When she was rescued at 7 she couldn’t remember anything about her home but the name of her village so whenever someone new came, she asked them if they knew it. Unfortunately, it is a very common village name and this is an all too common story survivors often being lost and displaced afterwards. I still remember the smile on Sosa’s face and the hope in her eyes that one day she will go back to her home.
Unfortunately, there is no specific trafficking data; it is not usually even reported. Parents don’t report anything at first because they think their children are innocently working somewhere through a mediator. However, after a few months, when the payments stop, they realize there is no way they can find their children and it is also seen as shameful when they realize what has happened.
This issue used to keep me up at night. When you look at stories from a distance you feel pity. Many people don’t want to talk about it and they cannot handle it but when you get closer to these stories you realize that there is still hope and a positive angle. Even after traumatic experiences if you can smile again. We forget that this is what they have fought for and what has kept them going.
Now I am illustrating a book of sonnets on acid attack survivors. I started by looking at incidences in India and Pakistan but now I have realised it is more universal. They are not just survivors, they are achievers. I have seen some of the campaigns about ‘survivors’ and they are labelled that way and everything is about their past experiences. Their accident is visible to everyone and a constant reminder about the same story. Why can’t we see it from a different point of view? The fifteen sonnets, written by poet Claire Wilson are about the dreams and ambitions that these girls have. They don’t focus on what has happened to them but on what they have been able to achieve in spite of that.
14. You have had a lot of achievements and created many meaningful projects. Which one has had the most social impact?
It is difficult to measure change, which is quantitative, I don’t do that sort of evaluation. My Father illustrations was the beginning and has inspired other work. From January to April 2018, we did Fathers for Daughters, a live Facebook campaign. We wanted to work with other leaders from non-profits and get their voices out there so the ArtsPositive team approached people from different walks of life, development workers, social entrepreneurs and the media. They came online and talked about a father’s role in defending his daughters’ rights. They all saw the importance of this and contributed their time. It was really successful and helped me highlight its importance and the value of art and storytelling in communicating messages.
15. Do you have a typical day?
ArtsPositive is a virtual team who are like-minded. We all believe in arts for change and deal with the theme from different perspectives. I do the illustrations and the others write or do research. Managing my time between ArtsPositive, commissioned work and finding time for personal projects I am passionate about is challenging. I try to strike a balance between them, I’m a multi-tasker.
16. Who would you like to collaborate with?
Different artists for different projects. For Draw for a Cause, I am always looking for collaborators. The idea is that every month there is a theme around an international day. In March it was International Women’s day. I want to build a global community of artists who illustrate around causes, especially from underrepresented areas, like the Middle East and Asia. We want to raise awareness of their work and find people who can support all contributors so that they can be remunerated in some way and continue with this project.
17. What important stories are there left to be told?
There are so many. A story that I am interested in is old age. In Calcutta, 90% of the friends that I grew up with are now living outside there or abroad. We all have aging parents and if we are not there, they are alone. I really feel the loneliness that they go through. Not longer working can really impact your identity and vitality as well as your physicality and mental health.
18. What do you want to do next?
My journey as an illustrator and art for change advocate has just begun. Some of my projects are so inspiring so I will continue on this path. I hope that ArtsPositive continues to support other artists, taking the organization to that level, so a lot of other people like me have a platform to champion causes.
Creative Arts Social is a not for profit organization. We believe that art is for everyone. We all have the creative potential to understand, connect with and benefit from the arts. For more information about the work we do here.