365 Travel Art Project: Indian travel writer uses art to share interesting stories of the world, one day at a time
The modern-day traveller has unwittingly taken on an additional responsibility; to be the chroniclers – using the power of numerous technological devices at our disposal – of a world whose historical landscape is increasingly eroding. It is a responsibility that Indian travel writer and artist Sudha Pillai takes seriously. After all gravitating towards history and collecting local stories of a place – learning about the kingdoms on the ruins of which great cities were built, the lost languages of an ancient tribe, the modern innovations that keep a place relevant – has always been an essential component of Sudha’s travel itinerary. Now through her ambitious initiative 365 Travel Art Project, Sudha is sharing her collection of travel stories with the world.
Sudha’s project comprises drawing intricate almost life-like images of various structures from the countries she has visited – using pictures she has taken as a reference –accompanied by concise stories and anecdotes from those places every day for the next one year. Though Sudha started the project to practice her art daily, her drawings, reflective of the varied travel trajectory that has taken her from Switzerland to the verdant forests of South India, also serves as a timely record of our world’s chequered history.
TAL spoke to the artist to learn more about the factors that led to the inception of the project, the role of modern travellers as chroniclers of history and her travel plans for the future.
Before we begin, please tell us something about yourself?
I am a native of Kerala, South India, but I was born and raised in Chennai. Bangalore has been home for more than two decades now.
Somedays I feel a 100-years-old, and on other days I am 50, but on all days, in my head, I am 21.
I have been a news and features editor for more than two decades. However, three years back, I quit mainstream media and began my career as a freelance travel writer, photographer and artist. I also work as a freelance book editor.
My hobbies depend on what catches my fancy at that particular point. I am interested in sewing, embroidery, creating functional and usable art, reading, writing short stories, and binge-watching Korean films and serials.
What prompted you to start the 365 Travel Art Project? Any particular reason?
I used to make art regularly once. I also held a painting exhibition called Gauland and did two art projects, Fat-Bottomed Ladies and Ladies Saloon 007 (satirical comics). However, for the past one year, due to extensive travelling and other life-related circumstances, I unconsciously stopped doing art.
One day I realised that though art is my passion, I need to practise it consistently. Since I am equally passionate about travelling and telling stories, I decided to combine all three and started the 365-day project as a way to discipline myself into practising art every day.
The project is purely personal aimed to push my boundaries a bit. That’s one of the reasons I opted for these semi-realistic drawings, which is not my go-to style.
How do you create those intricate drawings of places and structures you have visited? What software do you use and how much time does it take for you to draw an image? Please take us through the entire process.
I do not draw these from memory, though I wish I could. I use photos I took of the places I visited as a reference. I draw first in pencil and then use pen and ink. Details too are filled in at this stage.
Sometimes, I also use a Wacom tablet. In that case, I would scan the pencil drawing, bring to Photoshop or Illustrator and then use the tablet in place of pen and ink. I draw on A4 size paper —it is neither too big nor too small for these drawings. I use Staedtler pens and Sumi or Manga drawing inks. I don’t do hyper-realistic drawings. I only give the illusion of “minute” details
It usually takes me two to six hours to complete a picture. Some easy ones take an hour or so. I don’t do it at a stretch. I might draw something for an hour, take a break, do something else and then come back to it.
How do you decide which places to write about? What are the criteria the place or structure has to meet for you to draw and write about it?
I have been travelling for many years now, and have numerous stories to tell. Based on the stories, I choose my artwork. I prefer drawing buildings and people to landscapes.
All your drawings are accompanied by a concise history of the place or structure. Is this reflective of what you do during your travels as well – actively seeking out the stories of places you photograph from the locals? Or, do you turn to Google for research?
I only write and draw about places I have visited as I use the pictures taken by me as a reference for my artwork. The stories that accompany my photos stem from my interaction with the locals and guides. I don’t get my stories from Google, only turning to the latter to cross-check details available in the public domain - for example, the height of a well-known building.
How easy or difficult is it to keep up with the schedule of posting everyday? What are the challenges you face in running and sustaining such a project?
From the beginning, I was clear that this was going to be a personal project, and I am answerable only to myself. Though I post the artworks on social media, I didn’t want public perception and opinions to dictate the project. I promised myself not to feel guilty or ashamed if I had to stop the project midway for various reasons. I will do it as long as I am happy doing it. As of now, though it is difficult, I enjoy creating. I keep a backup of three drawings for emergencies.
What message do you hope this project would communicate to its viewers?
I don’t like giving messages. I only share my stories/art/point of view and leave it to the audience to interpret the artwork the way they like. If they find a message suitable for them in my creations, great, if not that is fine too.
I am happy if my stories entertain people even for a few seconds.
History plays such an essential part of this project. As a traveller, are you more attracted to places that have a rich history, or to sites that though beautiful have no back story? Or, is it a combination of both?
Every place and person on this earth has a story, including dinosaurs. As a traveller, if you keep an open mind, have a receiving heart and be curious about everything and everyone at all times —the stories will find you.
I like history, art and culture. I enjoy visiting places that have been around for hundreds and thousands of years. Inevitably I end up getting goosebumps standing in those places and imagining how life must have been back in the day and thinking how far we have come! There’s much wisdom to be gleaned from history. You don’t have to make the mistakes our predecessors made all those years ago to learn some truths.
We live in a time when remnants of our culture and heritage are on the brink of disappearing (eg: numerous old buildings of Kolkata and Bangalore, India being demolished to make way for newer structures, or even the systematic erosion of the Amazon forest). In such a scenario, what role do you think today's travellers can play in helping maintain the last vestiges of the world’s history?
Change is inevitable. If you have sensible and sensitive leaders at the helm of affairs, then one’s heritage is in safe hands. However, in most places, that’s not the case. In such a scenario, travellers (not tourists) then become default chroniclers — they record events, people and places through their stories. In the future, these might be the only account that would be available to people about what once was. Travellers also create awareness about important issues through their stories, art, and photos. Being a traveller is a responsibility —towards yourself and to the world.
You have been travelling for a long time since before the obsession with picture-perfect social media travel images took over. Have you seen a change in the way people approach travel today compared to – say – 10 years ago? Are they more keen on taking pictures rather than engaging with the place and its myriad stories?
A few years back, I might have had a different answer to this question. However, over time, travel has taught me a valuable lesson —you cannot stop change even if you don’t like its form, and everything has its cycle.
Nature has a way of correcting the mistakes humans make. In the process, you cannot avoid collateral damage. Yes, I see more travellers engaging less with places and more with their camera. However, this too will change over a while. If they don’t change, then it is their loss. The optimist in me thinks, for every ten people indulging in mindless travel that result in only a bunch of social media posts and Instapics, there are at least two to three people who travel differently.
They travel for the experience; to understand people, places and cultures and to enrich their own lives through these learnings. Over some time, the stories and experiences of these travellers will have far-reaching impact and will reduce the number of mindless travellers too.
However, if somebody wants to indulge in mindless, soul-less travel let them, it is their choice— as long as it does not affect another person.
I am sure many people live vicariously through your travel stories and have also been inspired by them. Whose artwork or stories do you turn to for inspiration and why?
I love all kinds of artworks and artists —from contemporary to traditional. I like all the old masters. I am a huge admirer of classical Japanese, Chinese, Persian and Mexican art. I can never get enough of them. I love Indian folk and tribal art. I also enjoy numerous contemporary artists (like UK-based Olivia Kemp, she is one of my favourites; her art is mindboggling) and illustrators.
Some illustrators are just brilliant! My absolute favourites are Korean artist/illustrator Kim Jung Gi (in my next life I want to be able to draw like him) and Henn Kim (she tells intense stories through lines) and Italian illustrator Olimpia Zagnoli (she uses colour amazingly). There are just so many amazing artists out there! I love to see art in any form and from anyone and anywhere. It makes me happy and inspires me to create more art.
What advice would you give to aspiring travellers or to those who are scared to veer off the known path and explore the unexplored?
Wherever you go, go with all your heart and mind. Be a responsible human being and traveller.
What are your future travel and art plans?
I want to travel and make art every day of my life. Unfortunately, I have to work hard to make money to fund my travels, and that takes a lot of my time. However, this year, I want to explore South Korea and its connection to Tamil culture.
I want to travel to Japan too. Let’s see what life has in store for me. As far as art is concerned, the Travel Art Project will come out as a book soon. I am also starting work on my next exhibition of paintings — it’s about sexuality, women and loads of fun.
Follow Sudha’s project on Instagram
See more of Sudha’s works.