Growing up, Surabhi Banerjee was drawn to ‘knick knacks’ that she found at her grandparents’ house—ranging from badges, rocks, and soda bottle caps to matchboxes. Now these have snuck their way into her illustrations. As an illustrator and architect, Banerjee focuses on telling a story through artworks and offering a glimpse into daily scenes that often pass us by. From picturesque illustrations such as “Parks of Cubbon” and “Saree Dokan” to artworks based on films, the splashes of colour and intricacy in her drawings give them a voice of their own.
Usually depicting a day in life at home, a picnic at a park, or quiet silences that often come as solace in a world driven by chaos, Banerjee manages to capture the messiness of homes, the anxieties of being, and moments that become memories in her illustrations, some of which she recently turned into jigsaw puzzles for adults such as “Bombay Local."
“I have been drawing for as long as I can remember but I have also been building things. Each has informed the other,” she says. When the time came to choose a career, architecture seemed to be an obvious choice for Banerjee due to the lack of exposure to understand that art can be a profession. In 2020, during the nationwide lockdown caused by the covid-19 pandemic, Banerjee started exploring illustrations in depth, taking the leap to pursue it full-time. However, architecture continued to complement her illustrations. “For instance, I still view a drawing as if it were viewed flat from the front and the top,” she says.
Banerjee talks to Lounge about the idea behind her illustrations, what inspires her, and life as an independent artist, and the jigsaw puzzles featuring her artwork.
You use colour extensively in your pieces and they seem to come together to tell a story. How have these two aspects come to play an important part in the illustrations?
Before I start sketching, I spend some time formulating the narrative behind the artwork and proceed by researching and collecting images that complement the story. Once I have the sketch outline, I start with either an interesting element and then work out how to fill it, who would occupy the space and how or start with the fictional characters first and base the backdrop around them. It is like imagining the personal interiors of each of my characters. In each drawing, I try to recreate what it feels like to take a walk through an undiscovered antique shop, full of trinkets, and memorabilia.
Is there an idea or an experience that has inspired your style or that often come back to?
I have grown up reading comic books and that has been the starting point of what good illustrations can do for the senses. Throughout my childhood, I dealt with anxiety attacks, especially at night times and found comfort in the works of Albert Uderzo and Rene Goscinny. I was glued to the panels in these books, going over each frame, and noticing the penmanship and colour palette. I am still inspired by graphic novels and comic books that I am constantly discovering and rediscovering such as Chris Ware, François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, Maurice Sendak and Adrian Tomine.
What are the main themes that you focus on in your artworks?
Most of my illustrations today are based on the ordinary moments I've lived through. Initially, I spent a lot of time looking inwards and found myself drawing quiet, solitary moments. But now, it's more about nostalgia. Our family has moved a lot growing up and having lived in Kolkata, Bombay, Chennai and Bangalore, I draw vignettes from each of these places—something I can do every day for the rest of my life.
For instance, "Bajaar" is built around the periphery of municipal markets, where street vendors, food stalls and flower baskets jostle for space with customers. It is not just a riot of colours, but a wholesome treat for our senses, with a tinge of nostalgia, leaving us with a sense of empathy for all the souls we encounter.
For an independent artist, what’s your relationship with the social media algorithm that’s been dominating the space?
There was a brief time when I had the urgency to post every week lest I lose my rhythm, thereby losing people's attention and in turn, followers. I found myself crumbling under the pressures of making new art, managing projects, deadlines and shipping. I felt the need to give up on the high that the algorithm gave me and inevitably lose a few people along the way. I'm learning and practicing alternate ways to deal with this, especially since the algorithm change is incalculable. It’s important to internalize that nobody does their best work all the time, and learning what you don’t like doing is important when you’re trying to express your voice. It’s better to create forgettable work than not create work at all.
You have also rolled out jigsaw puzzles for adults which feature four of your artworks. Tell us more about it.
The pandemic made me yearn for something beyond our screens and often self-imposed harsh deadlines. I spent hours looking for things that I could engage with online before I came across adult puzzles. Although it took even more time to find something that didn’t involve piecing together images of kittens in baskets or water lilies in ponds. When doing a particularly garish and uninspiring puzzle, though, I realized that too often the artwork gets in the way of its meditative qualities. I became fixated on puzzles. Ever since, the thought of bridging my work with puzzles, especially since my illustrations had a ring of Maximalism in them, became necessary.
Surabhi Banerjee can be found on Instagram as @surabhi_b6