In conversation with Ajit Rao on his work and insights on drawings, skill and education.
Architect, Animator and Artist, Ajit Rao started his career working with the renowned Indian architect B V Doshi. Ajit’s added passion for the art of cartooning soon developed into a journey exploring diverse skills in varied mediums of expression and communication. An intuitive teacher, he has headed training programs at leading animation studios and has been a visiting faculty at premier design and architecture institutes in India. Presently Ajit has set up a studio in Lonavala, endeavouring to bring these diverse resources to the service of various aspects of Indian cultural expressions.
M: Can you tell us about how you moved from architecture to making drawings, to drawing caricatures and then animations and cartooning. How did you transition from being an architect and how did you develop this interest in these disciplines?
AR: It is a long story…I was trying for commercial art or fine arts and I did not get admission there because my drawing was not considered up to the mark. At that time I desperately wanted to get into the J.J. campus [Sir J J School of Art, Mumbai]. So, the third option there was architecture. That is how I got into architecture. It is actually getting into architecture through the sensibilities of an artist.
And we had an amazing professor who said on the first day that architecture is ‘design of space’.
That is a wonderful introduction other than architecture is [about] providing function or something. That ignites a creative way of looking at architecture: that architecture has the same power as sculpture…or that when you make a wall, you are actually creating a space. So, one was always looking at architecture as something bigger than what is conventionally looked at.
That flexibility was always there within the class and luckily at the same time, I was also doing cartooning for newspapers. During the boring classes in the college, I used to think of ideas and a new newspaper had started at that time [Mid-Day], which was an afternoon newspaper, which was sort of a light-hearted kind of a thing. It was a perfect outlet for me to give my cartoons. That became very popular. So, I was studying architecture and contributing cartoons. It reached a point that when I graduated, a decision had to be taken whether I wanted to continue with architecture or I should be getting into cartooning. That was a difficult decision to take.
Generally, I remember talking to Mario [Miranda] at that time. And Mario said architecture is a creative field, not something that you just chuck and go away and besides that, cartooning has no money.
And by then my fascination for architecture was also ignited because of seeing the works of Architect B.V. Doshi. The moment I had to take a decision, I quit cartooning and I went to Ahmedabad to work with Doshi.
Again, working with Doshi is also a multi-disciplinary approach to architecture. It is not just about architecture. He talks about all things, he talks about poetry, he talks about literature, he talks about cinema. So, though one was in the field of architecture, one was also understanding other creative medias.
It became a natural flow, at a point the way I used to look at Doshi’s work was… look at it like the way a film-maker makes a film, I would look at Doshi creating architecture like a story teller. These parallels were going on and on and then I decided to take a break and see where my creative mind takes me. It was about allowing oneself loose. And that became an interesting journey because suddenly I had all these friends who were sculptors, print makers, artists and that exposure to them and my old love for cartooning and caricature; all that came together and became a combined thing.
At Doshi’s office, there was one more thing we had done which was that Doshi wanted to develop his architecture in a narrative style. That introduced me to the whole world of Indian miniature paintings and there were so many windows opening up. Whatever I did afterwards was a natural flow of allowing oneself to be influenced by whatever, wherever the mind takes you.
That is how the journey happened. It went on to sculpture, it went on to caricature, it went on to animation, it went on to folk art. It is only much later that I came to realize the link and that there is common thread. In the beginning there are people who tell you that this is not the way to live life, if you are trained as an architect you should work as an architect and there are many other such pressures happening. But if you really see, follow the core of it, it is a creative process…
That is the same which applies to any field. So whether one is doing animation films or one is doing architecture projects, at the core of it, the process is the same.
M: What prompted you to go back into making architectural drawings considering that you did not practice architecture?
AR: Yes…there are many reasons for this. Actually, I was very good at perspective drawings in college. It used to come very naturally to me. And as I said, my interest in cartooning also made me aware of Mario’s way of drawing architecture.
Mario had a special knack of capturing the spirit of a place which an architectural drawing the way we are taught in our college does not do.
This coming together of the two kinds of drawings opened up lots of possibilities and what a drawing can do. And especially while working with Doshi, you become sensitive towards traditional architecture, towards traditional art. So, the whole interest in looking at vernacular architecture came up on its own. Since I was not a practising architect, I had the freedom to draw for whatever reasons. It could be just self-expression, it could be a documentation, it could be for any other ideas. Later, when I was developing animation ideas, I was looking at architecture as settings for a story. So it helps in all different ways.
One of the things at that time was that photography was expensive. And when you were travelling and were excited about the place and you would want to record it, the only option was the drawing. Since I had the capability of drawing well, I started my sketchbooks.
Whenever I travelled, I started sketching extensively which probably in these days one may not do because one has good access to a digital camera which one goes on clicking.
In a way those limitations were very helpful and I realised what I was doing in my drawing is to try and have a dialogue with the architect of the past. If I am drawing a building, say from Rajasthan or from Kerala, the drawing has the power to allow you to enter into the minds… as you are drawing, your whole perspective shifts into other than just the surficial into the entering. That is the beauty of the drawing. It is almost meditative. And when you are alone in these wonderful (places) like Jaisalmer; I remember just sitting alone in front of this huge wall and sketching and I used to always say that they are talking to me, that they are sharing their secrets with me.
And then I came across this statement by Corbusier, ‘Ancestors will speak to you if you know what to ask’. These things were very important for me.
There is a very important need to build a bridge between the past and the present, and drawing allows you to really understand this. That is why when I train in architecture colleges I try to focus on the drawing capabilities. These days not much emphasis is given on drawing but I feel it is a language of the soul. You really want to understand the soul of your ancestor, if you want to understand your own soul; drawing is the fantastic medium to do that because the direct connection between the mind and the hand, unlike a computer where there is an artificial medium which comes through.
So, it is very essential at least in first year that drawing should be really made to be understood from that point of view. The perspective drawing is one thing; it is a technical matter, and even that should be introduced in second year not in first year. But in first year, a lot of emphasis has to be given on free-hand sketching, because it goes beyond just exploring the surficial aspect of things. It allows you to reach the spirit of yourself, and of your past and your surroundings.
And that is what I think contemporary architecture needs. It needs that extra element that goes beyond just the commercial or functional aspects of it.
M: What kind of drawings do you make? What are the mediums, methods, and different ways of drawing that come naturally to you?
AR: Drawing is eventually a tool. If one understands the purpose of drawing then automatically you apply the way (it is to be used for); meaning, for one it could be used for documenting. You see something, you want to document it which you can use in the future or you want to document it to show it to others. That would mean that you focus on certain aspects.
That is one more great thing about drawing; in a photograph, everything is same, in a drawing you can zoom in on just what you want, emphasise that, you need not shade it. In that way drawing allows you those possibilities of what one would be documenting.
Another purpose of drawing is to explore your creative mind. That is a different kind of drawing than a documentation drawing. That would be more in terms of a fast sketch. Whenever I do that, I make them very small, and in colour pencils. That allows for the ideas to flow through a meditative space onto that. So, that is one kind of drawing which is an exploration of your creative self. Then when you translate it into a little more realistic thing, which is another kind of drawing where you have to now start bringing in the details. So you start looking at that kind of a thing.
Then there are all kinds of drawings. As I am doing my workshops, I intuitively create…it happens in a give and take. Sometimes you discover something in a student, which you may have never tried. It gives you an opportunity to push that further.
M: A lot of people struggle with their skill when they draw. Do you think that something can be acquired or is it something that comes naturally? How do you see that relationship with the hand? Also, you teach a lot of students. How do they respond and develop their own individual capacities to draw?
AR: Yes…I believe that everyone can draw, not necessarily great expressive drawings but everyone can draw the basic. It is not a matter of talent. It is a matter of discipline, a matter of bringing…I call it the mind and hand co-ordination.
Generally in India, the way we are taught, this kind of discipline is not built in into us. So when teaching students, it becomes difficult in the beginning because there is a laid-back attitude. The laid-back attitude is within themselves. But I have found tricks on how to make them understand that in humorous ways. Without that discipline built in, nobody from outside can bring in that discipline. The discipline has to come from the student himself.
One of the main things in architecture is proportion. And drawing can train you in proportion also, because you have to see something and get the exact [understanding] and that calls for a trained [eye]. That is not talent. I say you need to be careful, you need to have patience. If you can build these qualities which basically comes through discipline. Then you can draw anything. You can draw any complex thing.
I remember Doshi had once drawn a line on my paper and he said the dimension is ‘this much’. When I measured it, it was the exact dimension. Which means he has trained his mind to be able to draw whatever dimensions. And it is purely training based.
Anybody can learn that. But the way you teach it is important.
Generally, the whole trick is to bypass the ego of the student. Because there is this kind of in-built arrogance that they do not want to do a straight line. How do you get them to do that? Because if you ask them ‘Why cannot you draw?’, there is resistance. So I have found out a lot of tricks on how to make that work.
M: Over the years, you have developed styles of your own – in a way that your cartooning style is very different than miniature drawings that you have done for Sangath. How do you negotiate between these? How do you switch from one and go to another? How does your mind make these distinctions?
AR: It all depends. Actually, that also works on the intuitive level, depending on what one is doing. If one is drawing in miniature style, then one needs to remain in that world. That world is the world of telling stories. There, perspective will spoil the drawing. You need to understand the spirit in which the miniature painter [is drawing].
Luckily for me, I went into the depth of all this. So whenever I want to switch over in that kind of style, I can. But the thing is you are entering worlds by the medium and the style you choose; you decide if you are entering into one world or the other. Sometimes, the world is all about flat colours and purely symmetrical designs. When I get into that kind of a drawing, I cannot bring in the miniature sensibilities into that. When I was doing cartoon drawings and thereafter, when I did my architecture drawings, I realised that the cartoon type of medium allows you to capture the spirit further. So, I was blending all my learnings together.
The main purpose in those travel sketches was to capture the spirit of the architecture which is front of you. Photography does that with a lot of constraints. Drawing allows you to do so but provided you know what you are capturing. It is like what Corbusier said ‘Ancestors will speak to you, if you know what to ask’.
What I empower the students with is, the power to ask. If you open up that door for the students, the drawing improves like anything. Once the technical aspects, the discipline, is in control, you have the purpose opened up and then the drawing just flows. It is a pleasure to see when students are really open up and start drawing.
M: When you travel and sketch, are there any particular things you look for?
AR: Since I wanted to study, I have a systematic way of looking at things. (I have got both ways.) One is a haphazard way of looking and the systematic way. Depends on what [is required or interests me]. At one particular point of time, I was looking at elements.
If I am sketching or walking down a street, I will sketch just the facades and sometimes, I just focus on the courtyard, sometimes just on the windows. What it allows you to do is that it allows you to really understand what the elements they are playing around with are.
I call them actors. A step is an actor, the window is an actor, the door is an actor, the plinth is an actor…[and so on]. When you understand, say only the windows, you understand the versatility only of a window. When you are looking at only staircases, you understand what the staircase is capable of performing. That is the way I look at architectural elements. When I am sketching, I look at it as if trying to understand the actors better. Then you can tell better stories in the contemporary context. I call that whole exercise ‘Ancient Actors – Modern Tales’.
You understand these actors, and what they are capable of doing. Like the Jharokhas – the Jharokha is capable of doing so many things. It allows you to sit, to look out and gives an intimate space. So when one is talking, one is not talking about picking up an element of Jharokha and placing it in the present but the spirit with which the Jharokha was built. That can easily be adapted to modern materials and all that. So, when one is drawing actually all these dialogues happen on their own.
Q: Can you tell us about some of your heroes, your mentors, who have inspired you to continue to stick to what you love doing?
AR: If one is talking about cartooning, then there are many heroes. If one relates it to architecture, I can say Doshi to a large extent because there is something about the way he does drawings. I remember the first time I met him, he loved what I did and I said I would not do bird’s-eye views and all. He said we do not believe in bird’s-eye views. I used to always believe that architecture should be shown, depicted the way you walk through it because you never see it from a ‘worm’s-eye view’ or ‘bird’s-eye view’. You realise Doshi sketches like that. If you see his sketchbooks they are absolutely wonderful with imaginations of walking through the space.
One more aspect about Doshi is that you find the best of Louis Kahn’s and the best of Corbusier’s drawing skills also coming together. So, you understand that drawing is not just a simple thing. For example, Doshi uses a soft lead when he is thinking. It just flies over the sheet of paper, so it does not obstruct his creative flow. These are tools specially built for that.
Watching Doshi work at very close angles was a very important element and through him, you could understand Louis Kahn’s sketches and Corbusier’s sketches. Corbusier is one more very inspiring figure. It seems the entire morning he would be just painting and making drawings and would go to his office only after two.
One more aspect that I had read about was how Frank Lloyd Wright sketches. He would wait for the idea to develop in his mind and then in the silence of the night, he would sit and sketch it out in a frenzy – [capturing it fully]. With these aspects, you realise drawing is just a tool. The significant thing is to be able to build the tool to that level of control that the flow does not stop.
And of course Mario’s drawings; the way he depicts architectural spaces. These are the heroes.
M: Can you tell us about some projects that you are working on right now that involves your investment in the idea of drawing and visual communication?
AR: Most of my work right now is related to cartooning and there are only one or two projects that I am doing. What was important for me to understand was the psychology behind each of us. What are we made up of? Why do we respond in a particular way? That led me to a lot of exploration and reading on. Which is why when I say a drawing is a creative drawing, or a drawing is a formal drawing, I know where exactly it is coming from.
Why do you need a particular kind of a drawing? It has to be a creative exploration. I apply it in training. If I am training design students or architecture students or interior design students, all this what I learnt helps me empower the student to bring that out. Drawing is the best medium through which really helps the way I use it.
In animation, drawing is very very important. There are methods in which an animator is trained. Since I know those, I apply it when I am teaching the architecture students also. That is what gives me much more flexibility on how to [teach].
In animation, you need to use really hard core drawing skills in the beginning and I am capable of bringing that out in architecture students also, if I am given the time and if the student is willing. There also I have found shortcuts how to bring that thing.
So, it is quite an exciting time now of how to bring these things together. We need to go back again and understand that the computer is just a tool. If we get obsessed with it, we miss on the other joys. If we can get the joys of both the things, it is ideal. At least in first year, if we can go back to the old methods of teaching, where there was no access to computer and one is just focusing on sketching and developing one’s own [capacity], I feel it will be really useful.
M: Which are your favourite mediums to work with?
AR: There is no favourite medium as such. Depends on what one is doing at what time. When I acquired the Rotring pen for the first time, everything was etching like straight lines and horizontal lines. I was into that. And then earlier when I was studying R. K. Laxman’s drawings, it was the brush. So, then you realise the power of brush, brush and ink, and how it works. That way, it just goes on.
At one point I wanted to create these big canvases, with depiction of an architectural space where you almost walk into it. I wanted it absolutely to be graphic so I discovered acrylic paints. So, all those were acrylic paintings. This way, it just depends.
Watercolour has its own [character] especially when you are documenting some of lively streets, it helps in that. It depends on what your purpose is, what you are doing it for. If one gets too stressed out about what one is surrounded with then it does not work.
This I learnt in when I was studying animation. I had these pencils from India… Apsara pencils, paper also from India to save on money. And my drawings were looking horrible, my paper used to get crumbled and all the other students were looking at what kind of ancient equipment I had got. So, I told my teacher, ‘I am sorry, I do not have the right mediums.’ He just took my pencil and drew wonderfully on the same paper. He said “It has nothing to do [with the mediums]. It is all here [gestures to the mind].” That had opened up my mind on the material. It is important but at a point of time, you can really do wonders with what you have.
M: Have you ever had a desire to make a building?
AR: Yes, I do. I have told myself that before I die, I will make one film and one architectural project. These are the two things. One has built through others. But for me, the thing is that it is an on-going journey. Whatever I have learned there, adds up to the imaginary building and building. Whether I am practising architecture or not, my ideas are still growing. One day, eventually, it will find its manifestation. I am quite excited about what can come out of that. Because of the flexibility these different disciplines offer you, switching from one to the other allows you a lot more flexibility. So it will be interesting to see what I will build.
M: You were talking about an internal rhythm that you follow? If there is a project that you really like but if it is something that does not follow your internal rhythm you do not take it. Can you elaborate on that?
AR: (Ah, the intuition)… I have a thumb rule that if you wake up and do not feel like doing something then do not do it. And if you are working with somebody and this goes on for seven days, then it is time to switch. So one is tuning into one’s [own rhythm].
From my understanding and my readings into what are we made up of, we have two aspects in us. We have what I call is the ‘spiritual aspect’, which could also be aligned to something such as your ‘creative aspect’ or the right side of your brain.
Then you have the ‘physical aspect’. The ideas are here and if you are physically not capable of translating the ideas into reality, then it becomes a frustrating experience. So, the balance needs to be there but the leading person has to be the creative brain. When you tune into your creative brain, you are tuning into something much bigger than yourself. There it allows you with the power of ‘Okay now do this, or Do not do this’. I meant that when I was saying about following an inner voice.
All of us have an inner voice and we all follow it in various ways. Many times, we are not aware of it. So when I am training, I will try to bring that aspect of bringing the awareness without saying it in the form of a lecture that there is a voice inside you and create exercises where it awakens on its own. Then you can see the joy in the students. I call them sowing seeds. Once that is aligned, then you take your decisions from a source of universal space.
Automatically then, a lot of other things get sorted out. One would see the kind of architecture one sees now. The architecture students can be sensitised when the consciousness inside will be awakened. Once that is awakened, it knows how to protect itself. One of the roles of the teacher is to try and awaken that.
M: Based on their formal education, architects are trained to observe architecture and cartoonists are trained to observe people. Since you have capacity to see both, do you find that it is an advantage you have or if it is sort of a unique insight to how life works in spaces?
As a cartoonist and animator and an architect, does it give you a greater width of things that you observe or how you observe people using space?
AR: Yes, it does. See the way I look at it because I have shifted many fields, I feel we are getting trapped in the ‘terms’. When we say you are an architect, then people tend to use particular vocabulary and all of which I feel is not natural.
I do not think an architect of olden days in Jaisalmer or some other place, would be using these words and the terminology we use and get trapped into. They are responding more in terms of a direct response. So I try to aim at that. That is one of the advantages, not advantages really in one sense.
My journey has led me to getting into different fields, and discovering the core of it is the same. And interestingly for me in each field I have gotten into, I worked with sort of the most accomplished person in our country. And [once] you have close access to creative process and you realise it is absolutely the same. That is why when I teach architecture to first year students, if I have to teach and talk about colour, I cannot teach it….you can awaken it. If I am talking about colour, I do not bring in terms like supplementary colour and complementary and all that. I just talk of the colours as actors. ‘Does red want to speak to brown?’ ‘Who is the hero of this composition?’ Things such as this and then students on their own pick up the elements through a deeper response. Because the moment you mention terms, it becomes like something which you have to learn and by heart. So, that spirit flows.
Which is why when anybody calls me to teach, I will ask them to give me first year. I do not want second year, third year, because by that time there is so much of terminology dumped into them. Then it gets difficult to [teach]. But if the foundation is given in the right manner then the terminology works. It has its significance. It is not that it is useless. Then you understand where it is coming from.
Which is why I always say that study from the Masters or better than that study from nature. The nature knows no terminology. These trees bear the name we have given. Tree will exist even if the name is not there. The same thing applies to different fields.
Even when I am teaching animation, I teach it unconventionally. The first exercise in animation is do a bouncing ball. So if you ask them to do that, they will start drawing technically when I ask them ‘what is the’… or ‘how do you do this?’. Once somebody had mentioned the rules of a bouncing ball and the student says ‘I am not a science student.’ All you need to do is take a ball, bounce it to see what it is and then animate. It is as simple as that. But when you get caught up in the terminology then it becomes [difficult].
Then I ask them to tell a story with the ball, make the ball emote. Instead of telling them to give so much of space in the drawing they have to do it on their own afterwards. But if you remove that term, it works.
Similarly in architecture, forms also emote. They have the power of creating an ambience. The way you select your forms, select your colours, and all that. I feel drawing is a great medium to sensitize you on all that front. So that aspect of not looking at these as technical [aspects]. Which is why when you teach a perspective drawing they get caught up in ‘vanishing point’, this that and all that. I teach perspective totally free-hand. I just make them draw. So I think the trick is to remove the terminology in the initial stages, allow them to enter into the field of it.
And each of us is a designer inside. Each of us is capable of drawing; we think we cannot draw. Recently, one of the students was not responding to the drawing thing. She said I have done one year of medical, I cannot draw. I said it has nothing to do with medical and all. Everybody can. When you prove it, it opens up their eyes, opens up their mind, and opens up their windows. Once all those windows are opened up then you can enter in and out of any field.
I have this whole other theory – about five aspects of personality – that is the integrated person. Education should be addressing the integrated human being.
Generally the way we are taught now, all aspects are not addressed. What I try to do is, traditionally certain aspects were addressed, which in the contemporary education is not. Because the aim is at the intellect, the aim is at pumping information and all that. Generally one sees that the creative aspects get the remains unnourished. I call it food for the soul.
Even the way basic design is supposed to be food for the soul. It is supposed to open up but you see many times even the way that is taught, it is like dumping information. You draw these many squares and with these many colours and the feeling is not there. Even with drawing, the technique, the drawings have to develop in such a way that you resolve all your physical constraints in terms of discipline. Once it is in discipline, the creative thing can just flow. It is a marriage of two worlds. It is a marriage of your creative world and your rational world, the world through which you execute things. These two marriages are very essential. And it is very essential for teachers to understand this. There is a need of awakening all that and making people aware. Generally in the society we are not addressing that aspect at all, not addressing it in the way it needs to be addressed.
M: When you teach, do you see students respond to this quickly or is there a lot of built resistance?
AR: That is why first years respond quite well, because I make it into a fun thing and before they know they are creating all these drawings. Because I talk about elements as actors and they are creating dialogues between actors. If they are creating a model, say a pyramid and a rectangular mass, they have to create dialogues between the two. The dialogues can happen through colour and through light and through a whole lot of things. I create that kind of a situation.
I say ‘When you finish your model, one great actor has been waiting, calling me every day that he wants to come, and he is a little impatient. I have told him to wait, his time will come.’ One day one student will suddenly say that you were saying your actor will come, where is he? I say ‘He is here’.
The moment they have made a 3D form and taken it in light, the shadow and light comes. You build up magic like that. Then they start looking at light and shadow in a very different way. These are powerful actors now breathing light into what you have done. You have just created a form. Now that light allows you to give that same form different personalities, different feelings, and different emotions. So, you need to build things up that way so that you enter into that other space. Once you have this entry, visa into both the worlds, so there is absolutely magic possible.
And I have come to the conclusion that you can do it quite easily. Only thing is when that is awakened it needs to be taken forward. If that is blocked then there is a confusion on what one is supposed to do. Even if you see all the Masters, you see all the sketches, all the drawings of Kahn, Corbusier, Doshi and, the parallels would be to see Kurosawa’s drawings for his films, Satyajit Ray’s sketches for his films. They understood the power of sketch, some are only conceptual sketches, very small in size, some are more elaborate.
Drawing does play a role. And as I said, drawing does not need special talent. It can be grown, and it can be trained. It is a matter of willingness on the part of the student. If one just says I cannot do it then you cannot do anything to help the student.
M: Does age matter?
AR: Not at all. In the kind of training programmes I have done, the older you are the more difficult it becomes, to express these things. But if given a longer period of time and willingness on behalf of the person, one can bring about this change of perspective.
View Ajit Rao’s work on www.ajitrao.com
The interview was conducted on 6th August 2016 at the Matter. Studio.