We are pleased to welcome the author-illustrator team of Dancing in Thatha’s Footsteps (Yali Books, June 2021) to Cynsations!
Written by Srividhya Venkat and illustrated by Kavita Ramchandran, Dancing in Thatha’s Footsteps (Yali Books, June 2021) is a story about staying true to yourself and following your heart. Varun is fascinated by Bharatanatyam, the ancient classical dance from India that his sister is trying to perfect. He tries a few moves all by himself at home in secret because, well, boys don’t dance, do they? But when his thatha shares his inspiring story, Varun knows what he must do.
Bharatanatyam has touched our lives in different ways, and we’re so glad it brought us together. Because both of us live outside India, our country of origin, working on this book also helped us reconnect with Indian culture and our childhood memories.
Here, we share with you our conversation about the inspiration for our book, Dancing In Thatha’s Footsteps.
Kavita: What made you write this story?
Srividhya: I have fond childhood memories of learning Kathak, an Indian classical dance, along with other Indian folk dances, while growing up in India. I even had a short stint at learning Bharatanatyam (the Indian classical dance featured in the book).
Years later, when I lived in the United States, I read picture books to my children, but felt a gaping void in content related to Indian culture. At the same time, I discovered how much I enjoyed learning about other cultures through picture books. I found that while there were differences across cultures, there were also plenty of similarities! That eventually inspired me to write my own stories about Indian culture and traditions, including spicy pickles! And then emerged my love for dance in the form of a story about Bharatanatyam.
I approached Yali Books with it, given their South Asian focus. We discussed the possibilities and instantly connected over the theme of a boy learning Bharatanatyam.
Preparing the manuscript for publication was just one step in this book’s journey to publication. Kavita, what made you accept the offer to illustrate Dancing in Thatha’s Footsteps?
Kavita: Well, Thatha’s are special! This book came to me at the right moment in my life. I had recently lost my father (whom my children fondly called Thathu) and he always had a zest for life and dance in his step. He loved that I danced as a child—everything about this book felt personal, he would have wanted me to illustrate this.
Srividhya: Grandparents are very special. Kids learn so much from them. Your father sounds like an inspiring role model, just like Varun’s thatha.
Kavita: Who was your inspiration for developing the character, Thatha?
Srividhya: Thatha is a fictional figure. Like many thathas who’d do anything for their grandchildren, so does he. And that’s why he even breaks into a dance (despite a bad knee) to encourage Varun to dance!
In India, performing arts is sometimes a family affair. It is passed down from one generation to the next. But in my mind, it wasn’t so for Thatha. Imagine his delight when Varun picks up the baton where his thatha left it!
Kavita, I love Thatha’s hipster look. How did you arrive at it? How did you decide what Thatha and Varun should look like?
Kavita: I played with a few versions of Thatha and Varun. My first versions of Thatha had him sporting long hair in a ponytail, and Varun had floppier, longer hair (my son at that time wore his hair like that, so I used him as inspiration). Both thatha and Varun evolved. Thatha was a dancer, so even though he was a grandfather, I knew he had to be reasonably fit. Varun’s hair eventually became a bit shorter.
Srividhya: Well, I guess just like a manuscript, it also takes time for the characters to evolve. And both, Varun and Thatha are just what I imagined them to be!
What was your process when you began working on this book?
Kavita: It began with reading the manuscript, and then I sat with the story for a while. I let the images flood my brain—it was all a jumble at first—and I knew the feel of the art, but not necessarily the order. This is very typical of how I work. Then, when I’m ready, I begin with thumbnails, laying out all the pages in a bird’s eye view, and these are really rough, and most often only make sense to me.
I then do really rough sketches which go for approval to the editor/ art director. I do some finished sketches (especially the challenging ones) along with color studies.
Once all this is approved, I begin the finals. I work traditionally—I love the feel of paint on paper, the mistakes, the unpredictability and the process of making it. But sometimes when I begin to do the finals, I may completely redo a piece because it feels like it needs to be different. This also happens because PB illustration is spread over many weeks and months, and sometimes by the time you begin work on the final, you think of a different way to portray it.
This happened with the page where Varun is discussing his dilemma with his friends. It was all done and ready to go, and at the final hour I begged my publisher to change it because it didn’t feel right.
Srividhya: How did you decide on what medium to use for this story?
Kavita: I work in watercolor and gouache, but decided to go with watercolor as this is a softer, more sensitive story, with more indoor scenes.
Srividhya: You’ve learned Bharatanatyam as a kid. How did that experience help in the illustration process?
Kavita: Well, I had a love-hate relationship with Bharatanatyam. I studied it for about eight years and while I enjoyed it immensely for the first few years, I found it challenging to balance my academic life and the time and commitment dance demanded of me. But for this book, I went back to my memories of the first few years of dance—and the joy I felt when dancing. I loved the foot stepping rhythm of Ta-ki-ta, and ta-ka-dhi-mi. I loved that you included that in the book! I also loved that moment where Varun observes dance in everything—the trees, the footsteps, etc. it feels so special.
What inspiration did you seek to ‘see’ dance in your everyday life?
Srividhya: Dance is essentially connected with rhythm, which can be found all around us if we just stop and observe…from the whooshing of waves to the chirping of birds, blinking traffic lights, even our beating hearts!
When I was learning Kathak in school, I would think about dance all the time. Sometimes, the beat of the tabla (from the dance class) would resound in my ears and I’d burst into the rhythmic footwork I so loved, no matter where I was. Perhaps it was the memory of those days that inspired the sensorial touch on this spread.
Kavita: I love that you used so many Tamil words and colloquialisms in the book. It’s such a great way to introduce Tamil culture!
As an Indian, and Tamil speaker, I picked up on all your references right away, but when writing, how do you maintain this delicate balance?
Srividhya: I think it’s important to keep your readers in mind when including non-English words. The idea is to give them a taste of a new language without making it overwhelming. I tried to use Tamil words that are short and easy to pronounce and were essential to give a flavor of the culture. However, I must add that the word ‘Bharatanatyam’ posed a challenge.
Although not a Tamil word, it can be daunting to those unfamiliar with it. But because it formed the crux of the story, it had to be included in the book of course! So we overcame the challenge by providing its pronunciation at the very beginning.
And that leads me to a question about one of my favorite spreads in the book…the very first one! Set in the city, it is so special with its extensive details. How did you go about planning and working on this one?
Kavita: Sometimes when I read the text I know exactly how I want to draw it, but when I begin to draw it—it doesn’t quite translate. That was the first spread for me in this book. I drew it last! I wanted to include as many diverse characters as I could, I also wanted the city to be relevant and reflective of America today—and be inclusive of all faiths, ethnicities and cultural movements, so for me it meant Queens, NY. It was a subway ride away, so I went by to research it over one afternoon.
Srividhya: It’s also such a joy to see the finer cultural details that you’ve depicted in Varun’s home. How easy or hard was it to decide what to include?
Kavita: Thank you! This was easy to do, as many Asian-American families have contemporary homes, filled with Indian memorabilia that reflect their duality of being Indian and American. So, an Indian Kashmiri carpet, or paintings snuck their way into modern western furniture, for example.
I also looked around my own home and friends’ homes for inspiration! The blue carpet is similar to mine! I also sneaked in a Yali sculpture! And no dance home would be complete without a Nataraja Sculpture, which you see in the first few pages. Isn’t it interesting that the Nataraja is actually a representation of the Hindu male god, Shiva in his form as the cosmic dancer, and yet such few male dancers actually perform today?
I loved that you tackled dance as a gender issue and addressed toxic masculinity. What are some of the other similar issues in society?
Srividhya: The idea that boys and men must avoid showing emotions and act tough can be harmful to their emotional well being. It’s important to respect a person’s individuality rather than frown upon it.
There are several other issues in society that need to be addressed. A few of them are anxiety and mental health, diversity and inclusion, and social and economic inequalities. Picture books about these can be great starting points for discussion with young readers.
Srividhya Venkat‘s first-ever story was illustrated and hand-published by her brother when she was eight years old. She then grew up to be just another adult. But after reading several books to her children, she sort-of became a kid again and began weaving new stories. Today she is the author of seven picture books published in India, including The Clever Tailor, a 2020 South Asia Book Award (SABA) Highly Commended book. With ‘Dancing in Thatha’s Footsteps’, she makes her U.S. debut.
Having lived across three countries during different stages of her life, Srividhya is extremely grateful to have found warmth and inspiration in each of them. She dreams of a world truly without borders, and tries to do her part by creating and sharing stories about our big, beautiful world where everyone is different, yet the same. Srividhya now lives in sunny Singapore with her family.
Kavita Ramchandran moved to NYC for an MFA in graphic design, but found true joy in playing with illustration instead. In 2004, she created, designed and illustrated a pre-school property for Nick Jr. (Nickelodeon) based on her original character Maya, and developed it into animated shorts for their ‘My World’ cultural series that was broadcast in the US and world over. And so, began her journey into storytelling for kids. She has art directed the award-winning children’s literary magazine—Kahani, (a showcase of South Asian culture), designed children’s textbooks for Scholastic, McGraw Hill, and Harcourt, and more recently illustrated critically-acclaimed apps for kids. Growing up, she had always loved children’s books and storytelling, but never knew it could be a ‘real job’. Dancing in Thatha’s Footsteps, marks her debut as a picture book illustrator.
Suma Subramaniam is the contributing author of The Hero Next Door (Penguin Random House, 2019). She is also the author of Centaurs (Capstone, 2021), Fairies (Capstone, 2021), She Sang For India: How M.S. Subbulakshmi Used Her Voice For Change (Macmillan FSG, 2022), and Namaste Is A Greeting (Candlewick, 2022). She is the chair of the Children’s Internship Grant Committee at We Need Diverse Books and Mentorship Program Coordinator for SCBWI Western Washington. She hires tech professionals for a leading software company during the day and is a writer by night. Suma has an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and degrees in computer science and management. Visit her website at https://sumasubramaniam.com