Portraits of Exile by Katha Books is a three-part non-fiction illustrated series, experimenting with material and form. The book uses translucent sheets as a means to document intangible memories, interspersing them with regular sheets of paper to represent physical realities. The text is interwoven with perforated models of homes to be constructed as a means of providing pause in the narrative and to suggest that home is not just a physical space, but an emotional and cognitive reality that we consciously build.
The three books in the series follow the stories of Jampa, Kizom and Lobdorjee as Tibetan refugees living in Bylakuppe, India. In conversation with Aaniya Asrani, the author and illustrator of the series:
What does ‘home’ mean to you?
laying in my mother’s lap.
music that lingers,
the wafting smell of incense,
bees attracted to candlelight.
warm ghee laden rotis,
rain rushing in from the window,
the sound of children playing in the street.
hide and seek in the haunted house,
climbing gates and stealing mangoes,
the cotton-candy man’s beckoning bell.
an idli-vada Sunday,
coconut oil dripping from my scalp,
sprawled on the marble floor staring at the ceiling fan.
knowing every cabinet in my neighbour’s kitchen,
leaving the door unlocked,
overstaying our welcomes.
across oceans and continents,
longing, yearning, waiting and wanting,
What was the interview process like? How many Tibetans did you speak to in Bylakuppe before writing and illustrating the books?
As I look back on the detailed travelogue I kept at the time, there was so much to the interview process that was evolving in the moment and based on chance. Koyal Raheja, Anukriti Kedia and I worked on our projects side-by-side and conducted our research together. We went back to Bylakuppe multiple times over the span of a month, and most people we spoke to we happened to run into, or were introduced to by someone we had interacted with previously.
My interviews were usually one on one, and would take place in gardens, monasteries, cafes or homes. I had a set of interview questions prepared, that asked of ‘a home that is, a home that was, and a home that will be’ but the conversation was a natural back and forth. We would laugh, cry and drink bottomless cups of tea together, as I learnt more about their journeys. Our conversations were accompanied by a process of drawing, so that they could remember details of the homes I was being told about. I would take notes during our conversation, and sometimes audio record, with permission, so I could transcribe later and remain present. These processes ensured that I was accountable for representing their narratives accurately.
I interviewed 15 people - Jampa D, Ugen, Tashi, Norbu, Yangchen, Choying, Lodoe, Legstok, Gendun, Jampa C, Choedon, Lopon, Lobdorjee, Jampa K and Kizom - and there were many more who were not interviewed formally. I am forever changed from having met them, and I wish I could have shared their stories to return the generosity with which they offered them to me. The three people I wrote about, I formed strong relationships with over multiple interactions. Their permission and blessing was incredibly crucial to the process of working on the books. It meant everything to see the look on their faces when I returned to Bylakuppe to gift them a copy of their book.
Left: Kizom being read her book Homecoming; Right: Anukriti, Koyal and I reuniting with old friends How did you arrive at the style and imagery?
I wanted the format of the book to reflect my research that recognised the home as a physical, emotional and cognitive reality. The narratives were drawn out as multi-layered compositions on watercolour paper juxtaposed with translucent paper. The home as a physical reality was depicted on opaque paper, and the intangible stories of that space were layered on top in translucent paper. Additionally, each chapter began with a laser cut model of the home on recycled brown paper, that could be assembled by the reader to provide a moment of pause in the narrative. These models were based on the drawings made during our interviews, and the drawings are also included in the final compositions.
In the interest of making the books accessible and available to a larger audience, I redesigned them to work as flat compositions for the publication with Katha. As the books are non-fiction, I chose to flesh out the illustrations in a photo realistic style. The medium I used was water-colour pencil and white and black pen, which was later superimposed with open-source maps or textures I had collected.
Much of the imagery is based on photographs I took during my time in Bylakuppe, or based on photographs shared with me by the people I had interviewed. I tried to stay as true to their reality as I could, but of course the story is coloured with my perception and imagination.
I loved the names of each book and the series. How did you arrive at the three home states?
Titling the series and the books was very challenging for me, and I spent many days deliberating over it. The series ‘Portraits of Exile’ tells the story of three distinct states of home, and the suffix represents the culmination of each individuals journey. ‘Homecoming’ for Kizom as she lost her way back to Tibet but found a way to make India her home. ‘Homeland’ for Lobdorjee because of an anecdote he shared with me about a handful of earth he brought with him from Tibet. ‘Homebound’ for Jampa, in the hopes that she will be able to reunite with her family in Tibet one day.
What’s been your personal takeaways from doing this series?
I have grown exponentially as a person because of the interactions I have had with the Tibetan community, and it will always be the biggest treasure of my life to have spent time in Bylakuppe. The warmth, compassion and unwavering generosity I experienced in my time with the community is something I will carry with me, always. I hope to follow the example set my by Tibetan friends when faced with obstacles in this life, to never harden or remain resentful, but to instead choose to forgive and welcome everyone with open arms.
I also recognise that suffering is experienced by everyone at different magnitudes and the aleatory nature of birth is what allocates us varying levels of privilege. Working on this series has made me realise that I want to actively work towards building an inclusive, accessible and equitable future for all. Such that my current art practice investigates social, political and cultural infrastructures in order to critique and question existing injustices, with the ultimate goal of facilitating empathy across diverse communities and systemic disparities.
Thank you for your time, Aaniya :) And to Katha for sending me these three beautiful books as part of our ongoing collaboration.
Interview by Rohini Kejriwal