Drawing from the City with Teju Behan

You went from singing to drawing, is it usual for women from your community to be creative?

Actually, generally women in my community from Rajasthan in India sing, but just not in public. My mother was very good at singing, but she sang only within our family, and not outside. Both my father and my husband's father sang for a living - performing in exchange for food and other gifts. Painting, on the other hand, was not so common in my community, this was something new that my husband and I learned, but we have passed it on. Now all of our children (and even my son in law) paint.

Why do you think it’s important to be creative? Whether that is drawing, writing, painting, singing…

For our community singing was at first our bread and butter, and in my life painting and singing is mainly how my husband and I supported our family. So for us, it was important in a practical way. I think that everyone can be creative though, it's not something for just some people. Think of my four children, and now their children.

Did you have picture books as a child or did anything influence your drawings?

There were no books in the village that I grew up in. Until I was married I didn't even see a single book. I didn't know how to read or write, so books were out of the question. Now, things are different. My grandchildren have books, and now they even have my book.

Your book seems to be part autobiography, part escapism. Was this on purpose?

Gita (from publisher Tara Books) asked me to draw my experience. Some of this was about my life - things that had happened to me - while other things were more about how I felt when I was drawing, or how I chose what to draw. For example, lots of people have asked me about the picture with women falling from the sky. I drew this because when I was working on the book I saw a programme on television about Sunita Williams (the Indian astronaut). After that I thought about how the daughters of India had even reached space, and I imagined her, and other women, floating there. How far she went!

Your beloved husband encouraged you to draw, and believed in your talent. Do you think if more husbands were like yours India would see an influx of successful creative businesswomen?

My husband was very important in encouraging me to sing, mostly. As I said, this is not normal for women in my community to sing outside of their home, so before my first public performance (which was with my husband Ganesh) I was so nervous that I couldn't even talk. But he kept pushing me to sing more, and I began to enjoy singing together with him for other people. After that I got lots of offers to sing alone, but I always refused because I was so afraid. Ganesh pushed me to sing by myself though because he knew that I could, and he gave me the courage to do it. I even sang in a film. I think that if every husband in India encouraged his wife to follow her talents it would be very good for society, and women would have a higher status in our society then.

Do you think drawing is something you would have start to do yourself without his support?

My husband would not have started to draw if it had not been for the artist Haku Shah, who was the first person to suggest that he tried drawing as well as singing. After that they [Haku and Ganesh] both helped me to draw, in different ways.

First Haku Shah began to work with my husband. One day, he asked what I was doing all the day while they were drawing, and my husband explained that I was at home making his food and looking after the domestic work. Haku Shah asked him to bring me along to work, and the next day he did. When I got there Haku asked me to draw. I was afraid, because I didn't know anything, not even how to hold the pen. But again my husband encouraged me, and at first I copied what he was drawing.

This wasn't good enough for Haku Shah though, and he told me to do my own work, and even separated us, so that I couldn't see what my husband was drawing! Still, I don't think that I did very well though. I tried to draw a house, and when I had finished I thought that it looked like a flower. Soon after that though we got some well-paid singing work so we went for that and for a long time I didn't try drawing again. After some time, though, Haku Shah called me back, and I practiced more, and began to feel more confident. Eventually Gita from Tara Books saw my drawings and liked them, and she asked me to draw my own experiences.

Are you working on anything now?

Right now, I paint to tell stories for my grandchildren - I'm not working on any books or anything like that. Sometimes though a mela will call our entire family and we will go and paint at the fair together. Right now, I'm in Delhi with my children because we are all painting for the Folk Art Museum here.


Drawing from the City by Teju Behan is out now, published by Tara Books.