Tamil Nadu

Meet Ashok Rajagopalan, creator of hilarious children’s book series ‘Gajapati Kulapati’

Written by : Anjana Shekar

"Kalicha! Kulicha! Gajapati Kulapati danced in the mud. Kalicha, Kulicha, Kalichalooooch!” And then what happened to the naughty, mud-splattered Gajapati Kulapati? Among toddlers, Gajapati Kulapati, a most adorable elephant, is nothing short of a sensation. Among storytellers, he’s a definite favourite. For what’s not to like in Gajapati Kulapati? His world filled with good-natured people and happy, loud sounds!

The fourth book in the series – Gajapati Kulapati Kalicha Kulicha – by children’s writer and illustrator Ashok Rajagopalan is now out and will surely be an instant hit with the little ones, especially those who require special coaxing to get into the shower.

Cover and inside page from Gajapati Kulapati Kalicha Kulicha, courtesy Tulika Publishers

TNM spoke to Gajapati Kulapati’s creator Ashok Rajagopalan, who is based out of Chennai, about his own childhood and the books he enjoyed reading, the success of the Gajapati Kulapati series and his thoughts on how children’s book publishing has changed in the country over the years.

“For the voracious reader that I am today, the first book I read was when I was about 10 years old,” Ashok begins. The writer-illustrator, who has illustrated over 300 books (including magazines) and authored over 10 children’s books since 1989, did not intend to become a children’s author or illustrator. But like every child, he too drew and wrote stories.

“Back then, we had very few good Indian books written in English. Therefore, I was bound to pick up Enid Blyton. Five Go to Billycock Hill was my first book. I enjoyed Noddy, Secret Seven, Famous Five… Also, I never distinguished books based on the gender of the protagonist. I never thought boys couldn’t read St Clare’s or Malory Towers,” Ashok shares.

While he enjoyed RK Narayan’s Swami and Friends and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, he discovered PG Wodehouse, who became his greatest inspiration. “I read a bit of Wodehouse every day even today. In fact, I’ve given away every other book in my house and kept only Wodehouse. I may have two or three copies of the same title,” he adds.

Creating Gajapati

Ashok, who comes from a family of elephant lovers – “My mother is very fond of elephants, she has this obsession to collect all information there is relating to elephants” – recalls his earliest memories of meeting a jumbo. “As a child, I was fascinated by elephants, but I was also scared of them. It was at the Madras Zoo, which was then located behind Central Railway Station, that I first saw one. There’s a photograph of me, almost cringing, standing next to the elephant while the mahout tries to get me closer,” he shares.

Inside pages from Gajapati Kulapati Kalicha Kulicha, courtesy Tulika Publishers

“When I first drew a comic, I wanted to show it to my mother. It was about an elephant jumping into the water and displacing people as a result. Back then I called it Ganesh, the royal elephant,” he says. And this comic was part of the initial portfolio that he used to make headway as an illustrator.

But strangely enough, Ashok admits that he finds illustrating elephants the most difficult task. “I love elephants and I try to draw them. I have difficulty drawing their mouths and their expressions. Maybe that’s also a reason why Gajapati comes off as looking adorable,” he adds.

Interestingly, Gajapati Kulapati came into existence in the early 2000s, about 10 years before the first book came out in print. Gajapati Kulapati was actually created for a storytelling session at a book store/activity centre called Good Books, one of the first such centres in the country, started by Tulika’s Radhika Menon. “The first book was printed in 2010, 10 years after it was first written (performed) and it was a happy surprise for me. It turned out to be a bestseller for Tulika Books and then they asked me to work on a second book,” Ashok adds.

Not to disappoint his audience, who he calls his cruellest critics, Ashok took about two to three weeks to come up with the idea for the second. “The first I’d come up in an hour. It was a stream of consciousness writing,” he explains. And since it was going to be narrated to children, Ashok came up with interesting sounds to capture children’s attention.

“Children can be merciless. Once, one of the editors made the mistake of asking the kids what they thought about the story she had just read to them. ‘BOORINGG’, came their answer. I make it a point never to ask them that question,” he chuckles. “I see them laughing and having a good time. I don’t prod them with any questions,” he adds. But, Ashok says, he treasures a flying kiss he received from a toddler at the end of a reading session once.

Explaining further he says, “Children want to be entertained, they like to laugh. They have parents to instil moral values in them, some writers do take up this task. I just want to remain the fun uncle who takes them out for ice cream and tells them funny jokes. I prefer writing funny stories, it comes naturally to me.”

To Ashok’s joy, the second book Gajapati Kulapati Kalabalooosh! too was a hit. “Actually, we hadn’t intended to create a series. So you’ll notice that like the Singam, Singam 2 and Singam 3 movie series, the first book is just called Gajapati Kulapati. The second is Gajapati Kulapati Kalabalooosh! and so on. The first should have been Gajapati Kulapati Aacchhoo,” he jokes.

Inside page from Gajapati Kulapati book 1, courtesy Tulika Publishers

As for the book’s popularity, he thanks storytellers and mothers in particular. “Children keep asking for the story to be re-read, although I’m not sure how parents are liking that,” he laughs and adds, “But storytellers have been helpful in spreading the word about this book. It’s easy and fun to read out loud and has been a popular choice.”

Going through Ashok’s titles for Tulika Publishers, one notices that the illustration in each book is distinctly different from the other. This, Ashok acknowledges, is both good and bad. “Good because I make sure I read the author’s work and then illustrate based on their voice and style. Bad because no one would know just how many illustrations I’ve done so far. Illustrators like RK Laxman or Mario Miranda have their own distinct style whereas I don’t,” he explains.

As someone who has been doing this for three decades, Ashok has witnessed a huge change in the field of children’s book publishing. “Globally Harry Potter worked wonders, children’s book publishing gained new respect and inspired others to follow suit. In India after the IT boom, working parents started buying more children’s books than before. Earlier, many thought that children’s books weren’t affordable. Now that has changed. Also, the quality of publishing is on par with the West now,” he says.

Ashok, who is working on a space adventure series in addition to other books, shares that his style of writing for children has always been instinctive. “I don’t recall my childhood consciously while writing but feel sentimental sometimes. I think subconsciously I write books for that child,” he finishes.

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