Plants, especially those you can eat, have a way of seeping into the works of Devi Menon. She is an artist, author of a graphic novel and software professional living in London, after spending many happy years in her hometown of Palakkad in Kerala, a few each in Chennai and Bengaluru, and then some time in Canada. In October – the month artists across the world celebrate as Inktober to challenge themselves to work every day – Devi found two hours every night after her little daughter fell asleep to create artworks around vegetables – the ‘unsung heroes’ of her kitchen.
“During the lockdown, I was cooking so much that I realised we rely so much on vegetables – these unsung heroes of our kitchen,” she says in an interview. The heroes appeared every day, one after the other, on her Instagram page.
Half an onion for a work on The Old Man and The Sea
She doesn’t call herself a professional artist, but one who fell into the business by gorging on so many graphic novels. “The first of these was Amruta Patil’s Kari. And then there were so many - Guy Delisle’s travelogues, Michel Rabagliati’s Paul Goes Fishing and so on. When you read so much you also want to get into the medium somehow and draw yourself. That’s how it began – in my late 30s!” Devi says.
A green chilly becomes the boat for The Lady of Shallot
It wasn’t all digital work at first. She drew the old fashioned way, on paper, and these made their way into her first graphic novel – Amla Mater. Two little girls go their separate ways and reconnect later through Amla (Indian gooseberry) - is the short one-liner she could tell you about the book. Yali Publishing, which promotes indie publishing, let her write and illustrate the book too, Devi says.
A major part of the book is set in Kunissery, a village in Palakkad that Devi grew up in. “It was surrounded by nature. I had such a magical childhood and I keep going to it in my mind. I wish kids of these days had that luxury of space,” Devi says.
She put in her book the tales she grew up hearing, like that of the odayan, a magical creature that can change shape. It was also the subject of the Mohanlal movie Odiyan, released in 2018.
Maggie Noodles in a depiction of The Wind in the Willows
You can spot some of that magic in her Inktober challenges too. She converts a green chilly into the boat that the lady of Shallot escapes in, in Tennyson’s famous poem. Uncooked Maggi Noodles becomes the leaves of the willow tree for a picture on the children’s classic The Wind in the Willows. An unsuspecting mushroom becomes the mop of hair for The Beatles’ drummer Ringo Starr in another picture. Half an onion becomes the nose of the old man in Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea, and a handful of Basmati rice becomes the injured eye of the superhero Kung Fu Panda.
Mushroom becomes the mop of hair on Ringo Starr
“Last year I chose fall colours of leaves as a theme, and in 2016, when I just got back to work after maternity leave, I chose to draw office supplies for the Inktober challenge,” Devi says.
Inktober was created in 2009 by artist Jake Parker to make drawing a habit and improve skills. Artists world over have since taken it up for developing their own skills and staying committed to working on art.
Watch: How vegetables turned to art works for Devi