Sometime in 2017, the world was introduced to toddler Abirami. And in the past year, many have come to know that not only is she smart and cute, but also that her actions call for smart repartees. She’s fiercely protective of her space, especially her grandmother’s lap, and likes her dolls. She’s also the kid who plays cricket with cousins Mukund and Madhav, who dote on her, but quietly removes a stump, smile intact, leaving them wondering how the wicket fell. And when alone, she swats the bat on the ground, all by herself. The next Mithali Raj?
Abirami is doted upon by her parents, grandparents and large extended family, who get to see her antics. But, she comes alive on social media in the form of Abirami and daddy, a Facebook and Instagram page of doodles created by her parents – designer Arvind Neelakantan (33) and Apoorva Balasubramanian (28), who studied communication.
For the first two months, Abirami and Daddy stayed a private collection. Her father drew a doodle for her every night, which just stayed on his desk. One day, Apoorva decided the world should see it.
Arvind, a product evangelist for Unity Technologies, Singapore, working out of Chennai, has been doodling ever since he can remember.
“I was always scribbling something on paper. I would check the office papers Appa brought home and would make use of the free space on one side. Luckily, when I was growing up, everyone encouraged me saying I had a flair for drawing. The first time it made a teacher smile was when I drew Uma Miss, while sitting in one of her classes in Sindhi Model School, Medavakkam,” he recollects.
Getting into the gaming and animation industry was almost like an early calling. So, after a degree in mechanical engineering, Arvind headed to the US to do his Master’s in Digital Media at Drexel University, Philadelphia.
‘Photos were a no-no’
Abirami and Daddy happened when Arvind wanted to document his daughter’s growth, antics and progress.
“I didn’t want something that was clichéd, so photos were a no-no. I believed that a doodle would almost be like a story frozen in motion,” he says.
Arvind thought a doodle would be able to capture the concept of a child’s growing up, be exclusive and recognisable, but also allow others to see their child in it. He set about getting the entire family’s faces and mannerisms right for the series. He also set some ground rules.
“Abirami is the only changing character in the series – depending on how her hair looks or what she’s wearing that day; everyone else stays the same. Also, I decided that Abirami will never talk in the doodle unless she actually does talk. I did not even want her to have a thought bubble,” Arvind says.
Talking about the themes in the doodles, Arvind says: “At a personal level, the series helps me maintain a diary of what she does every day. I travel often and hear about what she did at the end of the day and record it. The thing is to keenly observe so that I am able to document her everyday growth curve. Sometimes, the series features a frazzled Apoorva running behind Abirami, at others it shows Arvind and Apoorva stepping out for some couple time while his mother Rajeswari happily plays with Abirami. When the couple and Abirami travel, Rajeswari and her husband are shown sitting forlorn at the dining table.”
Other doodles show Abirami going to the temple with her family where she finds a dog to chase and love. She delights in playing pranks on her cousins, but showers them with don’t-leave-me hugs when it is time to leave. And, on some days, like say April 26, 2018, she does nothing spectacular.
The family connection
The family, spread across continents, has been deeply appreciative of Arvind’s efforts, because not only does it showcase what Abirami does, but it also captures her unique personality.
“I grew up with 10 cousins living in the same area. She does not have that luxury. This introduces her to them so that they know her on a daily basis. It also helps me connect better with my wife and daughter, and I focus on the moments I can record,” says Arvind, who doodles late into the night.
The only time he’s missed doodling since he began is when he was travelling and lost a day due to the time difference between the US and India. He draws on A5 paper using a pencil and then inks it with a black pen.
At some stage, Arvind plans to publish a year’s worth of doodles. “Abirami is a year and four months old. She was born in December 2016 and I started doodling on January 15, 2017 using a notebook Apoorva’s cousin gave me. I did not know it would become a habit. Now, I cannot sleep without drawing,” says Arvind, who typically needs between 30 and 45 minutes for a sketch. Some complex pieces, such as the one of Abirami in Maamallapuram in front of Arjuna’s Penance, took him over three hours.
Does Abirami know she’s the subject of many a chuckle?
“Not quite. She occasionally sees me draw at home and fancies the black-and-white images. And yes, she smiles a lot,” Arvind laughs.