Interview with Priya Kuriyan My grandfather – a brutal abusive alcoholic?

Priya Kurian
Priya Kurian | Photo: © Bernd Böhner

Priya Kuriyan (35) is a well-known comic artist and children’s book illustrator from New Delhi, India. She contributed “The Elephant in the Room” to the magazine SPRING, which came out in May, 2016. She also got other illustrators from her network to chip in with more socially critical entries for the issue. In the interview, she discusses making the work and her own personal “elephant.” 

When you were working on The Elephant in the Room, you retreated for ten days to the writer’s residence, Nrityagram, together with fifteen other illustrators. Why did you do that?

We further developed our stories there. Most of us already knew in our heads what we wanted to draw for the magazine. We sat down together and went through the plot again. There were some weaknesses in the plot that we pointed out to each other.
For example?
I thought that my story worked – until the others convinced me of the contrary. I had drawn details, which were really important to me, in too many of the pictures. “It isn’t interesting,” my colleagues told me. I’m happy to have received the criticism, because now readers are spared the weak parts.
Did you finish the magazine in Nrityagram?
No, the ten days there were more for collective brainstorming. We talked a lot and made some initial sketches. Then we all took this input home, where we finished illustrating. I worked on my contributions for four more weeks before they were done. None of us could really have spent more time on them – our retreat was in February and The Elephant in the Room was released in May.
Your “elephant in the room,” meaning something unpleasant that nobody wants to talk about, was your grandfather, why?
He died young; I never met him personally. But whenever family members talked about him, his colorful personality was always the focal point. Harry anything good was said about my grandmother on the other hand. They made fun of her frugality. A lot of people even called her cheap.
You asked your grandmother what kind of person you grandfather was.

I pressed her with questions and it took a long time for her to speak the truth.
You didn’t especially like what you heard…

I was shocked. My grandfather drank, was abusive and gambled! My grandmother gradually let out more horrible stories about him. I hadn’t expected all of that. I always thought he was a great guy.
Why did you decide to illustrate the stories?

For one, it helped me to cope. And I also wanted to tell the public, look here at how differently men and women are valued in our country. Men are allowed to be brutal. Their behavior is quickly forgiven and you can still be in awe of them. On the contrary, if a woman makes a “mistake,” they will hold that against her for eternity.
You only illustrated your grandparent’s stories once they were both dead. Do you think they would have liked them?
Certainly not, but luckily they didn’t witness it. I assume it’s a huge shock for the people who are in awe of my grandfather to see these drawings. But my mother thought it was good that I composed a comic about our family. So I think that’s okay for me.
Are you still able to tolerate your grandfather?
I still like the positive things people say about him and so I still like him in that way. Thanks to the bad stories, I’m finally able to complete my image of him.