This interview first appeared in Office Chai, on August 20, 2015. Read it here.
In Conversation with Ramya Sriram, A Cartoonist With An Engineering Background
It’s not everyday you come across an engineer who’s quit several high profile jobs to take to art.
Ramya Sriram is an artist who creates comics, caricatures and many fun things. She has worked with many corporations; she has even designed some of the coolest wedding cards for couples and she has left no stone unturned when it comes to creativity. In our Uncorporate Jobs series where we feature people who have chosen an unconventional career, Mohita Adhvaryu got talking to the artist where she reveals some fascinating aspects about her life.
You have done engineering; you worked as an editor and copy writer. You work for yourself now, how did this transition happen? What has connected the dots?
From wanting to be a designer, to coaching for medicine, then studying engineering, dropping out of B-school, working in academic publishing then advertising, and now freelancing full-time as a writer and cartoonist – the journey’s been quite crazy. You can see the dots were connected in a rather haphazard way.
I think I had experiment quite a bit to see what fit. I wrote a lot during engineering, which led me to consider advertising and publishing as potential careers. Strangely, I never did think about being on my own back then. I looked at friends getting into B-schools and decided it seemed like a good route to take (I was wrong!). When the publishing house called me, I was ecstatic – celebrated at the B-school, farewell party and all, and scooted. While I edited books by day, I drew comics at night. It started out just as a lark, but when I received requests for doing personalized comics, I felt I was on to something.
The transition was quite rocky, really, but I think having the liberty to choose was really great. Every experience only added to all the stories in my head.
Were you passionate about art and writing since childhood?
Yes, I used to draw and paint a lot. I had the loveliest childhood – I was exposed to a lot of art and craft, dance, music, etc. There was never a boring or dull moment. My mother is an artist, and she encouraged me to enroll for all kinds of classes – from wood carving to making stuffed toys, from calligraphy to water colors. I also read a lot, which perhaps prompted me to write later on.
Drawing was perhaps my favorite hobby during my childhood – a box of color pencils was pretty much all I needed.
I started writing more passionately during my college years – all that pent-up angst you know! I had a blog (the current one is over a decade old) and it really helped me structure my otherwise chaotic mind into meaningful words and sentences.
When I look back, I find that drawing and writing were activities that were very much part of my daily life. They just grew into part of me.
Please tell us about The Tap. When did you start? Whom have you worked with?
‘The Tap‘ came into existence, because, I needed a name for the comic strip. I didn’t expect it to grow into something much bigger. I started about three years ago – and Comic Con Bangalore 2012 was the turning point, where I received an overwhelming response.
I’ve worked with a variety of clients on both illustration and writing projects – corporations, NGOs, startups and individuals. I’m currently working on converting a business case study into a comic, developing cartoons for the UI of a mobile App and writing website content.
I hate using the word ‘client’ – it just sounds so business-like and impersonal. I’d like to believe that my work has more of a personal touch – whether I’m working with a corporate or individual. I had made a wedding card for someone a few years ago, and now they’re back with a request for a baby shower invite! Things like that make me really happy.
I like having a mix of writing and illustration projects. Copywriting projects come with their own challenges – there you’re dealing with brand stories. I do a fair bit of travel writing as well.
How important is creative independence for you?
With my own stories, I let loose – the idea hatches, takes shape and is translated externally quite comfortably, without having to fit into a certain mould. When it comes to working on orders, I’ve been lucky to have people come to me and say, ‘Do whatever you think will fit – we don’t want to disturb your creative process!’, which can be frustratingly vague but also very encouraging – especially when they like the output!
I think having to come up with something in a limited period of time, which has to match the client’s expectations, is super-challenging – and I love it! So as of now, I’m just really enjoying myself.
I love being pushed to think of new ideas, and every time I think up something, it serves as an affirmation that The Tap’s flowing steadily.
What were the major challenges in this journey?
Well, the first was trying to decide whether to give up a full-time job (where I wasn’t necessarily unhappy), or not. You always read about people who just impulsively quit a job overnight and went and did something crazy – but I took me some back and forth before I could arrive at a decision. It was only after I quit that I felt – wow, what was I waiting for?!
Another challenge I faced earlier was that I simply didn’t know how to say no. I took on too much, without realizing it. Now I’ve learnt to space out my work and draw up realistic schedules.
How different for you it is to work for yourself and to work for someone else?
There are pros and cons in both, I think. I love the freedom that comes with working on your own. I like the space and time – I like that I am free to experiment and see what works and what doesn’t. You can make choices and decisions that you can’t when you’re working as part of a company. There’s a lot of scope to surprise yourself when you work on your own! But it does demand structure – you have to create your own rules. While it can be liberating, it can also be grueling.
What I miss about working for someone else is being part of a team. Ideating on your own is quite different from ideating in a team where everyone’s approach is different. I also miss the general gossip of an office, noisy lunch rooms and chai breaks.
What are your plans for future?
So many of them! One is to take up campaigns for corporates – leverage the power of simple visual/verbal stories for brands. There’s so much information overload and there are so many people trying to push their work out there that we’re forgetting that perhaps simplicity speaks. ‘Less is more’ is my mantra.
I’m also curious to explore how my work can be used by people who cannot read or write a particular language and if they can read comics picture-by-picture. Perhaps it can be used to bring about social change – something I haven’t explored yet.
I’ve started making custom t-shirts , and more of that is definitely on the cards.
Let’s just say The Tap’s pipes are full. 🙂
What is that one philosophy which galvanizes you to work every day?
I think all of us are here for a reason, and each one of us is good at something (or many things). Using that talent or skill to its fullest is one way of giving back to the world. We all want to get our hands dirty, but to contribute to society; you need not necessarily have mud-covered feet. I think the worst feeling is that of having a pile of accumulated unused potential. Whether you’re good at code, writing, music, cooking, running or art, you have to use that potential to its fullest. Each of them has a function in society. If you can go to bed every night feeling ‘utilized’, like you’ve given something to the world that day, then life’s a peach.
If you’ve found something you’re good at, then I think you thirst to become better and better at it. That’s what drives me.
What do you love the most about freelancing?
The variety of work I get to take up – from commissioned travel-writing trips to drawing caricatures! I’m exploring opportunities I never even knew existed. There’s a lot of stuff happening out there, beyond cubicle walls, and it’s great to be a part of it.
I also enjoy the variety of people that I meet – especially people who are starting up. The energy and enthusiasm is contagious.
Freelancing has also taught me to be disciplined – perhaps more than I would be in a full-time job.
Any advice for people who wish to start something on their own?
Take a chance! Go with unwavering focus on Plan A. If it doesn’t work, Plan B will always form itself.
All images courtesy: Ramya Sriram