Q&A with "Kama Sutra" Illustrator Victo Ngai
Just as each age has reinvented Shakespeare to suit its own time and culture, so to, it seems, that every era needs its own Kama Sutra, that ancient Hindu treatise on courtship and sexual behavior. To wit: the Folio Society recently published a limited-edition run of 750 hand-numbered copies of the 2,000-year-old instruction manual for joyous living.
This edition of Vatsyayana's seven-part Sanskrit compendium is a blend of old and new. The text remains Sir Richard Burton's 1963 landmark English translation but is accompanied by a specially commissioned essay by historian John Keay that explores the importance of sensuality in ancient Hindu society.
But the art is what really sets this edition apart: sumptuous illustrations by award-winning artist Victo Ngai. The work of the L.A.-based RISD graduate has graced the pages of The New York Times and covers for Simon & Schuster and Random House. Here, her precise handiwork expertly captures the nuance and detail of the Kama Sutra. Interestingly, Ngai is the first woman to ever illustrate this pleasure tome, and her art presents a decidedly female focus.
We recently spoke to Ngai after her own recent nuptials and asked about this commission and the various influences that shape her work.
Were you surprised by the Folio commission?
Not really because I first suggested this book to The Folio Society's art director Sheri Gee a few years ago after finishing our first book Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies together.
Did you consciously illustrate the Kama Sutra to reflect a woman's perspective?
Frankly it hasn't been my intention to make a "feminist's Kama Sutra." To me, the main objective of this project has always been to create the most lush and sumptuous volume that's worthy of and true to this 2000-year-old Sanskrit classic. However, examining the pieces now in hindsight, I believe I did subconsciously work from a female-centric perspective by selecting subject matters which interest me and composing images which would tell the stories from the woman's point of view.
What was your approach to illustrating the book? How, if at all, was it different from other projects?
In many ways the process is very similar to illustrating other books- reading the book to get the big picture, rereading the book to pick out stories that catch my eye, distilling the stories into short phrases and simple ideas, translating and refining these ideas into visuals through thumb-nailing, polishing the thumbnails into sketches, creating line drawings which forms the foundation of the final images, then finally finishing the pieces with fitting colors and mood. What is unique to illustrating each book is its content as it would inform the composition, storytelling, color palettes and mark making of the arts.
Were you familiar with the Kama Sutra prior to this project?
Only as familiar as everyone else, that it's an ancient book about sex from India.
In the West, the Kama Sutra is commonly associated with unexpected and inventive sexual positions, but it's really a guide to living a well-rounded life. Did anything in the book surprise you?
I was surprised by most of the book, actually. Only one chapter is dedicated to sexual union, which is what you hear mostly about. The other six chapters were a new discovery. I think the biggest surprise to me is how the book can be both patriarchic and progressively feministic at the same time. In many ways it reflects the male dominating social order of its time--that men have the (official) monopoly on polygamy and women's well-being largely rely on their successes with men. Meanwhile the book stresses the importance for men to keep their women happy and devotes long paragraphs going into great detail on what men need to do to win and sustain a lady's heart. However, in my opinion, the truly feministic idea appears in the chapter about courtesans. One can always argue the suggested kind gestures and tenderness towards women from other chapters are ultimately means for men to gain what they want, be it sex, love, loyalty or devotion. Whereas in this chapter, the book encourages the women to take charge of their sexuality, giving helpful tips on how to get what they want through manipulation of men, which turns the objectified into an active agency in the heterosexual relationship.
The 25 black and white positions illustrations are certainly erotic but not pornographic--how did you strike the right tone? When did you know you got it right?
Thank you, that's great to hear! The figure-design was definitely one of the most challenging and time consuming process in this project. Besides the balance between eroticism and pornography, there's also the juggle between being poetic and informative.
The first round of thumbnails was too realistic and felt like porny medical diagrams. The second round was overly expressive and looked cartoonish. The third round was excessively geometrical that took the fluidity out of the forms. I knew the sweet spot laid somewhere in between all of these unsuccessful attempts, but it still took a few more rounds to get there. What I was aiming for the final design was that the faces and bodies were generic and stylized just enough, but not much, that they can be part iconographies, which are graceful and unemotional, and part humans, which are sexy and provocative.
Were you familiar with Indian art and culture prior to this project?
I wouldn't say I was very familiar with Indian art and culture before working on this book, but I have always had a keen interest in Hindu Mythologies, miniature paintings, and intricate and ornate patterns. One of the major reasons I wanted to work on this project was to have a proper excuse to research and learn more about this fascinating culture, while getting paid!
What do you hope readers will take away from your illustrations?
That Kama Sutra is a rich and multifaceted book, it's not only a great window into ancient Hindi's bedrooms and their impressive flexibility, it also paints a vivid picture of people's daily household lives which includes making parrots talk after breakfast and bidding on cricket-fights; their religious beliefs and rituals; regional stereotypes and prejudices; social-economic construct of the time as well as tips and advises on romantic relationships which many are still surprisingly relevant today.
I understand you got married recently--congratulations! Did your work on the Kama Sutra influence your nuptials?
Thank you so much! I think the book is a great reminder that it takes work to sustain a happy and fruitful marriage, both inside and outside the bedroom.
The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, Illustrated by Victo Ngai, translated from the Sanscrit by Sir Richard Burton and Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot. Available in a limited edition of 750 copies for $595 each through the Folio Society.