Desert Queen by Jyoti Rajan Gopal and Svabhu Kohli

Hello from Rochester, New York! I'm thrilled Jyoti Rajan Gopal and Svabhu Kohli stopped by to finish my sentences. We discussed Queen Harish, picture book biographies, Bollywood, and more. I wrote the words in purple, Svabhu wrote the words in black, and Jyoti wrote the words in green. Thank you, Jyoti and Svabhu! 

Desert Queen’s cover was inspired by one of Queen Harish's first performances I watched on youtube during my initial research phase of working on this story. I unfortunately never had the chance to see her perform in person, her archive online was my gateway into this world and meeting the people who had witnessed her magic on stage and in person during my visits to Rajasthan while making this book.

Watching her perform in this video with these winged fabrics attached to her arms, as she twirled and swirled, took my breath away. I was mesmerised by her energy, her grace, her movements. I knew this is a moment I have to bring alive in the book - It also appears as a page inside one of the spreads. I drew her in a moment of taking in all the love, awe and magic she creates and also receives back from her audiences. The night sky, borders and flying apsaras (celestial beings) are all inspired from miniature paintings created in Jaisalmer.

Jyoti Rajan Gopal’s manuscript for Desert Queen was captivating and transported me into an emotional world painted with vivid words that took me through landscapes of sound, dance, and emotions. As a queer person I resonated with Harish’s own experiences and struggles and Jyotis manuscript took me back to those experiences in a way that allowed me to heal and hope. I could feel, hear and imagine the rhythm of each instrument, the thundering energy of her dance, the emotional toll this journey took- all through Jyoti’s words. These emotions are what I wanted to bring alive in the illustrations.

Picture book biographies are a first for my practice and for that reason it was an incredibly powerful moment to realise that I would be working on a story that I related to in context and the characters' experiences. I discovered Harish through this process and illustrating it made me excited to think that many more people would learn of this powerful story. I think that this is the power of the picture book biography, it allows the dissemination of stories like this in a captivating, visually stimulating way.

Desert Queen tells the story of Harish Kumar, a young boy from a middle-class family in the town of Jaisalmer and his rise to drag sensation. When Harish first started performing in the clothes of female Rajasthani dancers, he discovered that dancing as a Rajasthani rani (queen) filled him with joy. It was also a way for him to earn money and support his sisters. It was a hard road that he had to travel towards acceptance of his lifestyle and career, but the more he trained and performed, the more his fame grew. As he traveled internationally, he noticed that he was listed on programs as drag queen Harish. Harish had never heard of drag but as he met performers from around the world, he realized his ties with drag culture. It was then he decided on the name Queen Harish, both in honor of his dancing persona and as a celebration of drag.

Svabhu Kohli’s illustrations beautifully capture the poignant, the sorrowful and the joyous in Queen Harish’s story. The gorgeous jewel-toned palette, the layered designs, and the sense of movement on every page bring Queen Harish and Rajasthan to glorious life. Look for the sun and moon motifs sprinkled throughout!

Bollywood dance inspired many of Queen Harish’s performances. Though she was a fierce advocate for Rajasthani folk music and dance, she enjoyed incorporating her love of Bollywood into her dance routines. This set her apart from other traditional performers and expanded her reach to a much broader audience. She often invited audience members to dance with her, teaching them moves on the spot. From young to old, she had them on their feet, smiling, swaying and twirling to the beat with her. Every performance was a joy and a whirlwind!

Congratulations, Jyoti Rajan Gopal and Svabhu Kohli! 

Borrow Desert Queen from your school or public library. Whenever possible, please support independent bookshops. 


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