New chapters

New chapters

A book can tell tales not merely through the words it contains, writes Preeti Verma Lal, as she is touched by the creative contours of books, made as part of a collaborative art project by talented artists from India, USA, China and Sri Lanka...

In the beginning, they say, was the word. God’s word. Then came the written word. On papyrus. On sheep skin. On stone. On clay. Written in ink made of soot, gum, vegetables, gall nuts and iron vitriol. Embossed with gold. Handwritten. Creating a book involved calligraphers, copyists, correctors, illuminators and rubricators. The book leaves were bound. Hinged on one side. Then came printing machines. And book-making evolved into its modern avatar.

You have spent countless hours poring over books. You love the smell of fresh off-the-press book. But have you ever thought of book as an art medium? An art form where artists explore the tactile, visual and intellectual qualities of a book? No? Then, you have not been to The Reading Room. Not a reading room stacked with books, but, The Reading Room, where books are moulded, folded, sculpted and arranged into an altogether different piece of art.

Art collaboration

Blueprint.12 in collaboration with Colombo Art Biennale and Navsar had brought 13 artists from India, Sri Lanka, USA and China for an exhibition in New Delhi,, where artists had used books by drawing in them, carving them, tearing them and folding them into innovative forms.

These books step beyond being mere dazzling artistic forms — they speak to you, they reveal contemporary angst of displacement, war, and narrate tales of fantasy, nostalgia and history.

In a basement in New Delhi, starkness of black and white envelope me. On an immaculate white wall are framed images of a journal by Sathyanand Mohan. Pages of an anonymous diary photographed so brilliantly that you feel the journal in your hand. On long white tables lie accordion books; a book with bullets stashed inside; playing cards; folded notes stacked in a small, cardboard egg carton; handpainted books; a wooden book look-alike with ‘Displaced’ painted on the spine; miniature book; digitally created books; book pages folded intricately to create incredible abstracts.

In the middle of the book art display stood Banoo Batliboi, a self-taught paper artist, who pioneered book art in India. For four years, Batliboi has been working with old, abandoned books to give them an “alternative interpretation.”

“Old books are my raw material. I like working with common objects and making them behave in unexpected ways,” admits Batliboi, who often takes days and sometimes weeks to conceptualise and plan the design.

She uses 400-700-page books, in which the text block becomes a complex form, with the original text deconstructing into a texture. The margins of each page create a white banding. She thinks of a page “as a unit and then plots a precision fold on each of them”. In Batliboi’s hands, the pages of an old atlas restructure as new landscape, and she throws in art photographs in her book sculptures to give it a surprising twist.

Depth of understanding

For Raking Light, Anne Covell, Iowa-based proprietor of Sin Nombre Press and an MFA candidate in Book Arts, borrows inspiration from walking the raked gardens of Kyoto’s Daisen-in. The raked lines suggest the life cycle of a body of water — its beginning as a waterfall and final amalgamation with the ocean. The folds give the structure a gentle S-curve, mimicking the path of the river as it flows from origin to estuary. Natural Order: A Game of Pairs has 30 hand-drawn card illustrations, learning guide and case letterpress printed from polymer. Printed on a display-suitable material, the cards are intended to be handled. This work blurs the boundaries between the functions of artist books and zones in artistic practice.

Smriti Choudhary, who grew up in Rajasthan and studies design in Ahmedabad, uses pigment pens as the primary medium in her illustrations. The contrast of black and white is coupled with a vast amount of miniature detailing. “I often find myself getting absorbed in the intricacies of my illustrations, entering this dream-like state, which reflects itself in the atmosphere of each piece,” says Choudhary.

While she takes to miniature detailing, Samantha Batra Mehta collaged hand-cut prints of her drawings onto a vintage, Chinese, folded accordion book in Manifold, which, Mehta says, explores the ideas of hybridist, multiplicity and cultural memory. A long-time collector of antiquarian books, maps and objects, she often delves into her collection and incorporates them in her art. In doing so, she “repurposes, recontextualises and ascribes alternative meanings to them.”

New perspectives

In The Reading Room, however, it was not beauty that tugged at my heart string. It was war. And the bullets ridden through a historic book. Kingsley Gunatillake, currently a lecturer in Art, Vibhavi Academy of Fine Arts, Ethul Kotte, Sri Lanka, pierces the heart of a book — on the right page are bullets, and on the left, gaping holes. The edges have soot, as if burnt by the fired bullet. No one notices what the book says about war and displacement, the bullets ricochet the horrors of war.

In India, book art is still in a nascent stage. However, Amit Kumar Jain, curator of The Reading Room, hopes that soon this innovative art will find its practitioners and collectors. Perhaps one can twist what Maxim Gorky said: Keep reading books, but remember that a book is only a book, and you should learn to think for yourself. Perhaps, it is time to look at a book not merely as a narrative tool, but as an art that tells tales differently.

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