Glimpses at the Craft of Catalogues and the Tale of Victor Halfwit

Naveen Kishore: The Craft of Catalogues

Week Two Day Four was a green room tour into the world of publishing, mentored by Naveen. Our initiation into the not-so-breezy aspects of publishing. For instance, recognizing first a list, or the collection of books one will publish. Often the list classifies a publisher but as we later learnt, there’s really no iron rule about it. You might as well have an open list for that matter.

Becoming a publisher, no matter how idealistic, utopian or fairy-tale-ish it might sound, is actually quite a task. Authors need to be roped in, contracts negotiated with them, rights need to be bought, books printed and often on a lot of credit. Naveen took us through this Bildungsroman-esque route by propping up exciting examples from Seagull—of how a few books and obligations to bulk credits in hauling up a list, translated into the now Hall No. 8 at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Seagull also pioneered the concept of the ‘catalogue’, which soon became a rage. The catalogue or a glossary of books is what a publisher proposes to bring out annually. Seagull Books’ catalogues are major head-turners at all key book festivals and fairs the world round.

The road has been tortuous in every way, but Naveen’s spur-of-the-moment decisions and impulsive choices have all materialized into what we now know as this posh, suave and glamorous publisher of poignant and drool-worthy books. A statement well made but genuinely laboured for, aided, of course, by the fact that Seagull had its heart in the right place, all along. ‘I have no sense of scale,’ quips Naveen often, when detailing his decisions, but with his spur of the moments paying off richly, we really don’t mind, do we? There’s a long way ahead still, says Naveen, but trusting his charming defiance of proportions, one can safely say, that too shall be conquered. Amen.

Sunandini Banerjee: The Tale of Victor Halfwit

‘The world would also be so much duller

If we were all one such colour

There can be no one fixed perspective. No one rule for design. No rigid boundaries for creativity—a sentiment clearly evident in the above lines from Sunandini’s poem, ‘I Wonder’. Sunandini’s passionate rule for design therefore states that there can be no one rule, nothing rigid, nothing limiting to contain or hold art down. The second half of day four was thus devoted to a session of letting us know how to let go.

Sunandini, speaking from her own flavourful experiences, of her accidental detour into publishing and her greater head dive into design, was not trained to do what she so beautifully does. Often discomfited by questions of the previous kind, she only has her instinct and her years of reading to blame, which instantly pollutes her head with images, images of living, throbbing words.

Her first brush with designing was while participating in a workshop conducted by the Alliance Francais that brought together French illustrators and writers of children’s books. On the theme of ‘Colour’, Sunandini composed a delightful 12-line poem, which she accentuated with simple geometric shapes and picture fonts from, believe it or not, MS Word. This was the first great coming together of words and pictures, not strictly displaying a tutored skill for drawing but rather the much more important skill of imagining and setting words to their physical form. Thus, when her poem starts with lines like

‘Will tomorrow

The sun be pink

Or yellow

I wonder

 If tonight

The stars will take flight’

 they appear as lines in any children’s book, prettily illustrated with pink suns and fluffy clouds and confettied with stenciled stars, all procured from the picture font harbour in MS Word. Clever, right?

 Not knowing how to draw never posed any roadblocks for Sunandini. For her, the computer, a rarity when she was starting out, was a great enabler. Now, of course, with softwares like Photoshop and Quark Express, her art has notched up galactically. Not knowing to draw was thus compensated by her skill to imagine, to give words their pictorial due, constructed nonetheless as any work of art. 

Designing, like creativity, can have no single, decided perspective, observes Sunandini. It’s an all-accommodating art, a macrocosmic assortment of perspectives, and that is where it thrives. That is where the art of creativity in designing thrives. You come with an imagination of your own, but then, you must create something which resonates with all. Thus, it was only natural that the collage would be her medium of choice, as in her recent Victor Halfwit: A Winter’s Tale, a page-and-a-half story by Thomas Bernhard, which she blew up to a massive 220 page worth of gorgeous illustrations. By all means a collector’s item, it is a ready reckoner for the kind of work she presently does. Though she admits to beginning to get weary of the collage, her admirers needn’t be disappointed, for a futuristic new phase in her design oeuvre is very much on the cards.

 Further on, she mentions how the book cover, being the prime interface between an individual and the world of the book, must ideally contain multiple perspectives and accomodate heterogeneous voices. In short, all readers should find something to relate to in the book cover itself, which will in turn trigger their hopes for the content inside. Thus a collage, ‘which captures many voices, multiple perspectives . . . simply put, shades of everything’, greatly complements her vision as an artist and her motive as a designer, to incorporate varying perspectives, and of collecting the world into a single dashing book cover.

An artist’s vision, ideally, must strongly be anchored in imagination but also communicate with the world outside. It wouldn’t harm, thus, to invest in risks sometimes. To use her words, it’s like bungee jumping, when you have a belt fastened tightly around your waist but you’re also free-falling. She stresses on the being of an individual, an artist, a designer, but maintains that art cannot be pursued in isolation. It must interact with the world and the views stemming from it. Just like her collages invested heavily with layers.

Her design mantra is to own an imagination and also to enrich it with the world outside, with images, visuals—everything that kindles any association must live its life on the page.

The drive then is not to fret about designing a good-looking American or Chinese book. No. But simply, ‘a damn good book cover!’

For, at the end of the day, it’s all about the mind which creates, and it cannot create in an ivory tower, in a bubble cut off from the universe. One must learn to liberate art, to sustain it. Glean inspiration from the world which breathes around us, and not ‘die with the mind you were born with . . . but to grow it’.

Shahwar Kibria Sufi

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