Manto on a poster, Tagore on a lamp: When literature meets pop-art
Almost each time someone brought them a gift based on art or literature from abroad (such as a Shakespeare mug or a Gone With The Wind fridge magnet), Delhi-based academic Saba Bashir and her husband Amir would think about the dearth of such products in India. Then in 2016, Amir left his job with a paper manufacturing company to launch Booksetc to make available ‘literary gifts’ to bibliophiles. They started with Shakespeare mugs and tote bags and currently offer merchandise carrying illustrations of and poems by more than 20 international and Indian authors in English and Urdu.
“Both of us are avid readers. There came a time when we could visualise poems and couplets on utility items,” said Saba who manages the enterprise with her husband from their south Delhi apartment. Theirs is one of the many enterprises using visual art to popularise Indian literature and literary figures. The merchandise gives a ‘face’ to popular couplets; makes conventional products attractive; and makes popular literature part of our daily lives. There is a couplet or poem for every occasion, mood and phase of life, only if you have the patience to pick the right product, said the Bashirs.
Being the son of an Urdu teacher, Shiraz Husain grew up in a home in south Delhi’s Okhla where everyone was interested in reading. Images of rose petals, dry leaves, burning candles with poetry superimposed on them, was all he could find when he ran a Google image search for Urdu poetry. While exploring literature offline, he came across abstract interpretations of popular poems. “I was pained to see that thousands of people who love shayari don’t know their favourite poets by face,” said Husain, a Masters in Fine Arts, who started the Facebook page Khwaab Tanha Collective on which he regularly posts images of T-shirts, posters and pocket notebooks conceptualised by him.
Husain shares his artwork with people interested in buying it. Some of the Collective’s creations are available on its FB page, apart from the People Tree store in Connaught Place, Delhi, and the Pagdandi Café in Pune. “This is my response to the clichéd imagery of Urdu literature. Monetary benefit was not my priority,” said Husain. Posters of Saadat Hasan Manto holding a cigarette, Amrita Pritam in deep thought and Ghalib’s portrait adorn the walls of his study. His experience as a field researcher on a bibliographic project for the Asia Art Archive, a non-profit organisation based in Hong Kong, exposed him to the massive literature and images of poets available in libraries across the country.
Husain is happy to see the momentum Urdu has witnessed due to numerous literary festivals including Jashn-e-Rekhta and the Urdu Heritage Festival. “It seemed that the movement of people and ideas, which was part of the Ganga-Jamuni composite culture, stopped due to politics. Now it is changing for good,” he said.
In his free time, Sani Khan used to make posters and lamp shades which he would place in his study. “Whoever visited me said that I was sitting on a great business idea,” said Khan.
In 2017, after much coaxing, Khan and four of his friends, founded Artykite, a venture that fuses pop art with literature. “I realised that it takes people two steps to fall in love with the kind of work we do. First, the aesthetics appeal to them. And then they are compelled to know the meaning of the text. That’s when they start relating to it and are open to making it part of their daily lives in the form of mugs, tote bags and lamp shades,” he said.