Interview: Paramita Brahmachari – “My covers are in a hand-drawn style” - Hindustan Times
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Interview: Paramita Brahmachari – “My covers are in a hand-drawn style”

Jun 23, 2023 05:05 PM IST

The winner of the Oxford Bookstore Book Cover Prize 2023 on her process of interpreting books to make striking jackets and illustrations

The cover is the first point of contact between a book and its reader. What kind of skill and labour go into capturing the essence of a whole book with one striking visual?

Paramita Brahmachari (Courtesy the subject)
Paramita Brahmachari (Courtesy the subject)

I can only tell you how I make covers, which is first, to read the blurb, or the book, carefully and note down striking metaphors, imagery, key objects, and attributes of characters. The greatest difficulty I faced in the first few years was that I often began with an image or idea in my head, which I had no way of translating into an image or a design because I lacked the necessary art skills. Now, I try to strike a balance between the abstract idea in my mind and the skills that I already have or can perhaps learn. It is like learning how to write in a new language with a limited vocabulary, but trying to be as expressive as you possibly can. It doesn’t always come together like it did for Pebblemonkey, but I end up learning a lot in the process every time.

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The prize-winning cover (Jadavpur University Press.)
The prize-winning cover (Jadavpur University Press.)

When did Jadavpur University Press first approach you?

I was thrilled to be approached by Abhijit Gupta of Jadavpur University Press for the first time to make the cover of Inês Pedrosa’s Amare dei tomar haate (Nas Tuas Mãos, 1997, translated from Portuguese into Bangla by Rita Ray) as I had never before made a cover in Bangla. He assured me that he had no problem at all if I tried hand-lettering for the titles. This was the best thing that ever happened to me. And I had the unparalleled opportunity to read extraordinary books, draw and put together images, and make Bangla text in abstracted coloured shapes or lines. Gupta has devised a test where an unsuspecting person, who does not know the title, is ambushed and asked to read the text on the cover. After that, I make the necessary revisions for legibility.

Did they have a specific brief for you for Pebblemonkey, or were you given a free hand to interpret the book?

Jadavpur University Press ordinarily does not give me cover briefs but trusts you to read and interpret the books on your own. For Pebblemonkey too, I was not given a cover brief per se, but they had asked for the drawing of a monkey walking on all fours across a mountainscape as one of the options – which has now become the title page – and other drawings for the beginning of each chapter.

How was your experience of working on the cover and illustrations for Pebblemonkey? Did you draw inspiration from Manindra Gupta’s line drawings? How did you make decisions about the use of art materials, techniques and colours?

For this final option for the cover, I used scribbled lines akin to a sketch in a personal journal. I was also trying to pay homage to the author Manindra Gupta’s own pen and ink drawings in his three-volume memoir Akshay Mulberry. The deep, dark pink was rather an extrapolation from my reading of the book, because I kept thinking of the different protagonists in terms of the apple, as they become shifting objects of desire. The apples in the novella, are also eaten by the forest folk, and towards the end, it underpins labour, land and indigenous rights in the economic and ecological conflict that arises.

Before reading the English translation of Pebblemonkey, did you read Manindra Gupta’s Nuri bador in the original Bengali? I gather that Gupta was born in Barishal in undivided Bengal but spent much of his adult life in Kolkata. Was it important for you to honour his life story and pre-Partition roots?

I had only read Manindra Gupta’s three-volume memoir Akshay Mulberry out of his oeuvre of poems, fiction and essays, the first volume of which are recollections of his childhood in Goila, Barishal. I did not know about Nuri bador, a relatively recent novella from 2016, before reading it in Arunava Sinha’s translation.

But your question makes me think that it would be very interesting, and enlightening perhaps, to read Pebblemonkey side by side with the second volume of his memoirs, set in the 1930s, when he goes to live with his maternal grandmother, amidst mountains and forests in the Barak valley of Assam close to the plantations. He encounters, between the ages of eight and 16, ascetics and mendicants of various sects, their songs, plantation sahibs and workers, the tale of an elephant drowning slowly in the silt by the riverbank, of pythons swallowing boys whole, witnesses a clutch of ‘accursed monkeys atop a bamboo grove swept downstream in the flood’, explores and discovers the terrain, its vegetation, different people, finds and absorbs an eclectic selection of literature, and art published in Bangla periodicals like Prabasi by Rabindranath and the Bengal School, and sees Udayshankar, Nehru and Subhash Bose in the flesh.

All this and equally the period he spends in Calcutta around 1941, and then training as an engineer in the British army during the second world war, at No 3 Construction Group in the Lahore Cantonment in undivided India make for a coming-of-age narrative like no other. I remember being entranced and humbled at the same time by the immaculate perfection of his phrasing, imagery and references. His retrospective, erudite lens does not bypass or romanticize the grim or the cruel, and transforms these experiences into something uncanny and enchanting.

What I remembered from Gupta’s memoirs may have been at the back of my mind, although it did not directly reflect in my cover options. But Gupta’s sketched portraits from the first part of his memoir were definitely influenced it. The collected volume of Akshay Mulberry has more sketches, for instance, my strongest memory from the book – of the first day the monsoons descend, is accompanied by his drawing of a child caught on the hillside, full of glee, letting his dhuti be caught up like an upright banner whipping in the gale, while “silent lightning glowed in between the folds of inky clouds like incandescent magnesium wires”. I would really love to see this book translated for a wider audience.

Did you dip into Bengali folk art traditions while working on the cover as well as the illustrations?

This requires a somewhat longer response. In my school Patha Bhavan, in Ballygunge, the art room was our favourite refuge, where Gautamda (Chowdhury) very patiently taught us to make lino and wood cut prints, stencils, clay modelling, and explained not only formal art school techniques and media like gouache, or tempera, but also more culturally proximate styles, like the narrative flow and drawing perspective of the painted scrolls from Medinipur, and their colours made from natural vegetable and mineral dyes by the Chitrakars. This influenced my understanding of art and visuals to a great extent and stayed with me while growing up. Also, like anybody else from my generation, I was absorbing what I saw around me, like Warli or Gond paintings, Kalighat pats, illustrations by Purnendu Patri or Krishnendu Chaki in the periodicals Desh or Anandamela, and the work of artists I discovered with complete awe, like Madhavi Parekh or Dharmanarayan Dasgupta, and leafing through the Great Artists series on Chagall, Redon, Rousseau, or Schiele that all of us regularly bought off second hand book shops on the pavements in front of the Indian Museum or at Gariahat.

All of this swarmed my visual imagination, and I try to cull out something of a personal vocabulary from this visual universe in my head, which has also become very much a part of my sense of self. I am slowly learning how to distil and process these influences and acknowledge my debts, without copying or appropriating, such that it can also become an expression of my own.

Reviewers have called Pebblemonkey a work of magical realism and climate fiction. Many have appreciated the author’s imagination of inter-species interaction. Did you feel the need to direct the reader’s gaze towards these interpretations? What impact did the setting, characters, themes, and vocabulary used in the book have on you?

Pebblemonkey, read in isolation, was a strange, baffling book, and I constantly drew entirely different interpretations as I was reading it. But I slowly began to understand that not everything about him had to neatly fall in place.

Pebblemonkey’s discoveries, adventures, experiences and realisations are inherently messy, often unpredictable, or contradictory. He is sometimes compassionate and laudable in his ethics, and sometimes not at all. He is playful, childlike, wise, determined, prurient or downright unthoughtful at times, and while I did not know how to convey all of this – about Pebblemonkey, his trajectory through life, the inter species relations depicted in the book, the author’s recontextualised mythopoeic telling of familiar narratives, or his deep investment in ecology and the forest folk – I tried in my illustration, with my colours, and the scribbled lines, and Pebblemonkey’s inscrutable smile, to capture some little part of it. The rest must be left entirely to the readers’ own interpretations.

You studied book cover design with artist Sunandini Banerjee at the Seagull School of Publishing. She is known for her vibrant colour palette. What did you learn from her?

Sunandini is simply beyond logic, and her luminous colour palettes are only a small part of it. She was my contemporary in college, and I continued to marvel at the work she was doing at Seagull, and mesmerised by her first exhibition ‘By Design’ and then by her illustrations for Thomas Bernhard’s book Victor Halfwit, and its outrageously brilliant juxtapositions and visual humour.

So naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to attend the book design course at Seagull, where Sunandini explained how to visualize, when to accentuate or edit elements, and spoke of her own design process in detail. She has always helped me, sometimes with mock briefs so I could practise, and sometimes by going over my designs with encouragement and fantastic suggestions, in the many years following the course, when I was struggling to find a voice.

I wait for the Seagull catalogue and calendar every year, and often turn to those and Victor Halfwit, and The Seagull Salmagundi of Publishing Terms, a slim handbook that she has put together exclusively for Seagull Publishing School students, for inspiration. Sunandini is always in my mind when I design, and I’m very glad about that.

You have a PhD with a joint affiliation to the Department of Film Studies at Jadavpur University and the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. To what extent has cinema shaped your visual language? Looking at your own work, do you notice influences from certain filmmakers?

Not so much or not as yet, but this is also because my covers are more in a hand drawn style rather than photorealistic collages or composites. But as with any exposure to visual arts, our conceptual horizons suddenly opened up like a very chaotic Pandora’s box because of the films we watched or studied at university – by film makers such as Luis Buñuel, Maya Deren, Ritwik Ghatak, Fritz Lang, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Agnès Varda.

Sometimes odd, accidental, non-canonical finds too lingered in my mind, for example, the portraits by Francesco Clemente and the dusty to jewel-like shades of green that appear throughout in Alfonso Cuarón’s Great Expectations (1998) – it’s a film that the director later regretted making because he had not liked the script and thought he could compensate for it with his visual treatment, which was the part that caught my fancy.

Which other book covers have you worked on, and are in the process of working on?

I only made covers for academic books for the first few years, often helped by the encouragement and invaluable input from my assigning editors. The books I did with Kolkata presses like Stree-Samya or Jadavpur University Press allowed me more freedom to interpret the books, which greatly helped me improve my visualisation. Some of the covers that I am the proudest of, like Dalit Lekhika or Amare dei tomar haate, I owe to these two presses.

At the moment, I am trying for the first time to make a poster, which is challenging because of the larger size and also because I need to draw instead of using photographs or stills, which is the norm for such posters. Again, this might not be successful at all, but I’m taking notes, revising, embracing accidents, and learning as I go through the process.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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