These Indian illustrators reveal how book covers are changing

From botanical illustrations to typographic book covers, the way books are being perceived is changing and even though the advent of online reading is here, it has actually been a boon for illustrators in India and around the world.Four illustrators tell us their thought process while working on a book cover
By Nascimento Pinto | Mumbai
UPDATED ON JAN 16, 2020 05:40 PM IST

From botanical illustrations to typographic book covers, the way books are being perceived is changing and even though the advent of online reading is here, it has actually been a boon for illustrators around the world. While it may be attributed to marketing, it can’t be denied that the sheer glory of books is now turning to its book cover, which leaves many readers intrigued through its hues of green, blue and yellow and the traditional monochrome, a favourite among many.

A LEAF OUT OF BOTANY

If you’ve come across Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island, the illustration of a snake intertwined with stems and flowers is a sight of intrigue. The imagery can be attributed to Bengaluru-based illustrator Nirupa Rao, who specialises in botanical illustrations, a subset, which is grabbing quite a few eyeballs. “Elements from nature like flora and fauna have become my signature,” says Nirupa, adding, “Against conventional wisdom, I’m definitely one to judge a book by its cover. For me, it sets the mood for the entire book. You also have to consider how the images will interact with the typography on the cover”. For Gun Island, the illustrator added sprigs of Sundari and Burman Mangrove flowers since the book is set in Sunderbans. Using a combination of the books’ elements as well as botany, Nirupa says that she reads and selects a few passages, which strikes her and helps her visualise the cover. The illustrator believes vegetation has the extraordinary power to define the aesthetic of a region, and still have subliminal meaning. So, for an upcoming book titled Soar, she has used a war observation balloon filled with butterflies and birds to describe its surrealism.

Cover for Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island illustrated by Nirupa Rao
Cover for Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island illustrated by Nirupa Rao

ON THE FEMINIST TRAIL

Delhi-based production editor Sukruti Anah Staneley, who has been working on covers for a little over two years, says that it is all about exploring the idea of feminism through different ideas, using black and white colours she admits, are her favourites to use. “We make sure that we have feminism as the underlying theme in all of our work thorough our imagery,” says Sukruti. She has worked on a variety of covers such as graphic, fiction, nonfiction, and more. Her work for Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s Clone, is a literary section piece of work clubbed with science fiction.“Interestingly, the cover that resonated most was a collage with a parrot at the centre, and different elements that are a part of the book,” she adds. Books like No Nation for Women and The Empty Room, are also among her favourites.

Chosen Spirits illustrated by Pia Alize Hazarika
Chosen Spirits illustrated by Pia Alize Hazarika

TYPOGRAPHY IS THE WORD

For Bengaluru-based Norzin Norbhu, who started illustrating book covers in early 2018, her approach to every book cover differs, but at the same time she emphasises on the need for research, especially if it is representative of a culture or a particular region. The eye-for-detail is noticeable in the book by Anungla Zoe Longkumer called The Many That I Am, which is her favourite cover on which she has worked on. The book is about stories from Nagaland, and the result is an eye-catching cover with hues of pink and green of women harvesting chilli in the hills and valleys of Nagaland. Norzin says, “I love playing with overlaying text and illustration, while having a handmade feel to the book through an organic approach, an idea which has evolved since I first started with vector illustrations.”

The Many That I Am illustrated by Norzin Norbhu
The Many That I Am illustrated by Norzin Norbhu

Delhi-based Pia Alize Hazarika says that book covers got her into typography. “Illustrated text is my signature because I like doing layered work with a lot of minute details. If it’s a seamless integration of text and Illustration, I love it,” she says. She has worked on Anant Samant’s Aiwa Maru too. Pia has been illustrating book covers since 2014, and has worked on pretty much every kind of covers.

RECREATING BOOK COVERS

There are a lot of books covers being re-imagined and while the trend hasn’t picked up in India, Pia would definitely like to recreate The Adventures of Amir Hamza, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry or The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. The latter is also on the mind of Sukruti Anah Staneley along with Song Of Surrender by Gowri Ramanarayan. Nirupa too has a lot on her mind as she would like to recreate Peter Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, which she believes is so replete with evocative imagery. A classic like Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, for its magical realism, and lush Columbian backdrop and Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies is also on her list. “At first, book covers in physical stores had to only fight for attention so much but now, the internet is the biggest bookstore and catalogues from all over the world being available — they might need to stand out a little more,” concludes Pia.

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