On the banned wagon: An exhibition reimagines covers of forbidden books - Hindustan Times
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On the banned wagon: An exhibition reimagines covers of forbidden books

Jun 15, 2024 02:53 PM IST

Photographer Rohit Chawla’s project includes the usual suspects (Animal Farm, Perspepolis) and more innocuous titles such as Black Beauty.

Amid cancel culture on the one hand and marginalised slices of society fighting to be heard, what we have is an era of instant scrutiny of anything published. The idea of censorship has become more central to public discourse.

Thirty book covers feature in Chawla’s exhibition, titled Banned. (Shaswat Kakkar) PREMIUM
Thirty book covers feature in Chawla’s exhibition, titled Banned. (Shaswat Kakkar)

This chaos is the context of photographer Rohit Chawla’s recent series of works, titled Banned, in which he recreates the covers of 30 books, some of which are still banned in some parts of the world today — books such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), which has through the years been banned in schools in parts of the US for being pro-Communist, and Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis (2003), banned in Iran for its critical depiction of the Islamic state.

Chawla started his career and spent close to two decades in advertising before eventually moving out to start on his own as a visual journalist and artist in 2006. He has held many solo exhibitions in these years but the one that remains closest to his heart is ‘Untangling the Politics of Hair’ created as a tribute to the Iranian girl Mahsa Amini in 2023, who lost her life during the anti-hijab protests in Iran.

The exhibition premiered at the Art Alive Gallery at the India Art Fair and won Craft Gold Lion at Cannes and two Design Grand Prix awards.

“In everything that I try to do with my craft, I seek to have a certain political resonance in today’s fractured times,” he says.

The space for free creative expression is shrinking, he adds. It is at threat not just from external factors but also from self-censorship. “Be it cinema, comedy or just speaking at a public forum, everyone watches their words more than they did before.”

This project, then, is a way of holding a mirror up to the times, through a look at other periods and places in which censorship has won. In picking works that are now modern classics, he seeks to confront the viewer with the knowledge that what is censured today may soon be considered a vital, treasured element of a country’s art and culture, and a part, in fact, of the viewer’s everyday life. It also confronts the viewer with the strangeness of the bans.

“It’s comical to imagine that books like Alice in Wonderland and even the innocuous Black Beauty were once banned in China and South Africa,” he says. While Anna Sewell’s 1877 work Black Beauty was banned during the apartheid regime as it was thought to be the story of a black woman, Alice in Wonderland was forbidden in China’s Hunan province in 1931 because it put animals at par with humans, which was deemed inappropriate and insulting.

The exhibition still running at STIR Gallery in New Delhi is also accompanied by a note explaining why each book made it to the list and the context of the show. After this, it will be available on Chawla’s website, rohitchawlaphotography.com and travel to various literary festivals.

Chawla’s list throws up several striking examples. A Farewell to Arms was banned in Ireland, Italy and Germany in 1929, because these countries considered its portrayal of their actions in the war unflattering and therefore inappropriate. Animal Farm was banned in the USSR and Cuba for its satirical take on communism.

Chawla reimagines the covers in ways that seek to highlight the banned books’ importance and impact in the contemporary world.

Persepolis, for instance, is an autobiographical work about a girl growing up in Iran as the relatively liberal monarchy becomes a conservative Sharia state. The story explores society, politics and sexuality.

Chawla’s cover features a young woman covered in a veil of her hair, as a tribute to Mahsa Amini, the Iranian woman arrested for opposing the mandatory hijab in 2022, who later died in state custody.

He says that the Animal Farm cover was inspired by some current ragtag dictatorial regimes in the east and the cover for Black Beauty was inspired by the fact that it was banned in the apartheid era in South Africa because of the fundamental premise “how could anything black be beautiful.”

On the process of his design, Chawla says he followed the simple ideas behind any good cover: It is meant to be a visual distillation of the writing and it entices a reader into embracing the book. For this, he layered some of his own images with elements contributed by AI imaging programs.

“Increasingly, AI forces us to be more innovative and not just rely on the old ways of seeing,” Chawla says. “First photography was democratised with the advent of digital devices and platforms, and so everyone everywhere speaks and practices the language of visuals. With AI, the world will soon speak the language of art in its entirety.”

The response has been overwhelming, he says. Visitors were often surprised to find books regarded as essential reading in several universities on the list of banned books.

Chawla feels it is an increasingly difficult time for creative practitioners trying to make a political statement with their craft as they are wary of paying a physical price for their independent opinions. Anything mildly outspoken can unleash an army of offensive trolls, he says, But he is still optimistic about the future of writing that always essentially pushes the boundaries.

“People will always find new and innovative ways to say the unsaid creatively. The relentless quest for magic realism in art even in politically charged times creates its own poetry of sorts,” he says.

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