Tag Archives: Design

Art house

Delhi artists show us their homes ♦

Time Out gets an all-access pass into the homes of some of Delhi’s best, and best-loved artists, who graciously entertained all our queries. We asked for the whys, wherefores and whos of their owl collections, demanded to know the history of their flooring, and wheedled a free tour of their Picassos and Paul Klees. From September 2012. Read the full story below, or download it as a prettier PDF here.

Published: September 1, 2012

Flaps over jackets

What’s behind the various covers of Indian books? ♦

beautyfullOn the US edition of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a girl squats in a swamp, surrounded by a slum. Her face, tilted towards a pale, yellow sky, could reflect grief or devotion. The UK and India edition’s cover is the polar opposite – saturated with shades of cerulean, yellow, and pink, its subject is the figure of a boy in motion, running up a flight of stairs: a symbolically hopeful image that recalls the kitsch aesthetic of Slumdog Millionaire.

Are American readers so wracked by guilty privilege that they’re more likely to pay money for an image of abject poverty? Do Indian readers respond better to stylized, uplifting images of the poor than confront them as stark, hopeless reality? In their role as packaging, book covers are beholden to market tastes, which vary from place to place. It’s often tempting to spin sociological theories from the differences between them around the world. But drawing conclusions about cultural differences based on cover designs is a complicated exercise.

A complaint we’ve heard often among editors, designers, authors and intellectuals in the Indian publishing scene is that books by Indians or about India often get the exotic treatment by cover designers abroad. Freelance book cover designer Pinaki De said he thinks the typical Western design reflects a “pigeonholing, [a] very claustrophobic idea of India”. HarperCollins India’s publisher VK Karthika listed “mehndi, the Taj Mahal, bindis, even a sort of Sanskritised looking font” as the recurring stereotypical motifs she sees cross her desk from abroad.

Some authors actively try to ensure that their books avoid orientalist treatment. Sonia Faleiro recalled her ground rules about the international covers of Beautiful Thing: “Firstly, no stereotypes. So, no henna, no precious fonts. Second, if you put a woman on the cover she must have brown skin.” With a dozen editions in print or in the pipeline, there are almost as many covers of Beautiful Thing – variations on a portrait, a crop of a woman’s torso, and even a painting.

The book cover of Open magazine editor Manu Joseph’s Serious Men has as many variations. Joseph, who aired a similar opinion about the American edition’s Shiva cover in the Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time blog last year, was quick to qualify the thought when we spoke to him. “India is a selling point,” he said, with “a set of visual images which work – it could be a sari, it could be a bindi, it could be any of the gods. The Italian cover of Serious Men has Akbar holding a broken rose.” These stock stereotypes exist for a reason, Joseph said, “as long as people are thinking so deeply about your book, or how to sell your book, I think as an author you feel a bit secure.”

Typically, authors do tend to come around to a cover, especially if it enjoys commercial success. Siddhartha Deb, whose The Beautiful and the Damned ran with a techie pastiche in its American hardcover edition, said, “I initially really disliked the pink cover for the UK paperback/India edition and gave a very grudging yes to it, but people do love it… I’ve grown pretty fond of it myself.”

Traditionally, the use of different covers in different markets stems from a split in US and UK cover design (conventionally perceived as a divide between commercial American covers and artistic British ones). In both these big markets, publishers’ representatives take books to major sellers, who can veto covers if they believe they won’t catch on. Here, as Karthika explained, “we present [the book] as a finished product to the trade.” Of course, every country has its own self-exoticising tendencies as well, and a need to differentiate each product. “There may be a Mughal romance,” Karthika said, by way of example, “you want it to look like a Mughal romance, and play the stereotype up, but you also want the book to look different from any other romance out there.”

However, as the internet plays a bigger role in how books are sold, there’s a new tension between the old wisdom of tailoring covers to particular audiences, and standardising them. There’s a move towards using very slight or no variations. “Because of Google and the way searches work, you really want one look for the book,” Karthika said.

Joseph agreed, “It would be nice if there were only one cover. You want a single visual branding where a person looks at a cover and knows that this is that book, without having to read the text.” He added that “for most publishers, Amazon is the biggest client now, so they are looking at covers which would stand out as… a very small thumbnail on your screen.”

Several people pointed to Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger as an iconic example of a typographical cover that was used successfully internationally. As the Indian market grows, and eventually surpasses, foreign markets in size, we’ll likely see more Indian edition covers being picked up abroad. Pinaki De, who has had his designs used internationally, thinks this is already happening. “Increasingly, covers from India are being taken internationally, so that’s good news,” he said. Perhaps Indian designers have their own clichés about the West, he said. “But I personally feel a lot of designers in India are actually doing a lot better than foreign designers.”

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, June 2012.

Published: June 4, 2012

Thukral & Tagra

Admen, artists, ambassadors ♦

bosedkIn the ongoing search to furnish India’s contemporary art scene with international emissaries, it is appropriate that two most prolific ambassadors have a background emblematic of the country’s most shining industry: advertising and design. Anything but appropriate, however, is the impish name of the fake brand that artist/designer duo Sumir Tagra and Jiten Thukral have invented – Bosedk Designs.

This cheeky attitude hides a pair of highly imaginative minds and two pairs of capable hands. Working in a variety of media – graphics, videos, music, interiors, products, paintings, sculpture and installation – Thukral and Tagra showcase design as high art. Yet Bard College curator-in-residence Trevor Smith writes aptly in a recent T&T catalogue that their engagement with design is “not one of distanced reflection or appropriation as is typical of visual artists, nor is it an academic critique of design.”

The artist/designer duo have had several major gallery shows, but also work in graphic and product design, including commissioned work – such as a 1”x1”x1” book titled David and Goliath – for companies such as Condé Nast, United Colors of Benetton and Ogilvy & Mather. Working collaboratively, T&T defy definition; are they artists or designers? Indians or global citizens? Dead serious or completely deadpan?.

What remains consistent is T&T’s almost branded style, straddled insouciantly between art and design. Their paintings – executed with the polish of digital prints – are stylized arrangements of stencil-like cut-outs, precise lettering and ornate embellishment. The question of whether these are backdrops for installation work, studies for projects or product overviews remains one for the critics. In Thukral and Tagra’s major shows, paintings rub shoulders easily with installation, seamlessly connected through content while varying in form.

T&T’s 2007 Everyday Bosedk exhibition at Nature Morte perfectly illustrated this easy coexistence. An exhibition that specifically built up the all-encompassing Bosedk brand and, in doing so, called into question the commercialisation of art and a commodification of style, Everyday Bosedk incorporated wall-size paintings, sculptures and a central installation. Upon entering, each viewer received a pin – a miniature version of an installation of chocolate sauce bottles (with questionably chocolatey boys on them) – forcing the spectator into interaction. Paintings like “It rains everyday” provided ample window-shopping with cookie-cutter figures engaged in various mundane and bizarre activities. But the centrepiece installation, “Keep out of the reach of children” encapsulated the uncomfortably satirical point of the exhibition. The gallery’s basement was transformed into a mini-supermarket – the whole venue branded to dizzying totality with neatly packaged, mysteriously multi-purposed Bosedk products. From bottles reminiscent of cleaning fluid to alcoholic beverages, the installation raised several important questions. Is this packaged seamlessness the real art-mart of India’s elated (perhaps inflated) art scene? Does the work’s title imply a condemnation of homogenization – a note of caution about the effect of dangerously attractive consumer culture on young children? By creating the illusion of mass-produced, monopolizing corporate unoroginality within an installation that was – given its galleried context – highly original, Thukral and Tagra have the last (albeit ambivalent) laugh.

The duo continue their political engagement in new projects, despite a certain self-directed irony. Peter Nagy writes in their catalogue that “Blinders are helpful when jumping into any fray… Most necessary [for artistic creation] may be an inert stupidity (in no short supply) against which to measure one’s own actions and intelligence…” The knowledge that world-saving may be arrogantly idealistic but better than doing nothing  at all underlay the pair’s recent “Put it on” exhibition at Bose Pacia, New York. The show handled spreading awareness of HIV/AIDS and condom use with witty delivery and a strong conviction in content. Whatever else they make think of themselves, Thukral and Tagra take their job as communicators seriously – coming up with underwear that promotes condoms, slippers with correct steps for condom usage printed on them, and a diagram, appropriated directly from market-strategy, of the moments during foreplay at which condom-awareness intervention through media is necessary. Extolls Nagy in the catalogue, “The Revolution will not only be televised but also commodified. The call to arms is to Personalize, Strategize, Sensitize, and Diversify.”

T&T’s latest show at Art Statements during Art Basel 38 – Adolescere – Domus – included works that spoke of more personalised touch, less evident in other, artistically aloof, pieces. In these and older paintings from 2004, the pair show up occasionally – not just as their cartoon avatars – but painted realistically if incompletely – a shoulder here, a pair of legs there. References to Delhi Public School, rotory phones and old-fashioned televisions curl up against iPods, bikinis and  self-portrait cartoons. These passing, pastiched icons are as close to self-explanatory as anything T&T have done. We’re in the thick of it, “deformed olive lover” and “skinny-kinky mind”[1] seem to be saying. We don’t care what you call us. We’re just having a damn good time. And then an echo of (canned?) laughter.


[1] Descriptions of Sumir and Jiten from their website www.bosedkdesigns.com

Originally published in Art India, 2007.

Published: October 7, 2007