Some books have class. Some are destined to become classics. Yet others leave you wondering: what is the definition of a book?
Bangalore-based Avinash Veeraraghavan's I Love my India, co-published by Chennai's Tara Publishing and UK-based Dewi Lewis Publishing in late 2004, falls into the latter category.
Why? Because it cocks a snook at narrative and preconceptions. And what defines a city or a book.
How does Veeraraghavan explore the interface between kitsch and popular culture? Through fused photography and digital cut-and-paste techniques. Or surreal and camp images. He even invites the reader to "cut and paste, or connect the dots" to construct their own cityscapes.
Conceptually, the 96-page flexi-cover book is in a large format. Unusually printed on uncoated stock paper, it is a bright pastiche of images born of everyday urban aesthetics. Veeraraghavan consciously renders the familiar unfamiliar through colour-loud posters or graffiti that we look at, yet rarely see. Some sections have the back-and-forth flow of thought streams.
The tantalising book (priced Rs 1,200) is definitely a breakthrough within the conservative corridors of Indian publishing. For, to him, I Love my India, subtitled `Stories for a City,' is about "reading the pictures as you normally would read words, rather than what the book says or how it does so."
Why has the 29-year-old artist-designer left spaces for the viewer-reader to intervene? "Because the city I see and the one you inhabit might be different," he explains. "I feel we all have an interior city. Here, the imaginary city is seen with my eyes turned inside. It doesn't exist. Yet it does because my photographs are sourced from real locations."
The book is the third in an ongoing co-publishing venture on contemporary Indian visual culture between Tara and Dewi Lewis since 2002. It follows Baby! and An Ideal Boy: Charts from India. The former features a hundred classic (and zany) baby posters, while the latter explores the lurid and pedagogic world of the Indian chart. An Ideal Boy sold 5,000 copies worldwide, generating approximately Rs 80 lakh.
Veeraraghavan's volume fits right into the genre. His visual guru, once Bangalore-based Italian designer Andrea Anastasio, writes of the young visionary, "Equipped with the curiosity of an explorer, the author engages in a romance with his own habitat, neither to document buildings and streets, nor to just gather postcards of his town... Pictures are juxtaposed without any hierarchy.
Portraits, still lives, movie star posters as big as palace facades, advertising billboards, buildings and trees are lined out to generate an acid and poetic vision, where the inside and the outside, the manmade and the natural, are not perceived as divided."
How does the artist perceive his unusually spontaneous book? It was constructed about three years ago over 18 months with a "low-tech, primitive laptop and scanner."
Veeraraghavan responds, "I learnt my grammar for my generic city from public culture. These artists don't care how they construct their image, as long as it is evocative. For instance, in a sugarcane juice shop, I once saw a poster of Paris with Mt. Fujiyama and the Eiffel Tower! Just the idea of an exotic fantasy. I've tried to keep in mind that disregard when I did this book, originally put together entirely for myself." he stresses.
Veeraraghavan, who runs his design studio Beetroot out of his home, paints textured walls or designs posters and invitations for a living. With two solo and one group shows behind him, he defines his influences thus: "In building this imaginary city, I took my cues from the billboards I see every day, TV that I watch all the time, and architecture — which was part of my post-school programme after I completed my A-Level exams at the Centre for Learning."
Perhaps his alternate lens was formed partially by this breakaway, individualistic school (with a total population of under 100). Or by his travel and work experiences at Milan, Rome, Venice, Switzerland, besides the US and the UK. "The here and there is all so mixed up now," laughs Veeraraghavan of globalisation. "In the US last year, I stepped into a restaurant and thought: `Just like India... ' That's because I'd first encountered the American aesthetic here!"
What of the Dewi Lewis tie-up? This Stockport-based publishing house is known as a global leader in photographic publishing. It was nominated for the Booker Prize, Photo Eye and European Photographic Awards. Tara met them at the Frankfurt book fair around 2001.
Sirish Rao of Tara explains over e-mail: "The agreement is that Tara generates one book idea a year, in consultation with Dewi Lewis. The origination and pre-press costs are Tara's, the production typically costs Rs 8 lakh and is shared equally. Dewi Lewis takes care of the marketing costs in the UK and US markets (typically another Rs 8 lakh). This includes publicity material, advertising/promotions and exhibitions. Actual sales costs like distribution and transport are shared equally, as are the net profits and royalties payable to the author."
How does it impact Tara's reputation? "Our association with Dewi Lewis has quickly put us on the map in the international visual arts world, attracting new talent in terms of author, and new clients as well," he stresses.
Of the 1,500 copies of each global print run, India accounts for about 250. "This is not a lot, but in a price-conscious market, with a small readership for cutting edge work, this is a good initial number. We have had surprisingly good sales in India of the previous two books in the series, surpassing our expectations, and hope for the same to happen with this one," adds Rao.
With a little bit of luck, Veeraraghavan's cut-and-paste city could upend notions of the book as a visual entity. If we dare to tear along dotted lines, then flip half-pages to deconstruct imaginary landscapes. If that's not daring ideation, what is?
(The Hindu Business Line 2005)