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sunandini banerjee interview

Coming from a literature background, you began working as an editor at Seagull Books. Now you are also its Senior Graphic Designer. How did this change come into being?


Although I joined Seagull Books as an editorial assistant whose main tasks were to copy-edit and proofread, I was young and rash enough to ask questions such as ‘Why can’t the editors typeset?’ and ‘Please can I design the poster for the next book launch?’ and ‘Could I recommend which picture goes on the cover of this book?’ And the most amazing thing about Seagull Books is that those questions were not only heard but also paid serious attention to, and I was allowed to attempt all of the above. Initially, posters and invitations and newsletters. Then, over time, the book covers and, finally, the Seagull Books catalogue.

I love words. And I love pictures. The ‘words’ part I could indulge in byreading and by studying literature–And then by working as an editor. But the ‘pictures’ part eluded me—I cannot draw or paint in real life. The interest remained, but had no way of being expressed. It was when I came to Seagull Books and began to discover the computer, the scanner and the various softwares that my lack of drawing ability ceased to be a handicap and that I could, finally, not only attempt to express all the pictures in my head but also explore newer and newer relationships between image and text. So I began to learn both as an editor and as a graphic designer. I still am. It’s not been a change as much as it has been an unexpected bonus—I have been able to develop a skill I did not know I possessed.


We would like to hear about the working environment at Seagull. How has it impacted your designing?


The environment at Seagull Books is one of freedom and equality and trust, of humour and honesty, of ownership and responsibility. Everyone has a primary task, but everyone is also encouraged to try out jobs and projects that they may not ordinarily have undertaken. One’s personal passions are brought into the fold—if you’re a photographer, we may use your work on our covers; if you’re a poet, we may ask you for a wishlist of poetry you want to see translated and then give you responsibility for just such a project; if you like crime fiction, we may ask you to work on a ‘crime list’ for Seagull Books . . . we take on all of you, complete with your whims and weakness, quirks and curiosities.

We are also lucky that, thanks to the Seagull School of Publishing, as well as Naveen Kishore’s (our Publisher’s)efforts and networks, some of the greatest personalities in publishing and bookselling, writing and translating, have come to our offices in Calcutta, to teach our students (and us). We have had the world brought to us through these wonderful people and their stories,and through the amazing books that Naveen chooses to publish from around the world and that we get to edit and design for. One’s imagination has no choice but to expand at an astonishing pace in order to make room for all these influences people faces places words spaces ideas thoughts laughter colours points of view  . . . My collages reflect this delightful bombardment of senses that we undergo daily. So my design process, and its outcome, is changing constantly, growing and shifting and mirroring the changes in my imagination and ideas as I read and meet and listen to more and more people.


When you are illustrating a book, do you get free rein from the author? Do they have any inputs during the process?


They don’t have any inputs during the process, but they do see it after I’ve done my work. And I do take their thoughts into consideration in case what I have done does not appealto them, or if I have unintentionally misrepresented or misunderstood their work. Sometimes, if I feel very strongly about something, we have a conversation where I try to get them to see things from my point of view. It’s really that—a conversation, between my work and theirs. So if we can also have that conversation in real life, it’s wonderful. I’ve been very lucky with my authors—in some cases, their heirs and estates—so far.

As a designer you are not only occupied with the cover design—you have also illustrated books and numerous Seagull Books catalogues. The Isha Upanishad, in which you collaborated with PritishNandy, being one of the most notable examples. In it, we feel that the illustrations do not strictly follow the narrative; rather, they seem topresent a parallel narrative. Doyou agree? And how was this experience different from working on Thomas Bernhard’s Victor Halfwit: A Winter’s Tale?


Yes, my collages for the Isha are indeed a parallel narrative. Or a door, opening out from the word on the page into the world beyond.

Here is what I’ve written elsewhere about my interpretation of the Isha: ‘Though a short text, the Isha Upanishad weaves in and out of philosophy, religion, ritualism and metaphysics. In my visual interpretation of it, I’ve treated it like an universal prayer, a spontaneous utterance, a heartfelt thanksgiving by anyone, in any part of the world, belonging or not belonging to any religion. By anyone who’s ever been moved by a sunset or a thunderstorm or a minor miracle on the Underground. By anyone who’s ever whispered, ‘Thank god!’—that’s who the book is for. I’ve tried to create collages that do represent its Indian origin but that take it beyond the borders of any one land and therefore, hopefully, into the realm of the universal.’

The experience of working on the Isha wasn’t terribly different from the experience of working on Victor Halfwit, althoughit was definitely shorter, and swifter—Victor Halfwit numbers approximately 220 pages compared to the less than 100 of the Isha! For both, my collages evolved out of my interpretation of the line upon the page, an interpretation informed by my particular life experiences, tastes, sense of humour, sense of melancholy, sense of self, sense of others, reflection, remembrance, rage, wrath, solitude, cinema reading, reading, words, reading people, misreading words misreading people, refracting,colouring, bleaching, copying, pasting . . . so, layer upon layer upon layer, arising from the text, talking to the text, laughing at the text, rewriting the text. Interacting with the text. And inviting the viewer in.

When we look at the length and breadth of your oeuvre, some of the motifs (for instance, the comma, the teardrop, certain flowers and birds) recur. How do you manage to reuse motifs yet not be repetitive? Is it a conscious effort or do you simply follow your creative instincts?


It’s not a conscious effort. Some shapes\colours\images motifs appeal to me more than others. So they crop up every now and then as and when I remember them. Sometimes they are necessary, sometimes they are my whimsy. Sometimes I cannot quite explain why they are there or how I came to recall them. Some I outgrow. Some I grow with. They are like people. Some friends. For life.


Have you ever collaborated with an author where you participated in shaping of the text or vice versa (like writers and illustrators collaborate in the making of graphic novels).  If so, how was the experience?


No, not yet.


Since you are now also a teacher at the Seagull School of Publishing, how would you describe the transition from a designer to an instructor who teaches others to design? What did you learn, being a teacher?


There’s been no transition—rather, there’s been another expansion of the self and the imagination so as to encompass a new way of being and working. One is not changing from an editor to a designer to a translator to a dreamer to a teacher. One is being all of them at once, adding more and more roles as the days go by and life demands more and more excitements from you. What it has taught me is that I will never know enough—every batch of students has ‘taught’ me something about the computer or about the Internet or about colours, seeing, designing, interpreting,PinterestingFacebooking, photographing,QuarkXpress, shortcutting. It’s wonderful, to be talking to new minds all the time, to be seeing my own work refracted through so many new opinions and questions, to be able to in turn explain what I do and how I do and why I do it. To see if I still like it. How wonderful to learn that there is so much more that I can learn. I teach them everything I know. They learn, come up with something entirely unexpected based on that learning. And then I learn. And so it goeson.


Of all the book covers that you have designed, are there any which you feel particularly attached to? If so, which of them would make it to‘top three’ list? As for the attached image, as a book-cover designer how do you feel about this idea?


I like them for the moment but often feel awkward and embarrassed about them soon after. I’m not entirely sure why—but it feels as though as soon as they are done, they have grown ‘old’ and that I have moved on from them, that particular technique, that particular combination of colours, etc. My current top three are: Georges Perros, Paper Collage; Abdourahman A. Waberi, The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper; and Georg Trakl, Poems.

As for the attached image: I think its great fun—what a wonderful idea! How thoughtful is this person who has decided to give all us harassed and overworked cover designers a break? But seriously, this is a really fun idea, inviting the reader to take a risk based on a few words alone. Opens up a whole new way of discovering new works and rediscovering old ones. BUT someone has to sit and wrap all those books AND write those intriguing few lines on the wrapping paper!


Who are the other artists/designers whose work you admire?


  1. G. Subramanyan, for his work and his spirit, his energy and his keen mind, his sense of humour and his unflagging experiments with form and colour. Rabindranath Tagore. Benodebhari Mukherjee, especially for the paper cuts he did after he went blind; William Kentridge. Max Ernst, EgonSchiele, Edward Gorey, Sara Fanneli, the hundreds and thousands of unnamed folk artists of India. Cover Designers: David Pearson’s covers for Penguin, especially his redesigning of some of their classic backlists, many of Pinaki De, BenaSareen and Mishta Roy’s covers, Chip Kidd, almost every book designed by Tara Books . . . this is an endless list . . . there is just too much great art and great design out there to name just a few.


New figures from Nielsen BookScan confirm a steady decline in the traditional book industry since 2009 as more and more readers migrate to ebooks. The sales of printed books have fallen by more than £150 million in the last five years. As a designer and core member of a publishing house, does this give you any cause for concern?


Not in the slightest. What matters is that content is being generated, and that content is being read. Great that the reader can choose exactly how and where to read—at home, on paper, or in a train on a device. Why not? Does this mean that content no longer needs to be designed? Or that it no longer needs to be edited? Not at all. Newer and newer interfaces bring in newer and newer issues to keep in mind, regarding language, readability and accessibility. All this has to be incorporated into how we put out a book, be it on paper or in an e-version. We should work with the enhanced possibilities of publishing instead of being terrified by them. There is so much more that can be done. But yes, it’s a change and all change is frightening. We all need to adapt a little instead of burrowing our heads in the sand. On the other hand, I’ve just been told that e-sales have now reached a plateau stage and that there is an increased demand, or a return, to the joys of a beautifully crafted ‘physical’ book. Much as we are returning to the LPs. Either way, we are all still reading and writing. Which is ultimately what the publishing industry is all about.


Needless to say, over the years you have contributed immensely to both Seagull Books and the field of illustration as a designer.  However, do you have any plans to publish your own writing? 

Oh dear, no. I have so much of other people’s writing left to publish that adding my own to the pile seems like a cruel thing to do.


Interviewed by Rai and Siddhi Surte

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