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Indrajit Hazra is a writer and journalist. His latest book is 'Grand Delusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata' (Aleph)

Who the hell banished illustrations from (grown-up) literature?

Jatindranath Sarkar’s illustration with Rajshekhar Bose’s short story On Bhushandi’s Plain

irst the trigger, then the target. A couple of weeks ago, I was reading a strange book, Dekho. The title was a pointed invitation to see the book rather than to just read (Pado) it. Once 'inside', I became very aware that my act of reading Dekho, a collection of 'conversations' on design in India, not only involved scanning and processing the standard visual devices of letters and words that came trailing one after the other in rapid, tumbling code, but also the other more 'pictorial' forms accompanying the text on every page.

Even the usual depictions of photographs in the opening conversation, 'Learning Ground' with MP Ranjan, "one of India's most prolific design-evangelists", had text and image organically riffing with each other to produce a textual-visual experience. 'Spoken Words', the conversation with the late Raghunath K Joshi, professor at the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, Mumbai, was even more captivating as the images of a letter from a script in isolation or in a cluster suddenly showed themselves for what it is: a visual mark holding meaning(s) in its form, which, according to Joshi, holds in itself the sound of the word depicted ("Unfortunately in India, typographers and linguists do not work together.").

The same exploration into script continues in a different context in 'Letters From the East', a conversation with graphic designer Neelakash Kshetrimayam, who speaks about the re-emergence of Manipur's Meitei Mayeh script from the heavy weight of the more prevalent Bengali script.

There are so few books out there whose content actually mirrors the subject they deal with. Dekho, with its design elements, layouts, co-habitation of the visual and the textual, and its sheer playfulness, tells the viewer-reader what the book he is holding in his hands is about even before he starts reading any of the pieces in it. And after reading them, the reader comes out with a double happiness as if from a train ride in an amusement park.

It is impossible for me to share the experience of joined-at-the-hip seeing-reading Dekho as all I can do here is quote some of the text. As comic artist Orijit Sen in 'Of the Head, Hand and Heart', the conversation with him and Gurpreet Sidhu on the People Tree brand of designed products that they founded, says to reject the notion of art and craft residing in two separate compartments, "There is an intelligence in the hand — intelligence doesn't reside only in the head."

o take Orijit's point of content and form being like the 'upstairs' and 'downstairs' of the same staircase, there is a constant silent war between things textual and visual. This becomes a total massacre of the visual in books — barring in the kingdom of comic books and graphic novels where the visual is the king, thereby adding to the strangeness of the writers who don't do their own art work in graphic novels getting top billing over the artists.

In the 'strip cartoon' foreword of The Obliterary Journal Volume 1, one of the editors of the book, Rakesh Khanna, actually communicates this weird asymmetry by showing a road sign raising its arm in a fist and declaring Spartacus-like: "Obliterate literature! Down with novels! Long live comics and picture books and graffiti and wacky art!"

Which brings me to my target.

Why are there no illustrations with novels, short stories or other forms of the written word? In an age where books are jostling to be read like sardines in a peak-hour bus ride, having illustrations would even carry strategic value. And yet, in contemporary literature, illustrations in books have been boxed in only with children's books — as if the great illustrations by George Cruikshank a.k.a. 'Boz' with Dickens' novels rendered the writings only fit for children. There is less inhibition with having photos, diagrams and maps in non-fiction books. So why the coyness with illustrations with fiction?

Notice that I've not mentioned either John Tenniel's iconic illustrations with Lewis Carroll's Alice books or Prabha Mallya's fantastic drawings strewn across the pages of Nilanjana Roy's The Wildings as both are pitched as 'children's literature'. Even as I come from the textual side of the fence, I'm puzzled by why books for adult consumption (by which I mean on the less colourful side of pornography) are not accompanied by visual elements. After all, without turning traitor to my tribe, illustrations can only enhance the text.

Each time I read On Bhushandi's Plain by 'Parashuram' a.k.a. Rajshekhar Bose, I look forward to reading the bit where Shibu Bhattacharya, dead and now existing as a ghost, sees a fellow departed "swathed in a tent-like dress from top to toe" who "once and only once... had laid her veil aside, stolen a glance at Shibu and bashfully stuck out her tongue".

I love this bit especially because the page is accompanied by a startlingly memorable, almost geometrically abstract in its modernism black-and-white illustration by 'Narad' a.k.a. Jatindrakumar Sarkar of the dead woman in a white sari, her coal black face peeking out of her ghomta (veil or ghunghat) and looking out (at Shibu). You can feel Bose's text brimming with utter pride lying next to Sarkar's astounding picture.

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