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Artists defy Electronic Age with verses, ‘snail mail’
ADITYA MANI JHA  17th Jun 2012

One of the H&M letters, illustrated by Prashant Miranda (Harper Leaf)

hen was the last time you wrote a letter just for kicks? And I mean an actual, physical letter, something which is derisively termed 'snail mail' these days. For most of us, the answer to this question would lie inside a closed box, a covert stash, perhaps a chapter of our lives which is all but forgotten. But for artists Prashant Miranda and Kalpana Subramanian, writing letters is second nature.

Taking on the handles Harper Leaf (Prashant) and Madeleine Weathers (Kalpana), the two have been writing letters to each other for almost 18 years now. These letters are often about travelling, nostalgia, their respective works; all of these letters are also in verse. Frequently featuring illustrations by both artists, these poems are both an intensely personal project and a paean to a fading aesthetic tradition. Explaining the genesis of their correspondence, Miranda said, "Madeleine and I met at NID (National Institute of Design) in 1994. The connection was immediate and we've been friends ever since. The correspondence actually began between her and Franc. N. Stein (Shamik Majumdar), and was initially written in prose. I made a guest appearance in that original book, and the rest is history."

The choice of alter-ego was mostly arbitrary, although as Subramanian mentioned, "I think Madeleine suggested mystery to me, after having heard a story about a strange house. Weathers had the element of nature and time that I find inspiring."

These letters, which have been put on the blog harpermadeleine since September 2008, do not follow a chronological order. (In one of the entries, Weathers wrote, "No apologies for the non-linearity of our lives...") Miranda, talking about the rationale behind this decision, said, "We've realised that some letters are applicable to our lives at different junctures and have truths in them that continue to speak to us over the years. So irrespective of space and time, these letters hold true, and the ideologies and philosophies that we address still have meaning."

Much before electronic mail and social networking sites swallowed whole the business of keeping in touch with one’s loved ones, letters were worth their weight in gold.

Many of the poems are marked by genteel humour and a perpetual sense of wonder that is almost child-like. As both Miranda and Subramanian mentioned, their correspondence has been a calming experience, something which has kept them going through tough times. Also, over the years, the duo has tried to mix it around, as far as the letter-writing process is concerned.

What then, are Harper and Madeleine trying out right now? "Now we're trying out a different experiment... I have a Harper Leaf book with all my letters to Madeleine; she replies in her book, and when that is done, we exchange books. There is a log on the last page of the book that keeps track of the places and dates that the letters are written," clarified Miranda.

Much before electronic mail and social networking sites swallowed whole the business of keeping in touch with one's loved ones, letters were worth their weight in gold. Can one really put a price on the letters between Gorky and Chekhov? Or between Groucho Marx and T.S. Eliot for that matter? One only hopes that more artists like Harper and Madeleine revive what is increasingly looking like a lost cause.

Subramanian seemed optimistic about seeing a book-length version of Harper and Madeleine's letters in print someday; and also about the practice of letter-writing in general. "As long as creative people continue to document their exchanges in some form or the other, there will always be a window into their world. It's just that the tangible, personal quality of traditional letter writing is something unique that cannot be replaced."

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