Welcome to our guest column series "Drawn from Memory: Reflections on the Art of Illustration."
JJ Books has invited well known writers to recall images that have inspired their work, from Brahma to Beardsley and beyond.
Prize winning poet and author Tishani Doshi reveals she has fallen in love with her neighbour ... and their exquisite illustrated books.
Up until a decade ago I didn’t think much of books with pictures. As a child they had been my entire world. But I was never one for revisiting. So after struggling across the choppy waters between childhood and maturity, I left picture books behind along with the Bootchie Man and teenage angst.
In 2005 I was given my first Tara Book: The London Jungle Book, a quirky, colourful, travelogue by the Gond artist Bhajju Shyam, who masterfully reversed the anthropological gaze by transforming the city of London into an urban jungle. Big Ben becomes the all-seeing Rooster of Time. Double-deckers are loyal dogs that bring you home, and the tube is a gigantic worm that swallows people up and spits them out.
I quickly added to my Tara stockpile. The Luminous Night Life of Trees - a visual and poetic arboretum of the forests of Central India, made with exquisite handmade silkscreen pages. I Like Cats, Sita’s Ramayana, An Ideal Boy, Baby!, The Bacchae... With each publication, they managed to elicit new levels of delight, aesthetics and general gorgeousness.
There are many reasons why I adore Tara Books. We are neighbours for one. I frequently bump into members of their editorial team while walking in our common stomping grounds, The Theosophical Society in Madras. There’s something comforting and supportive about sharing creative space in a city as mad as Madras. There’s also the fact that as an independent publisher working in the endangered environment of paper, spine, glue, they stave off the rampage of electronic publishing by producing perfect anti-ebooks - books that are objects of art in and of themselves, and demand on reading being a sensory experience. They have also altered how children’s stories are told and read in India by giving morality a backseat and pleasure a front seat. They work with indigenous artists. They come up with unlikely collaborations. They’re always original. And oh, did I say? They make beautiful books.
My most recent Tara acquisition, I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail, was given to me by my three-year-old godson, Milo. The text is an anonymous 17th century poem, one of those trick poems, whose meaning alters depending on how you break the lines. You could read it straight, backwards, zigzag, with interpretations veering from linear to utterly surreal, with no beginning or end. The poem itself works on the premise of finding a range of meanings within the text. Is it the peacock that sees all these wondrous sights - of a well full of men’s tears that weep, a house as big as the moon, an ant swallowing up a whale? Or is it a man? Are peacock and man interchangeable? What exactly is a Venice Glass? And what do eyes look like in a flame of fire?
With intricate black and white illustrations by Ramsingh Urveti, and an ingenious design involving peek-a-boo die-cut holes by Jonathan Yamakami, I Saw a Peacock…alters our way of seeing and understanding. It is magisterial. A triumph. And that I get as much enjoyment out of it as a three-year-old boy, only reinforces what is in fact my greatest debt to Tara Books. That they brought me back. Steered me to that place of gloaming between childhood and adulthood, where the divide between the word and image, reality and fantasy, is blurry and interchangeable.