Tuesday

The Monumental India

Kishore Singh / New Delhi


Size matters, but so does content when it comes to large format books and equally glitzy pricing.

A few days into the launch of his The Monumental India Book, photographer Amit Pasricha was surprised by a phone call from a Spanish count in Paris who had bought the book and then traced his number from the net.

“He was probably sloshed even though it was afternoon there,” grins one of India’s famously reticent photographers, “but he loved the book and had taken the trouble to trace me and tell me that.”

It’s something Pasricha might just have to get used to. For years, he has been contributing his pictures for illustrated publishing, an euphemism for the more common but no less pejorative term, coffee table books.Those were, well, nice enough pictures in nice enough books, but nothing that would get people, even less Spanish counts, excited enough to start calling through a haze of cocktail vapours.

But with Monumental India, Pasricha has broken that mould. It is a zinger of a book for a photographer, almost entirely consisting of panoramas of landscapes and monuments in north India. The places, or at least most of the places selected by Meera Ahuja of The Shoestring Publisher, for whom this is her debut book, are almost clich├ęs in themselves — it is the width and surprising depth and lushness of each picture that makes the difference.

Pictorial books on India are hardly new and over the years publishing houses, led by Roli Books which pioneered this form of publishing in the country, have been filling shelves with a mix of forgettable touristy folios and more distinguished tomes.

Photographer Raghu Rai’s eponymous Taj Mahal book got him a lot of attention and equally speculation about the posed affect of a woman drenched in the rain with the Taj in the background.

Other titles followed, on the Sikhs and on Khajuraho, even though publisher Pramod Kapoor of Roli says these books were hardly in the category of bestsellers.And yet, that’s the transition high quality pictorial books have now made as they become works of art in themselves, and are expensively priced as much for deterrence as for enhancing their value. Pasricha’s book is being sold at an introductory price of Rs 9,995 and will be priced at Rs 12,000 beginning January 2008. Kapoor explains it as a worldwide trend.

“Most of our books,” he says, “were a part of what is called promotional publishing, where a book is notionally priced at, say, £9.99, but from the day it goes on sale, it is at a discounted price of £4.99. This form of publishing collapsed in the West two-three years ago.”

Fortunately for him and a few others, that coincided with a trend towards the making of “larger books”. The tourist trade in pictorial paperbacks continues, but Kapoor says, “We are doing more expensive books now.” Er, why? “Because with an advancement in photography, everyone is a photographer today,” explains the publisher, “which is why you need the kind of books that might have been considered a risk earlier.”

If anything, these books are proving otherwise. Roli’s Made for Maharajas, a beautifully packaged tome on the fashion and jewellery houses and establishments that created tableware and baubles exclusively for the princely houses of India, and which was nominated among the best books of 2005 by Time, has been reprinted with 15,000 copies after the first edition of 10,000 copies sold out, and “we will probably reprint in spring again”.

Sold in a leather box that is not quite Louis Vuitton, at Rs 4,500, the book has made a killing, especially since time and effort rather than cost went into its making with a wealth of archival pictures.

Yet, “India cannot sustain more than two such books a year”, insists Meera Ahuja of Shoestring, who also explains that an international co-edition allows you the freedom to go ahead and publish, but if you are on your own, chances are the book “will not be financially viable”. It’s easy to see why. Prabir Purkayastha spent eight years shooting pictures for Ladakh, experimenting with films, working in the winter, freezing half to death in sub-zero temperatures at night.

Published by Timeless, the book priced at Rs 11,500 for the regular edition and Rs 17,500 for a special edition, is still to recover its costs. This despite Purkayastha taking on the project part-time (he was working with advertising agency Mudra). The 3,000 copies of the book have still to sell out, and already its photographer, who has taken a long break from his corporate career, has been working on another book for three years.

Aiming for a summer launch, the new book will probably raise the bar further. “When I raise the camera to my eye,” says Purkayastha, “I want to see art within art, the aesthetics within the visual, and I need to raise the bar by many, many notches.”

But what Ladakh did for him was provide him a platform for galleries in the West who are now keen to exhibit his work and sell limited editions for as much as Rs 3-3.5 lakh each.

Already, all 10 copies of the picture on the cover — a monk seemingly embracing the light from the heavens — have sold out. It is such collaborative associations that photographers are now looking out for.

“Pricing is a dodgy thing in India,” says Purkayastha, but galleries such as Bodhi, Tasveer, Vadehra and Nature Morte have brought about some semblance and rationalisation now. But, says Purkayastha, the time is not far when you will have “small, limited edition books supported by private collectors or by corporate houses”.

That’s happening already. Delhi Art Gallery has been commissioning books on artists for some time, but it is Art Alive which has raised the barrier with its Masters series featuring sculptor K S Radhakrishnan, and artists Thotta Vaikuntam and S H Raza, but it is its more recent book, Faces of Indian Art (Rs 6,500), which has Nemai Ghosh photographing 52 senior artists in their studios, that is the more monumental work.

Artist Satish Gupta chose to self-publish what is arguably India’s most expensive art catalogue in a sense, when he launched a 700-copies edition of Satish Gupta complete with original, signed works of art forming part of the book for Rs 27,500. The book has practically sold out.

“But these are not commercial ventures,” points out Roli’s Kapoor, “they have some support.”

He agrees that with more disposable incomes, younger people are now spending more money on books. It’s one reason their Kite’s Eye View of India by French photographer Nicholas Chorier has moved so rapidly despite a prohibitive price of Rs 2,975.

Already, within two months of its launch, the 32,000 copies internationally have sold out (5,000 in India), and a second edition is in the works. “It would have been inconceivable five years ago,” says Kapoor.

It doesn’t make it any easier for photographers though, who say the value doesn’t match their expectations. Pasricha, for instance, has been working on several simultaneous projects over the years.

Monumental India fell into his lap even while he has been working on pet project Indiawide, a series of images that require him to pan from a panoramic head atop the tripod. Each picture is made up of as many as 12 shots selected, in turn, from some 120 frames. It isn’t easy considering one photograph may require as many as three hours on the same spot.

“And if you find there was a better location,” grins Pasricha, “you can only curse your luck!” No wonder Indian Weddings and another book on Delhi photographed from the height of fire engine ladders (imagine getting the permissions!) have been so long in the making.

Eventually, “to be successful, a project has to be viable”, he says, “just praise is not enough”. Like Purkayastha, therefore, he is in touch with galleries like Belgravia in London for selling limited edition prints from his books.

They may not be easy to sell, but it’s not proving too difficult either — one collector has made him an offer from the unpublished India-wide for a Holi picture taken in Brindavan provided Pasricha sells him all 10 prints — at Rs 2 lakh each.

It is a moot point then that Indian photographers might be pricing themselves out of the market. “Some better-known international photographers are less expensive,” insists Kapoor, while pointing out that his publishing house has used the archival pictures formula successfully.

“Archival publishing is personally driven,” he says, “there are so many untapped archives.” It was those pictures that formed the bulk of The Unforgettable Maharajas. “We went from one princely state to another, sourced museums and collections in London,” says Kapoor, “it’s a book that cannot be replicated.”

Those archival pictures will be seen in a gamut of forthcoming books, on polo, in Royal Rajasthan, though it could well be Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s tabloid-like Dateline 1857, Revolt Against the Raj that might be the more interesting for its format, if not its scale and price.

Other books are in the making on C S H Jhabvala’s paintings, on gardens through the ages, but the big monster book to beat them all will be a Kamasutra in special casing, priced at Rs 20,000.

If that sounds huge, it’s nothing compared to the really big books that come from Taschen in Germany and Phaidon in France, says Dipa Chaudhuri, editor at Niyogi Books, which is trying to contribute its bit to editorial content and packaging through books on cultural heritage, political institutions and biographies.

“Taschen did a really big book on Mohammad Ali,” says Shoestring’s Meera Ahuja, “that showed the monumentality of the boxer, muscles and all.” It required a lectern on which to place the book and flip the pages, and was impossible to carry around even the house.

Perhaps Pasricha’s Monumental India isn’t so monumental after all.

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