Saturday, November 04, 2006
Moonis Ijlal's book covers
Had a nice little talk a few days ago with Moonis Ijlal, a young artist who's done some fine book covers for Rupa and Picador. Indian publishers haven’t always given cover designs the attention they deserve (though this appears to be changing now) and when Moonis did his first cover, for Inez Baranay's Neem Dreams, no one was quite prepared for how seriously he would take the assignment. He read the book in its entirety (itself something not many designers do; most are content with a brief along by the author’s inputs, if any), then set about creating a collage by scanning neem leaves, nails and even cigarette butts.
"One of the key elements of my design," he tells me, "was a milestone that simply had the number zero on it." When the author and the publisher asked him about it, he explained that it was his interpretation of the place where all journeys begin and end – a theme that’s alluded to in the book. "They were pleasantly surprised that I had actually put some thought into it!" he says.
One of Moonis's preferred styles is the use of mixed media – the strategic placement of many small images at different points on the book cover. This is on view in his design for Rahul Bhattacharya's Pundits from Pakistan (the images include a bowler down on his knees and appealing, an overloaded truck and sundry photographs from Pakistan) as well as for Pankaj Mishra's India in Mind and the 50 anniversary edition of A L Basham's The Wonder that was India (it was serendipitous that he was asked to work on this edition, for the book is one of his all-time favourites).
He also did the design for the Chetan Bhagat blockbuster Five Point Someone, with three cogs representing the principal characters (the three IIT loafers, including the narrator), a flower representing the young heroine and a single shoe her brother, a suicide. "Chetan never cared much for that stray shoe, he thought it was too oblique and pretentious" Moonis smiles, "but eventually I got my way."
He’s used to getting his way – when he works on a cover, he takes over the whole space, even deciding where and how the title should appear. His covers for Ramesh Menon's two-volume Mahabharata demonstrate this holistic treatment. Both covers feature small excerpts from the book's text, written in his own hand (this is another motif of his designs). "Since I read the whole book before preparing the design, I use little passages or sentences that I find particularly striking." On the cover of the first volume are featureless figures representing the Pandavas at the game of dice, the humiliated Draupadi, and Krishna standing in the foreground – identifiable mainly by his blue skin. The characters have short, cropped hair: "I wanted the contemporary look, because this is a great contemporary story," he explains.
The second volume, which deals mainly with the terrible Kurukshetra war, has an aptly stygian look – a flock of ravens seen against a darkening sky – with just one bright spot, a white lotus that, he says, “represents the Bhagwad Gita, the sole light of hope in this dark tale". Another striking aspect of the design is the way the word "Mahabharata" is written on the back covers – in both the Hindi and the Urdu scripts, one word entwined with (and seeming to reach out to) the other. "The publishers weren't too sure about including the Urdu version," Moonis says, "but I pointed out that this is a universal story that belongs to everyone, not just to Hindus. It’s a great human tale that can unite people of completely different backgrounds."
Notwithstanding the care he puts into his designs, he’s quick to say that the most important thing is that the cover should be appealing. "I don't mind much if the casual reader doesn't notice all the little elements I've included in the design, or think too hard about their significance" he says, "as long as the overall effect is pleasing."
P.S. Incidentally, Bena Sareen, the group art director for Penguin Books India (one of the few publishers to have a full-fledged in-house design team), says the design lines between literary and genre fiction have become blurred. "Even highbrow literary works are being marketed as accessible," she says. It's no longer necessary for a work by, say Saul Bellow, to look more austere than a book by a genre writer. On that note, two stories from the Guardian about Penguin’s “designer books”, commissioned to celebrate the 60 anniversary of Penguin Classics. Five leading designers were asked to choose a favourite book from the backlist and to design it as they wanted. See what they did and what they have to say about it: Cover Versions and Cover Stories.