Amroha, Uttar Pradesh: Mustajab Ahmed Siddiqui is possibly the most widely exhibited artist in India. His busty women, half-crazed men and shiny guns populate scores and scores of bookstalls, on railway platforms and sidewalks, in teashops and dhabas across North India.
His vivid art graces the covers of Hindi pulp novels from almost every leading publishing house that traffics in these tales of lust, horror, revenge and exotic death. Better known as “Shelle”, Siddiqui is, as one enthusiastic publisher put it, “the king of the field”.
But, as publishing houses increasingly hire in-house graphic designers with Photoshop and CorelDraw skills, and some even abandon their lines of novels altogether, it is questionable whether Shelle is king of the field, or more simply the last man standing in the field.
“There used to be more, but they’ve all stopped working now. Shelle is the only one left,” says Shagun Sharma, managing director of the Meerut-based Tulsi Paper Books, which employs five full-time designers and publishes 10 novels every month. “We wanted more control over the designs, to change the shapes and colours as we wanted,” Sharma says. Only occasionally now does Tulsi Paper Books commission art from Shelle.
Shelle lives in his family’s ancestral house in Amroha, 130km of backbreaking roads from New Delhi. He is greyed and 60, but in his compact sturdiness, he could pass effortlessly for 40. He has lived away from Amroha only once —when, after getting his bachelor’s degree in drawing and English from Agra University, he taught art at an institute in Chandpur, near Amroha.
Branching out: Artist Mustajab Ahmed Siddiqui ‘Shelle’ with his oil paintings at his studio in Amroha, UP. Having painted Hindi pocket book covers for more than 30 years, Shelle hopes to exhibit his work in galliers. (Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint)
“But then I reasoned,” Shelle says in his courteous, old-world Hindi, “my entire family is in Amroha. Why should I stay away? So when I began doing covers professionally, I moved back home.”
Out of his first-floor studio —a long room, warm with colour and light—Shelle works on cover designs for half-a-dozen publishers.
He sits snugly behind a large expanse of desk, his paints to his right, an old radio and a tape player to his left, and shoeboxes full of Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammad Rafi tapes behind him.
Shelle’s designs draw heavily from the world of cinema. On the jacket of Surendra Mohan Pathak’s Aath Din (“He was a cheat by profession. Can he cheat the angel of death for eight days?”), a man resembling Bruce Willis in Die Hard 4 crouches in one corner. Dead centre is a Katrina Kaif look-alike, looking prettily and fearfully away from a maniac with the face of Sylvester Stallone.
Once Shelle sends out his draft watercolours, three times larger than the scale of the book jacket, he effectively hands over copyright for all the designs to the publisher.
“I’ve been doing this for such a long time that publishers have hundreds of unused drawings of mine,” he says. “Now, with their Photoshop, they only need to cut and switch parts of them around to make new covers.”
Shelle has no Internet connection, so he receives his commissions by phone or letter, usually consisting of just a famished outline of a plot. One recent letter from Raja Pocket Books, for instance, describes in just four lines the “Tantric characters” who will figure in an upcoming book called Vaibhav Se Vairagya Tak, or From Wealth to Renunciation.
Oddly, Shelle never reads these novels himself. “Sometimes I’ll just call the author, and ask for more information about the story,” Shelle says. “And then I’ll finish the cover in between two and five days, and courier it to the publisher. I do seven or eight of these a month.”
Shelle has been painting cover art since 1971; at the time, he’d been an art teacher for five years. “I showed some of my designs to publishers, and they liked them,” he says. “In 1971, I remember, I’d be paid Rs25 for each cover.” Now Shelle charges around Rs3,000 per design. “If they were selling lakhs and lakhs of books, as in the olden days, I’d be able to ask for Rs10,000 per design,” he says. “But you know, that’s not the case.”
At least two of the publishers that Shelle painted for—Manoj Publications and Shagun Pocket Books—have stopped printing novels. “The craze for the Hindi novel has come down,” says Vinay Gupta, the proprietor of Manoj Publications. “There are serials and films to watch on television, and people have started reading only what they absolutely need to.”
Shelle phrases it elegantly: “Man doesn’t read any more. He watches.” A couple of decades ago, one of Hindi pulp’s best-selling authors, Ved Prakash Sharma, would sell 300,000, even 400,000, copies of a single book. “Now only he sells around 60,000, at a price of Rs40 per book,” Shelle says.
Pulp art: Shelle’s artwork for a Hindi pulp novel.
Naturally, then, new blood —of authors as well as artists —is proving hard to come by. One of Shelle’s sons is an art teacher in a school in Faridabad near New Delhi, but he has not followed his father into pulp design. His other children are not even his artists. His eldest son, a criminal lawyer, could in fact be a pulp novel character himself.
In a twist of irony, even as contemporary pulp art wanes, classic pulp art has begun to join the elevated ranks of collectible kitsch.
In June, Osian’s exhibited the original artworks from some vintage novel covers from the 1950s-70s, featuring the watercolours of artists such as Vishnu Pawan, Kadir, Mahender Soni and N.S. Dhammi.
Shelle remembers these artists well, and he recounts their inglorious departures. “The Vishnu-Pawan duo split up. Mahendar Soni is trying to make it as a regular artist in Mumbai,” he says. “There was another elderly gentleman, Siddiqui-saab. He moved to Pakistan and died there.”
Computer kills craft
Inderjit Singh “Imroz”, an elderly painter who once designed covers for Hind Pocket Books as well as for the novels and poetry compilations of his friend Amrita Pritam, unhesitatingly blames the computer for the decline of his craft. “It’s unbelievable—they employ just anybody with any knowledge of computers to design these covers now,” he says. “There’s no creativity at all, but the publishers don’t seem to care.”
Shelle, though, is in the happier position of being able to marvel frankly and easily at the advances in technology. “I’d like to learn to use this design software myself, if it wasn’t for the strain on my eyes,” he says. “I don’t resist this at all. Things must change with time.”
And as they do, Shelle seems to have an exit strategy. From swathes of protective plastic sheets, he takes out large canvases in oils—paintings of scenes from Rajasthan villages, of the former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and of rural landscapes. They’re immaculately executed, but they seem to lack the lurid zest for life that burst out of Shelle’s book covers.
“I’m hoping to do an exhibition of my oils soon, in New Delhi,” Shelle says. “All these days, I couldn’t concentrate on oil painting because I always had some book cover or the other to finish. But now maybe I finally can.”