Sharada Dwivedi’s name is synonymous with the new, Indian coffee-table book. Under the aegis of her publishing set-up, Eminence Designs, the Mumbai-based writer and researcher has authored and produced 15 books—she prefers to call them “illustrated books”. She has also produced about 10 commissioned books on various facets of Mumbai.
The city’s art and culture set often refers to her as the “mother of coffee-table books” or “queen of coffee-table books”. According to her, it’s a calling that has turned into a passion and has paid off too.
Dwivedi and architect Rahul Mehrotra conceptualized and wrote one of the most definitive books on the history of the city, called Bombay: The Cities Within. This book was an attempt to understand the city’s contemporary skyline made up of disparate architectural silhouettes—cotton mill chimney stacks, neo-Gothic towers, skyscrapers and shanty settlements—through evocative black-and-white photographs and a reader-friendly narrative split up into side bars, captions and short, concise text.
The book also marked a turning point in the short history of the coffee-table book in India. “Our intention was to take history out of its academic confines without losing its rigour. The visuals, the short captions and the side bars had to be written in a reader-friendly language so that they drew readers to the main text,” says Dwivedi, who has also written a book on the automobiles of Indian maharajas. Before 1997, when the Mumbai book came out, this genre was largely nurtured by the Indian government, with numerous shoddily-produced books on Indian art, crafts, heritage buildings, religious destinations and monuments. The Lalit Kala Academy, a cultural body under the ministry of tourism and culture, produced many such titles.
The books that really stood out and found an audience were done mostly by photographers. Raghu Rai’s works found publishers under the umbrella of what could be called ‘India Books’, most of which were produced by British or American publishers. Rai’s Dreams of India, published by Greenwich Editions of London in 1999, had an essay by Canadian-American economist John Kenneth Galbraith. One is likely to spot a copy of Dreams of India in bookstores of five-star hotels across India, and it still draws the occasional foreign tourist with an eye for Indian exotica.
A flurry of titles came out in the late 1990s through the early 2000s. Sooni Taraporevala, a photographer, best known as scriptwriter for director Mira Nair’s films Mississippi Masala, Salaam Bombay and The Namesake, documented the Parsi community in India through 175 stunning images. Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India is a riveting tale of a community and its joys, sorrows and fears.
“A coffee-table book cannot stand on the merit of good visuals alone. Each photo has to tell a story and, together, they should form a narrative,” says Taraporevala. So, why does the coffee-table book just have ornamental value in drawing rooms, hotel lobbies and resorts? Is it only a luxury of the affluent? Most Indian publishers shy away from the genre because it is not known to yield profit (the average price of a coffee-table book in India is around Rs2,000).
The only publishing house whose forte has been the coffee-table book is Roli Books. Their first title, which came out as early as 1978, was The Taj Mahal by John Lal. Now, they bring out about five to six titles every year. Priya Kapoor, commissioning editor of coffee-table books, Roli Books, however, says: “It’s not true that coffee-table books are antithetical to profit. We keep our prices competitive and encourage niche subjects to get different audiences for different books.”
The advantage that Roli Books has over smaller publishers such as Dwivedi’s Eminence Designs is that they have their own distribution networks. Most coffee-table books in India are produced by small set-ups or, often, by the authors themselves.
Elite Clubs of India, a hefty collection of profiles of colonial clubs in India by Pavan Malhotra and Purshottam Bhageria, was published by Bhageria’s own trust, the Bhageria Foundation. For these books, the margin of profit is minuscule. Distributors charge 55% to 60% of a book’s price because rental space in retail stores is very high for coffee-table books.
A new book in this genre is A Life in Art: Raza, written and edited by poet and critic Ashok Vajpeyi. It’s part of a series of books on masters being produced by Gallery Art Alive, Delhi. The book contains nearly 100 colour-reproductions of Raza’s paintings, covering a period of 60 years and rare photographs of the artist from the time he was part of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group to his years of residence in Paris. An essay by art critic Yashodhara Dalmia, extracts from many French, German and Indian critics, and Raza’s comments on his own art make it an authoritative biography on the artist. Despite the format, the book defies categorization—perhaps a sign that the coffee-table book in India is breaking out of its traditional mould. A recent book by photographer Sheena Sippy and Naman Ramachandran, Lights, Camera, Masala, produced by India Book House, is an offbeat coffee-table book on Bollywood, packed with behind-the-scenes action, unusual juxtaposition of images and illustrations, and a lucid narrative.
Yet, for most of us, a coffe-table book is something to browse, savour and to put back where it belongs—the coffee-table or the book shelf. In fact, its luxury quotient was never higher than it is now. Walking into an interior design store in Mumbai recently, a colleague discovered that part of the package of its imported interiors specializing in classic lines, is a set of a few coffee-table books. It would add to the elegance of the living room, the lady told her. Depending on the choice of the sales lady, it could add much more.