Book Review | Blaft-off!

Book Review | Blaft-off!
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First Published: Fri, May 11 2012. 07 31 PM IST

The Obliterary Journal: Blaft, 270 pages,Rs 695.
The Obliterary Journal: Blaft, 270 pages,Rs 695.
Updated: Fri, May 11 2012. 07 31 PM IST
The Obliterary Journal| Edited by Rakesh Khanna and Rashmi Ruth Devadasan
If it is possible to anthropomorphize a publishing house, then I imagine Blaft Publications Pvt. Ltd to be strutting along the streets of Chennai like dancer-actor Prabhu Deva—an endearing mixture of jaunty kitsch and carefully crafted style, all powered by an exuberance which manifests as quirkiness underplayed by rigour.
The Obliterary Journal: Blaft, 270 pages,Rs 695.
To the unfamiliar eye, like the arasik (non-aficionado) who would dismiss Prabhu Deva as a knock off of Michael Jackson, Blaft might appear at first glance to be the sort of hyper-stylish niche peddler of charming textual trinkets rescued from the masses. Any translations-focused publishing house runs the risk of fetishizing the cultural quirks it seeks to celebrate. Blaft make no bones about gleefully taking the piss. From its opulently lurid covers for the Tamil Pulp Fiction anthologies, to the breathtaking gem of a picture book Kumari Loves a Monster, its design and production values offer a biting deconstruction of the day-to-day visual tropes and traditions that are as taken for granted as the pottu (bindi) no decent young lady (sneaking out to meet her boyfriend under the guise of attending Bharatanatyam class) should be seen without.
But Blaft’s irreverence finds its backbone in its curation and editorial democratization. Blaft is translating not for an audience of the Other, but for the code-switchers, the ones who have two or more mother tongues, and can get the wordplay even if they cannot read the original script.
The experimental, subversive quality shared by the writing of Charu Nivedita (the author of Blaft’s Zero Degree) and Kuzhali Manickavel (author of the Blaft title Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some of Them Have Wings) makes the choice of supporting those authors a literary one, but there is, nonetheless, a political sensibility that informs the editorial choices, as exemplified in their latest offering, The Obliterary Journal. By placing celebrated graphic novelists side-by-side with sign painters and equalizing the commercially literal with the artistically abstract, Blaft demonstrates a respect for craftsmanship that is more important than policing the boundaries of highbrow versus low art.
The term “journal” is, of course, tongue-in-cheek. The book is an odd duck; not quite glossy and self-important enough to be a coffee-table book, not linear enough to be read straight through like a graphic novel. In some lights it is like a museum catalogue; a compendium of visuals lovingly annotated by geeky experts who have loved their urns rather too well. In other lights, it is like a 19th century scrapbook of ephemera—daguerreotypes of touring two-headed “pushmi-pullyus” cheek-by-jowl with love notes scribbled in the margins of a playbill.
If I may advise the prospective reader: Like a book of poetry or an expensive box of assorted chocolates, this is not a compendium meant to be consumed in one sitting. Sustained engagement will dull your sense of whimsy, and you might find yourself flipping through pages of photos of hand-lettered signs saying “danger” and “taxi”. Or you will try to figure out what the sequential art of Vidyun Sabhaney and Malavika P.C. is trying to say, because you expected a narrative like Amruta Patil’s quietly scathing Atlantis.
If, instead, you dip into the book for just one piece to savour, you will find yourself lingering over the miraculous artistry of Sri Pachanana Moharana, who has rendered, on one palm leaf, no less than 18 unique and detailed ink illustrations of the robots that landed in Nayagarh (one has pigtails).
Or you might give your bed mate nightmares when you wake them with your giggles, by describing the dastardly deeds of the dozen dangerous food items chronicled by Rashmi Ruth Devadasan and illustrated by B. Anitha, among which are Terror Thakkali (which crushes its victims by rolling back and forth over them) and Psycho Sorakkai (a gourd armed with an aruval—machete—which decapitates victims in the men’s loo). Or you might find yourself surprised by the way that art can capture a moment of furtive tenderness in a way words sometimes fail to, when you see a panel with two fingers gently entwining in Bharath Murthy’s A Kovai Gay Story.
Blaft dances on the street with a completely open heart, but does not assume the airs indicating that it deserves to be elevated to a more rarefied state of being.
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, May 11 2012. 07 31 PM IST