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From Priya Kuriyan’s book
From Priya Kuriyan’s book

Page turner

An exhibition that brings the sketchbook into the gallery

One way to describe the current show at the Chatterjee & Lal gallery in Mumbai is that it creates meaning at multiple levels. It offers an opportunity for forensic investigation of the artistic process, a glimpse into the mundane lives of artists. It also makes you sit up and think of the proper place for books—a shop, a library, the pavement, a virtual shelf on the World Wide Web, or an art gallery? And what, ultimately, is a book—would we call an artist’s journal, with its notes, shopping lists, telephone numbers and even the odd URL of a video-streaming website alongside their sketches and graphic panels, a book?

Rukminee Guha Thakurta, a designer of books and curator of the show, titled Zones Of Privacy, has included sketchbooks, scrapbooks, study books, some self-published, others distributed, all created by artists from a range of disciplines—art, graphic design, children’s books illustrations, photography, mobile application design, typography, animation film and photo journals, to name a few. These include the visual journals of Nityan Unnikrishnan and Prashant Miranda, the visual travelogues of Allen Shaw, and the scrapbooks and sketchbooks of Priya Kuriyan.

“There is such a variety of activities that are related to the book form but we only ever see photo books and books that have been published," says Guha Thakurta, who has helped design photo books, catalogues, monologues, and even cookbooks, in the past decade. “I wanted to put together something that would bring together works by artists and people who have the book at the heart of their practice and it didn’t matter what kind of book that was."

As soon as you enter the gallery, you are handed a pair of gloves and told to wear them before handling any of the books. The space is occupied by tables and benches—books of all shapes and sizes are placed on them, waiting for the viewer to thumb through. It is ultimately the act of a reader that the viewer must perform—a solitary examination of the book that transforms into an almost forensic act inside a gallery, browsing through and stopping when a particular visual or shopping list or note-to-self catches the eye, occasionally chuckling at a thought that you particularly like. It is similar, in a sense, to the frisson of excitement you would feel on coming across a reminder of a previous unknown reader when reading a second-hand book.

Some finds are fascinating. In one of Kuriyan’s scrapbooks, for instance, a note on the importance of feminism reads, “Feminism is too important to be discussed only by academics." After that startlingly accurate observation, Kuriyan goes on to talk about how graphic art can be a voice for the politics of equality. “Comics can take on dry, sobering and complicated subjects with a depth of nuance and feeling that is difficult for straight prose to convey alone. Comics can edify feminism, giving it the opportunity to be understood in a way that mere words are unable to." An illustration of a lion lying on its back follows this note, and a flow chart of ideas billows around the lion.

This glimpse of Kuriyan’s ideology is of course evident in her work as a children’s books illustrator. For instance, in Natasha Sharma’s Princess Easy Pleasy (2016), Kuriyan drew a taller wife and a shorter husband. This is just one way in which Kuriyan, a graduate of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, avoids stereotyping through pictures.

Clearly, she is not one to let sleeping lions lie.

Zones Of Privacy is on till 3 September, 11am-7pm (Sundays and Mondays closed), at Chatterjee & Lal, 01/18, First floor, Kamal Mansion, Arthur Bunder Road, Colaba, Mumbai. Prices of works range from 200-12,000.

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