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Interview

‘Book covers not only about great image-editing skills’

Print edition : Nov 10, 2022 T+T-

‘Book covers not only about great image-editing skills’

Sunandini Banerjee

Sunandini Banerjee | Photo Credit: Mahira Kakkar

An interview with Sunandini Banerjee, graphic artist at Seagull Books.

Recently, the Kolkata-based independent publishing house, Seagull Books, celebrated its 40 th birthday. Founded by Naveen Kishore in 1982, it is now synonymous with serious books on art, theatre and cinema. What adds to the books’ appeal are their aesthetically designed covers, which make each copy a collector’s item. The person almost single-handedly responsible for the stunning covers is Kolkata-based graphic artist Sunandini Banerjee, who has been working with Seagull since 2000. While Banerjee confesses that she cannot draw and depends on the possibilities of digital painting tools for her designs, her command over colour and language is evident in her work, which stands at the intersection of visual art, design, poetry, letterforms, cartography, and botanical drawings. Also an editor and translator, Banerjee has exhibited her artworks in Kolkata, New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Colombo, Dhaka, Cologne (Germany) and Shanghai (China). She is at present Senior Editor and Graphic Designer, Seagull Books. Edited excerpts from an interview:

A book cover designed by Banerjee
A book cover designed by Banerjee
There are lots of birds, woodcut prints, hints of Jamini Roy, botanical motifs, and anthropomorphic characters in your book designs. How does your imagination work?
Just as the books I read and design draw upon life, so do I when I seek my images. Some linger from my childhood—Tagore and his doodles from Gitabitan; the red border around the cover of Desh magazine; the colours and typography on the LP covers, from Ravi Shankar to Tagore dance dramas to Boney M.; the typography on the hand-painted shop signs; the black and red numbers on the Bengali calendar; the woodcuts in Sahaj Path; illustrations of animals in epics and fables I read. Some of the influences are very Kolkata: the art and craft of Kumartuli, the lettering on the sides of buses, the window grilles, the mosaic tiles, the balconies, my mother’s tangail sarees, Satyajit Ray’s drawings in the Feluda books, the colonial architecture, the fabrics in the sofa shop—the old and the new and the baroque and the brash all living cheek by jowl.
These days I am preoccupied with the natural world even more than usual, for I worry that we have lost so much of it already. Leaves, plants, trees, animals, birds, insects—the symmetries in their forms, their camouflage skills, their colours, their transformations, their intertwined lives, their spots and stripes and dots and dashes—they are already the most perfect art. Sometimes a leaf is a leaf. Sometimes, upside down and painted red, it is a tongue of flame. In my art, they are there because of who they are. They are also there, often, because of what they can become. Now there are the games I play on the phone, the OTT movies and series I watch, the visuals I see on Instagram, and of course the inspirational book covers designed in India and abroad. I look everywhere—at everyone and everything—in Kolkata and elsewhere. Everything leaves its mark.
A book cover designed by Banerjee 
A book cover designed by Banerjee 
There is a dance between anarchy and harmony in your visual style. How do you combine experimentation with a deep regard for composition and space?
I don’t start with harmony, I arrive at it after quite a struggle—a struggle with the images themselves, or with my own idea of what the cover should be versus what it ends up becoming. I have two thoughts that help me arrive at this harmony. One: what will be larger, the image or the text? Both cannot have equal weight because then you’ll have an “unreadable” cover. Two: in the image I am constructing, or among the layers I am assembling, which one is the most important? What do I want the reader to look at first? This is behind the largest/boldest of the elements. Everything else must follow. A collage is not a random assemblage: each bit must be related to the other. And together they are in relation to the text, i.e. the title and the name of the author. These unwritten rules keep me grounded, no matter how experimental I get.
How do you hunt for the right images?
I do have a vast number of images in my computer and in my head, some organised, some disorganised. But every time I work on a new cover, I seek new images which that particular book demands. If I’m looking for the image of a pen, then I’ll search for pen but also for pencilquillinkinkpotdesktypewriter... It’s like playing a game of “associations” with myself. (Sometimes none of this will work, and I’ll end up looking at penguins!)
I knock on the door of every word I can think of and ask it to throw up an image. I look into the book itself, over and over again, for clues. The images don’t come to me. It is I who arrive at them. Sometimes after a very long journey.
A book cover designed by Banerjee 
A book cover designed by Banerjee 
While designing covers, we have to be very conscious of the audience, which influences many design decisions, like big typography for prominent titles or authors, highlights and endorsements, post-press effects, etc. Somewhere, Seagull’s art sensibilities have questioned these rules and established a new genre in book-cover design—the type is subtle and often quiet in relation to the image, or tucked inside a shape. So much is left on meaning-making, on urging readers to fill in the visual gaps. Do you agree? And has this been a conscious choice?
I do agree. And yes, it has been a conscious choice. I like to pique the interest of the reader. Make them look twice. Draw them closer. Type does not have to shout, the cover doesn’t have to give away everything. I like to create images which not only engage the readers’ interest but also invite their participation. So why not have them start reading from the cover itself?
A book cover designed by Banerjee 
A book cover designed by Banerjee 
The illustrated edition of The Upright Revolution or Why Humans Walk Upright by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o done by you is fascinating.
The Upright Revolution is a fable about how humans stopped crawling and stood up on their feet. It’s about how the limbs stopped competing with each other and listened to the head, which counselled them that, instead of working against one another, they should work together.
When I illustrated the fable, I chose to focus first on the emotions felt by various body parts as they jostled for supremacy; on the splendid array of animal and bird and fish life that there is; and towards the end, when the human body is upright and starts to work (in all senses of the term), on images of women toiling, women in sports and science, women at work and at home. I chose to highlight female labour that, in visible and invisible ways, accounts for a lot of the work done on earth. Since The Upright Revolution is a fable about the world, the whole world supplied me with ideas for images.
A spread from The Upright Revolution designed by Banerjee
A spread from The Upright Revolution designed by Banerjee
Tell us something about the digital collages you created for the Book of Loss. As personal works, how do they differ from the covers you design?
These images were created for a Seagull Books catalogue, the theme of which was “loss”. One of the big losses of this day and age, for me, is the photo album—the one with the black paper, the tracing-paper sheets in-between, the photo corners, the old, yellowing photos ... we’ve spent so many hours poring over them, alone and with friends and family. We have lost that in the digital age. So my contribution to the idea of loss was to work with old photos, old photo albums, even the idea of the “old” way of photography. There was no “delete” button in the manual camera and you had to wait for the print to arrive to see what had been captured. That wait, that delay, all that is lost.
I brought a few of my family albums to office and scanned some photos. My colleagues did the same, and hence that particular catalogue holds fragments of all our losses. Some photos were found in old chocolate tins at the back of cupboards or cabinets—the people featured in them are gone. Another loss.
When I do a book cover, I am entirely at the service of the book’s content. But when I create the annual Seagull catalogue, I am allowed to play with my interpretation of the texts therein. I can fly, sink, swim, laugh, cry, leap, and fall—it’s like a trip into space. Except that space is inside my head.
A book cover designed by Banerjee 
A book cover designed by Banerjee 
Your visuals suggest and reiterate the importance of journaling, note-taking, visual research in any design process. Having facilitated courses on book design at the Seagull School of Publishing, how did you approach this with aspiring book-cover designers?
Visual research is paramount. And that is closely connected to reading. Designers must read—the book they are designing for and other books too. One reads, then one researches, then one arrives at an appropriate image/collage/ illustration. What is the time in which the book is set? What is the genre? What is the subject? How old is the hero? Where do they live? What do they look like? If it’s set in 1940s’ Calcutta and the cover must have an interior scene, then what should the furniture look like? What kind of household was it? What kind of clothes would they have worn? All of this, and much, much more, needs to be noted and researched before even approaching work on the actual cover.
This is exactly what I tell my students when we discuss design. That book covers are not only about great image-editing skills. Or about finding the right “stock” image. There are sometimes hours of reading and/or study that help you understand what to look for/create.
A book cover designed by Banerjee 
A book cover designed by Banerjee 
Which book designers inspire you?
I’m very pleased with the diversity in cover design, for books both in English and in the regional languages. Our covers don’t really follow a “trend”. There is a wide range of illustrative styles, type, and they celebrate the colours we are surrounded by. I’m in awe of the work that Gunjan Ahlawat has been doing and continues to do at Penguin Random House India. Then, of course, there’s Bena Sareen, Maithili Doshi, Bonita Vaz-Shimray, Amit Malhotra, my JU [Jadavpur University]-batchmate Pinaki De, who is a veritable force and has been designing and illustrating for years before I began. My students Paramita Brahmachari, Sukruti Anah Staneley, Swarna Jana (publisher at Spout Books). It is rewarding to be part of such a community because their work teaches me new things every day.
A book cover designed by Banerjee 
A book cover designed by Banerjee 
Seagull loyalists look forward to the annual Seagull calendar, which is a celebration of some of your best works. Is there a special 40th-anniversary project that the team is working on?
One of our special projects has been the launch of audiobooks. There are some special books planned that will emerge one by one. And yes, I’m hoping to do a super-special calendar. But first, I must finish working on the new Seagull Books catalogue, complete with extracts from our books, brand-new collages, and a whole season of new covers that will be ready for the Frankfurt Book Fair.
A book cover designed by Banerjee 
A book cover designed by Banerjee 
The exhibition “The Wounded Sky, Digital Collages” by Sunandini Banerjee was held at India Habitat Centre in 2017. Do you have any solo show coming up?
I would love to have one, after the loss and pain of the pandemic. Perhaps in 2023.

Devangana Dash is a bookmaker, art director and design educator working with publishing houses globally and facilitating courses in Visual Communication Design and Strategic Branding at Srishti Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru.