Radha Pandey is a papermaker and book artist. Her handmade book, Anatomia Botanica, published in 2014 in a small edition of 25 copies, was letterpress printed from hand-set metal type on dampened handmade paper, the illustrations were hand-coloured and the book was handbound. Pandey made the paper herself (for the deluxe edition of 10), set the type (Bembo), worked the press (Vandercook SP20), drew, cut and coloured the illustrations (linocut and pochoir), and bound the edition in two different bindings. “I started out specialising in papermaking,” she told me, “and then was caught by the printing bug, and decided to focus on both paper and print — this for me meant making hand-printed books on the paper that I make.”
Pandey left a career in graphics and animation to design and print in a different way. “It was the physical experience of putting bits of metal between words, and between lines that suddenly made the entire idea of book design click. This is how we were meant to design and print books… Instead of changing a number on a screen to change type size, or selecting from a random selection on my computer of ‘what looked good’, I had to think very carefully about each typeface, word and sentence. Every design typographically had to be thought about because it became a physical piece of the puzzle that I would have to spend time creating. It was immensely challenging in the best way possible.”
In 2005, she participated in a three-week course in Japanese paper making at the Haystack Mountain School of Craft in Maine. This was followed by a six-week internship at Auroville Papers in Puducherry. “The first time I made books was at Auroville Papers in their production line; it was magical putting it together.” Eventually, all this led to more seminars and internships in the U.S. It was at a ‘Friends of Dard Hunter’ conference in 2010 that she met Timothy Barrett, the renowned paper historian and acclaimed papermaker. He encouraged her to apply for the MFA in Book Arts offered by Center for the Book at University of Iowa. “Most of my inspiration,” says Pandey, “comes from nature and science and where the two meet. Installation art that reflects the passing of time in some way also inspires me.”
She spoke to me about crafting and printing a handmade book like Anatomia Botanica : “I made the paper for the entire deluxe edition. It was a small edition of 10 books, but that meant I had to make 400 sheets of paper that were 18”x24”. I spent weeks working out the best possible way to dry the paper so that it would have a toothy texture, but would print flats in my images. I did a series of tests before I finally settled on the best but most laborious technique. The paper printed beautifully. It had to be dampened for printing and stretched so much that it actually set my carefully planned schedule back three days.
“I printed the entire book from cover to cover in seven weeks. It took me about three months to set all the type and carve the blocks before I was ready to start printing. One of the images uses up to 16 colours, but mostly they all use about nine colours each. The entire book took 121 press runs.”
Her most recent book, Taxonomy of Shapes, is another letterpress printed artist’s book. Pandey has held several workshops in Islamic papermaking in the U.S., and whenever she has a chance, she also conducts book arts workshops in India. Pandey eventually hopes to set up a Book Arts centre “where people can attend workshops, lectures, use studio space and learn to print, bind and make paper. I hope, with a place like this, people learn to love and respect the handmade book.”
Pradeep Sebastian is a bibliophile, columnist and critic.