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The reader and the sea of identical books: Nilanjana Nandy’s ‘Cover/Uncover’ project

Nilanjana Nandy

Nilanjana Nandy  

The ‘Cover/Uncover’ project wants to make you look at books differently by making them all look alike

Visual artist Nilanjana Nandy spent two months in the libraries of New Delhi and Kolkata’s Max Mueller Bhavan covering each and every book, audio book, CD, and DVD in newspapers. Her aim was to impose the concept of homogeneity in a space as diverse as a library, where no two books read or look alike. The idea was to shock people into looking at books differently, both in terms of what and how to read.

Cover to cover

Nandy’s ‘Cover/Uncover’ project is part of Goethe-Institut’s ongoing ‘Five Million Incidents’ series, which invites artists from all over India to experiment with concepts of public space, time, media, communication and interaction. The project started in Kochi as part of the Pepper House Residency in 2018, at the library called the Laboratory of Visual Arts (LAVA). The library, a part of nomadic artist Bose Krishnamachari’s mobile libraries project, has a collection of more than 5,000 art books. Nandy took two full weeks to cover all the books in the library with newspapers.

“I was visiting a lot of Communist reading rooms in and around Kochi and it was interesting to see how they were dominated by men. It also made me reflect on the importance of newspapers in Kerala. Newspapers are a window to the world, they open our minds and shape our thinking. But in Kerala, the indoctrination of thought that can happen through newpapers has a whole philosophy attached to it, depending on which political party a particular reading room focuses on. It was here that the idea of ‘Cover/Uncover’ took seed and I thought LAVA was the best place to get started,” Nandy says.

Moment of wonder

But what she did in Kochi was very different from the two months she spent in the libraries of the Goethe-Institut.

One of the Goethe-Institut libraries covered by Nandy

One of the Goethe-Institut libraries covered by Nandy  

To begin with, at the LAVA library, the visitors were mostly art students, and therefore, Nandy’s project didn’t seem strange to them. At Goethe, however, the libraries have academic books, which are mostly used for consultation. To enter and see someone sitting and jacketing books with newspapers was surprising to many.

Nandy says that at times, people would not notice at first the identical-looking racks. When they did, there would be a moment of wonder. While some students would enjoy the process of just flipping through the pages without cheating to look at the cover to see if that’s the book they came searching for, others would take the newspaper cover off to see the title/ author of the book. This was the idea — to engage with people’s actions and reactions when faced with something out of the ordinary.

Daily drudgery

Through the project, Nandy also wanted to experience the monotony in the life of a daily wage-earner. She and a few volunteers would arrive at the libraries at 10.30 a.m. and jacket the books in newspapers till 6.30 p.m. This would go on for a month, until they covered the last book in the library.

“I wanted the space transformed, and also to take on the sheer repetitiveness of the task. It was like living the life of the daily wager, recognising its monotony, its regimental nature. And because the work is mechanical, it’s physically more tiring,” Nandy says.

When she began the project, she could cover only 45 books a day. Slowly, she gained pace and reached 70 books a day. After covering 13,000 books in New Delhi and about 4,000 books in Kolkata, it’s time for Nandy to pause and reflect on the project she undertook and completed successfully.

“We are now done with the first stage of covering the books and it will be interesting to see how the books come back from circulation. It’s time to step back and see the afterlife of this project: I want to see how many books are returned without covers and how the covers wear and tear on their own,” she says.

Experience the ‘Cover/Uncover’ project in the libraries of Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi and Kolkata, where it is on view till January 10.

The independent writer is based in Delhi.

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 2:14:12 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/the-reader-and-the-sea-of-identical-books-nilanjana-nandys-coveruncover-project/article30460146.ece

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