Meet India’s only “book artist”

A book that details time zone differences, another one that’s an ode to the onion — Priya Pereira’s work is truly unique.

Updated - November 10, 2013 04:45 pm IST

Published - November 10, 2013 02:50 pm IST

Priya Pereira, book artist.

Priya Pereira, book artist.

In October 1999 Priya Pereira found herself standing outside the Guggenheim Museum in New York with a bag full of books. With difficulty she had finally got hold of Ed Fuqua, Book Buyer for the Guggenheim Museum Store, on the phone.

“When I managed to explain what I do, he said it wouldn’t work for them. My answer to him was, ‘You haven’t seen it, how do you know?’ This answer somehow managed to get me an appointment.” She walked into the museum store carrying 26 of her books — 26 “Artists Books”. “When we met, I found myself sitting on the floor of his office and pulling books out, and he kept saying ‘No’, probably because it was not what they wanted at the moment. My gut told me to pull out the Evil Eye and I couldn’t believe it when I heard a ‘Yes’. I came back to Mumbai and produced the book and sent it to them.”

Priya Pereira, who lives and works in Mumbai, is perhaps India’s only book artist. The artists book is the physical book as crafted object; a book made by an artist. After more than 20 years of making artists books, she is still to meet another Indian book artist. This makes Priya sui generis , and her work clearly calls out for wider recognition and celebration.

She admits that it’s been a bit of a mystery even to her why she happens to be making artists books; all she knows is that turning to this book structure was instinctive. On study leave abroad in 1993 and missing her fiancé terribly, she found herself constantly trying to work out in her head the time difference between Memphis and Mumbai. She resolved it one day by making a book that detailed, by the minute, time zone differences. She had created, even though she wasn’t to know it for many years, an artists book.

She called the book Time Bound . And 26 artist books and six years later, Priya still didn’t know that what she was making were artists books and that she had become a “Book Artist”. It was on a visit to the Center for the Book in San Francisco (and later the Center for Book Arts in New York) that she learnt for the first time that her bookwork was called the artists book. Priya had worked in isolation, and still works in a void, though she has now come to enjoy its esoteric side, what she refers to as “my secret life with books”. In those early years she was sure only of one thing: that this is what she wanted to do with her life. This became clear to her when she finished her second book: Ode to an Onion , made out of onion skin, a ditty to this “most tearful of vegetables”.

Her friends and her family couldn’t understand why she was interested in this, but her husband Tony thought she was on to something marvellous. “The most thrilling part is coming up with an idea,” said Priya when I asked her about the process of making an artists book. “Then I spend a lot of time working in my head on the form of the book to fit the idea. When I am satisfied with the plans in theory, I put it all down on paper and begin manufacturing a dummy. Typically, after a dummy is ready I bounce it off to Tony. His suggestions push the book a few notches up, and then I scramble to match him or go further. When we are both satisfied, Tony will write the text and then I lay it out.”

When Priya began producing books she would make about 1,000 copies. Today she stops at 200. She has them printed at different presses, supervising each step. She is compelled to look at a foreign market for her work because she still struggles to sell her work in India.

Meanwhile, her books are held at the British Library, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the Tate Gallery. Her books have been exhibited several times in India, but as much as they are admired and written about, only little of her work is bought or acquired here. Collectors and curators pursuing art or rare books are yet to turn their collecting focus to the artists book here.

The field of book arts in India is small; there are only a few of us immersed in it, and Priya Pereira’s work amplifies and enriches the book arts community. She is a gift to us, and an inspiration to artists drawn to the book.

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