Our girl in San Francisco

Simran Thadani, the rare Indian in the fine bookmaking world.Photo: Special Arrangement

Simran Thadani, the rare Indian in the fine bookmaking world.Photo: Special Arrangement  

The delight of meeting a compatriot in the world of fine bookmaking

I was delighted to recently stumble upon a fellow Indian steeped in the book arts. I happen just now to be collecting early examples of the Grabhorn Press, and in need of some reference material (not being able to afford their beautifully printed but pricey three-volume bibliography), sent away for a catalogue of an exhibition of Grabhorn Press books at The Grolier Club in New York. Opening to the title page, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Associate Curator (along with Andrew Hoyem of Arion Press) was someone named Simran Thadani. Now, it’s not often — make that almost never — that I come across an Indian involved professionally in fine bookmaking, so it was cause for some excitement.

Looking her up, I came across a string of accomplishments, the most recent of which is co-editorship (with Nicolas Barker) of the ninth (but, the first illustrated) edition of John Carter’s charming bibliophilic bijoux ABC for Book Collectors . And then, to top it all, she also happens to a member of The Grolier Club, that prestigious society of bibliophiles in New York. Thadani is based in San Francisco now and is the Executive Director of Letterform Archive, which is “a nonprofit centre for inspiration, education, and community in the letter arts.” And this is where I reached out to her to find out a little more about how she came to be so involved both personally and professionally in the arts of the book.

“I have to go back to where it started,” she said, “with my interest in calligraphy as a middle school student in Mumbai.” She had always been an inveterate reader and this, combined with her interest in letterforms, steered her eventually towards engaging with the physical book. While an undergraduate at Wellesley College, her professor and mentor Katherine McCanless Ruffin encouraged her to delve into the world of the book beyond just the text. She vividly recalls the moment of discovery: stumbling upon Wellesley’s Special Collections/ Book Arts/ Archive on the fourth floor of the library; seeing and touching various examples of fine manuscripts, books and prints, she knew this was what she wanted to do with her life: to not only study and surround herself with fine and rare books but also connect with and learn from the myriad gifted people engaged in the book arts.

This meant that she simply had to go where all the action was: the Rare Book School in Virginia. (I was further delighted to learn Thadani had studied with its beloved and revered founder, Terry Belanger. When there had been no such thing as a school for rare book studies or even a book arts programme, Belanger had had the vision, foresight and passion all those many years ago to pioneer one in the 1980s). It was here that she first met the redoubtable Nicolas Barker, editor of the journal The Book Collector , who invited her to come on board to co-edit a new, revised ABC for Book Collectors edition. What will be strikingly different about this edition, says Thadani, is that it will contain illustrations — both line drawings and colour photographs.

I await this new edition eagerly; already owning a copy of ABC signed by Carter, and another one signed by Barker, what’s left is to get Thadani’s inscription in the new one. Thadani met Hoyem, the renowned fine press printer, while on a Grabhorn Fellowship that lets participants explore the workings and productions of a fine commercial press first hand. Having just moved to San Francisco from Pennsylvania, she turned up one morning at Arion Press with two suitcases in hand to find most of the others in the programme were artists and that she was the only book historian. Over the years, Hoyem and she kept in touch, and one day she received an email from him asking if she knew anyone who could co-author a bibliography of the Arion Press oeuvre. “Me, of course!” she said at once, and was in.

In her role now as leader of Letterform Archive, Thadani not only directs its strategy, finance, operations and audience building, but also helps plan and execute the Archive’s array of programmes and services. Recently, in addition to their vast collection in the letter arts, they acquired the staggering collection of the noted collector of type specimen books, Jan Tholenaar. In his collection I know is a rare type specimen book from the Gujarati Type Foundry, which is probably the only instance of a fine foundry type specimen book from India. I’m hoping Thadani can tell me more about it once they are done cataloguing the collection.

“I find it gratifying and fulfilling,” Thadani tells me at the end of our interview, “that the girl who so many years ago fell in love with calligraphy is the woman whose mission now is to promote the letter arts. And a large part of this, of course, I owe to the support of my many mentors and colleagues in the field; but most of all, I owe a debt of gratitude to my parents who’ve supported me in all my bookish interests; though our family was not academic, they’ve encouraged me at every turn in my career, always cheering me on in my next new adventure.”

Pradeep Sebastian is a bibliophile, columnist and critic.

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