By Sumaiya Kabir
Known for being able to perfectly bridge the gap between traditional cover artistry and the demands of the digital era, ICE today converses with two renowned book cover artists of our time.
SABYASACHI HAZRA, A COVER ARTIST, IS NOT A MAN OF MANY WORDS
From the simplicity of his home to the nonchalance in his fashion, you can tell that he finds comfort in keeping to himself, delighting in a quiet life. But when he does talk though, he has the power to captivate anyone, discussing his passion for designing the covers of books.
So is it just a passion then? He nods his head reproachfully, saying, “I have never taken this as work; in fact, there is no scope to, because of the lack of professionalism in anyone connected to this industry, even though so many books are being published and their covers are being designed.”
He is not wrong in his opinion though. Almost none of the readers, especially in this age, know the name and effort that goes behind an art atop a few pages bound together, that attract them to grab a copy off a random shelf at the store. And when asked how important this very art is in regards to the literature itself, Sabyasachi comments, “The cover art of a book is nothing without the writing itself. If the book is good, there is no way the cover won’t be, no matter who does it! They are definitely both connected.” He adds that because it is not his ‘profession’ to design book covers, he has the liberty to say no to any book, whether for its content or because he feels he is not the suitable person for it.
“A painter or an artist in general, can express his own thoughts, be that still life, a lone woman, a scenario of crisis, a movement, a philosophy… but what a cover designer does, is portray the thoughts of another. And it has to be done in such a manner, that it will be able to grasp the essence of the book, without giving away the whole tale,” Sabyasachi goes on to appropriately define book designing.
What Does It Take To Be A Cover Artist?
While the book’s content and cover design may be intertwined, this particular form of art is not necessarily connected to being a painter, says Sabyasachi. “In order to design a book cover, you have to enjoy reading,” he advises aspiring cover artists. For him, he mentions he’s always been a reader – not the school textbook kind, but rather someone who appreciates literature enough to think “maybe designing covers for books will help me stay in the loop of all the latest books being published and all the new authors I have to know about!” All these thoughts came about during his long hours at the Aziz Super Market back in the day. “Because this craft will stay; this is the kind of art that doesn’t get destroyed, it sticks around and makes people think.”
Almost two decades back when he first began, he used to be involved in political work while residing in Khulna and people would often randomly request him to do a portrait of maybe Rudro Mohammad Shahidullah, or a poster for S. M. Sultan’s birthday, or banners for strikes and movements, etc. He recalls his very first cover designing work to be for a magazine that used to be published by the students union, called Konthoshor.
At a time when families only knew children were to grow up to be doctors or engineers, his was no different. He hadn’t planned on getting into art, and never participated in any competition or received colour pencil sets for gifts, as kids often do to be encouraged, but he fondly recalls growing up with nature as his inspiration. “We observed nature like nothing else – we remained engrossed in it. Small, narrow windows, mangoes on a rainy day, snakes in the water… so many diversely interesting memories” were his words.
He claims to have experienced the best of both urban and rural lifestyles, as he had spent a good few years of his childhood in his village in Narail, where he moved a little after his birth in Khulna. He remembers them like it was yesterday – the large open fields and banyan trees, the flight of pigeons, local Durga Puja festivities – and largely takes nature as his muse. In spite of this nostalgic love Sabyasachi Hazra has for the utopian life, he admits to enjoying what the city life has to offer, and the love-hate relationship he has with Dhaka. “Dhaka has given me so much poetry, so many artists and good people, so many struggles and movements! It’s all here, in this city. How to not acknowledge that?” he points rhetorically.
“THE COVER ART OF A BOOK IS NOTHING WITHOUT THE WRITING ITSELF. IF THE BOOK IS GOOD, THERE IS NO WAY THE COVER WON’T BE, NO MATTER WHO DOES IT! THEY ARE DEFINITELY BOTH CONNECTED”
The Woes and Wonders of Cover Designing
Returning to his discussion on book covers, Sabyasachi Hazra explains how to cover designing is “a very personal process of art that Bangalis will always have a madness for” as opposed to countries outside of Bangladesh, where most covers are either digital typography or photographs that hardly express what the book is about. “Not a lot of renowned artists get into cover designing, while out here you will find Zainul Abedin designing a book cover for Jasimuddin, and Kamrul Hasan doing one for Akhteruzzaman Elias!” he states with pride.
According to Sabyasachi, it is also important that in this age and time a good cover is accompanied by good bookbinding and printing. “With cover designing, you must have a love for reading, or simply do not come into this line of work. And while you may not realize the need to read every book, such as poetry compilations or political essays, it does help to have an idea of the authors and the type of books they’ve written in the past. For a good cover designer, being in the know about contemporary writers and their audience can definitely be beneficial,” Sabyasachi adds when asked what else is important.
It is no new news that technology has initiated a decline in the number of book readers. Pertaining to this fact, Sabyasachi advises, “Do learn to look away from that little digital screen in your hands. The more you are informed about everything around you, the more your creations will be enriched.
There’s Graphic Designing in Charukola, but these skills don’t come from institutional training, and when we have had such a glorious past – the likes of Satyajit Ray, Purnendu Pattrea, Qayyum Chowdhury, Rafiqun Nabi, Hashem Khan – should one really accept mediocre work in this field anymore?”
Historically speaking, Bengali people’s coherence with nature demands the labour of our own hands as opposed to a machine or software. Whoever has made his foundation of manual work strong enough, will be able to work flawlessly alongside technology as well. “Sure, we shall all progress with time, but what you and your work will primarily be dictated by, is entirely on you. Bangali emotions, philosophies and thought processes, are hardly ever so graphical, or literal. Let’s not lose the abstract, the surreal and the sense of simplicity in our roots.”
Inspirations and Influences
Sabyasachi Hazra likes typography in cover art and has recently experimented away from his signature brush strokes and usual colour ranges. Instead of being focused on creating a masterpiece of a composition, he prefers putting out there whatever comes to his fingers instinctively.
Kamrul Hasan is probably his most favourite, Sabyasachi wonders out loud. Some other names he mentions include Kazi Hasan Habib, known most for being good at experimental creations, Qayyum Chowdhury – whose passing has cost Dhaka’s literary and academic scene a whole lot – Shibu Kumer Shill, and a more recent name, Rajib Dutta. Another name legendary in this field that he finds peace in working with, and for, is none other than Dhruba Esh. Because he knows the pain of derogatory and irrelevant feedback from many an author, Dhruba Esh always sees the cover art well after it has been published when he has Sabyasachi Hazra designing his book’s cover, and Sabyasachi appreciates this gesture of great trust. Among his other inspirations, he mentions his brother to have played an important role behind his education at the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka.
A Different Sabyasachi
What completes the picture of Sabyasachi Hazra as an artist is the fact that he is also a writer, and his very first two books have been for the children, who he comments are the best readers because of their ability to remain open-minded and be straight forward. When working on his book called Chitrolipi, he has kept in mind the kind of low-quality, monochrome and dull books children were given as the first book of their life back during his childhood, and from there decided to create a book where alphabets are learnt through painting. “How will our children fall in love with their language and comprehend 1952’s language movement, if they haven’t felt the dirt from being in front of the Shaheed Minar barefoot, amidst the krishnochuras, and drawn their first letter?” The book is currently included in curriculums of Shahaj Path and Nalonda – schools which are paving their way to a more unorthodox educational system.
“For the parents who request me to teach their kids painting or handwriting, I say drawing cannot be taught. My second book is what it means to give a child some colors and a paper, and to say it is beautiful, no matter what he has created with his freedom and understanding,” he shares his thoughts behind Rong Tulite Chhopchhap.
Invariably, Sabyasachi Hazra has designed new book covers for this year’s Ekushey Boi Mela, and while he may not be publishing anything of his own, in this New Year he hopes to accomplish some previous personal goals that have remained unattained – that include a new book, and this time for adults. As for the newcomers in cover artistry, he advises with a chuckle, “Perhaps it is best not to pay heed to anyone!”
Shibu Kumer Shill has over a decade’s worth of experience designing book covers in Bangladesh. However, known to believe in a multidisciplinary approach to life, it is no surprise that he has lately also been on the news for his soon to be published third book, as well as the return of his band Meghdol!
The opportunity of a Lifetime
When Shibu Kumer Shill began working as a cover artist, it was a time of transition for cover artists from manual processes to utilizing advanced technologies, and he was only a young student roaming about Bangla Bazaar Road for his love of literature. With the help of the close-knit community he had grown there, including some of his publisher acquaintances, he received the book that would indubitably make this new beginning for him a memorable one – Humayun Azad’s Adhar O Adheyo.
With very little knowledge about the then-trending Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, he humbly remembers he overwhelm at the thought of having to create something for such a literary genius. It probably led him to complicate the technicalities of the situation more than it needed to be, but it was exactly that very nervous sincerity that perhaps created what he says is his best work yet. “It was inexplicably a big deal for me. To think Humayun Azad was still with us!” Shibu reminisces with respect.
Unlike a lot of newcomers, his luck favoured him further when a big name in the game, Agamee Prakashani, suggested he design more book covers. While he dedicated himself to developing this craft, he was simultaneously quick to realize that Bangladesh had probably not yet learnt to appreciate this art form as much as he’d have liked. So he decided to explore himself professionally in other fields instead, to fend for himself and be able to keep alive his passions.
The Art and the Artist
He first worked in animation, eventually shifting to graphic designing, and yet somehow always remained successful at keeping one factor constant – his determination to never work on things he wouldn’t learn to love. “I cannot pick a title for what cover art has been to me. It is a mixture of both work and something I enjoy, which most people would find contradictory because of the dissatisfaction they’ve often faced in their professional lives,” explains Shibu Kumer. Aside from what it means to him if he had to define how important the cover design would be for a book, Shibu Kumer does not favour the needless glorifying.
“Cover art is certainly not an independent form of art; whether or not it is an art, to begin with, is another argument altogether. But to compare its importance with that of the literature it covers is probably slightly unfair. A book’s most important aspect remains its content, and the cover simply compliments it. There exists no example of a book that has survived the long haul with just a great cover alone,” Shibu Kumer comments realistically.
An observation he has had in cover designing recently is the tendency of artists to depend on easy tools such as software presets that prevent individual ideas from being executed with originality. Immediately reporting to a more optimistic outlook, Shibu Kumer praises newcomers such as “…Rajib Dutta, for whom it looks to be always less about the number of books, and more about the good quality of the covers being designed. And having treated his pieces as pure artworks, Rajib has been able to already create a signature for himself!”
Discussing cover art with Shibu Kumer Shill inevitably brought up the famous names of Dhruba Esh and Sabyasachi Hazra. He also mentions that as a pioneer in this digital generation, Sabyasachi Mistry has contributed to bringing about more dynamic illustrations. “The idea that the old school ways could be combined with the digital age and benefitted from is something we had failed to grasp during that ugly transitional phase of the early 2000’s. I’m glad to be back at a point of hope!”
Looking Back with Shibu
One can hardly look ahead without a quick glance at the rearview mirror as well. With an artist born in the 80’s, you might expect Shibu Kumer Shill’s childhood memories to be only filled with stratocracy and curfews. But contrary to that, what this artist recalls more strongly is the religious and cultural harmony that existed back then. Growing up during that time he was well aware of the difficulty Bangladesh was going through politically, but also knew to hope that a change was underway.
“If I have been able to make anything of myself in all these years, I owe it all to having grown up in the old town of Dhaka. People from all walks of life, with their diverse senses of humor and in spite of their individual philosophies, lived together in a way that gave me a lot to think about throughout the rest of my life.”
The Old, the New and the To-Do
At the end of all this, what then, did it take someone like Shibu Kumer Shill to be the cover artist he is today?
He thinks his appreciation for literature definitely helped. From his experience he knows that not all books may need to be read for their cover to be designed – sometimes only a small synopsis could suffice – but having no idea at all about the literary world at present or the works of the author from the past will definitely get in the way of creating a good piece of cover art. Shibu Kumer hopes to see new artists break the monotony that comes from creating cover designs too literally – a book about a river does not necessarily demand the picture of a river on its cover; “the feminine figure drawings have started to become a cliché too!” he adds.
“I do not advocate the use of search engines. We can absolutely use Google for an inspirational push during a creative block, but in no way should your cover art be about combining two random photos off the web and thinking you’ve created something new. Surely one day that very book could be your biggest success, and if it were me I’d be ashamed remembering my insincerity.”
Shibu Kumer Shill has found inspiration in all these years from the works of Kamrul Hasan, the creations of Zainul Abedin for Jasimuddin, Samar Mazumder, and Kazi Hasan Habib to name a few. And unlike what the stern comment above may make him out to be, he is very much for being beside the youth these days. He likes the idea of designing covers for books of newcomers who has thought differently, and finds comfort in knowing that through his art he gets to be with a new piece of literature that holds a lot of potential.
The Writer Shibu
With an undeniable essence of Che Guevara, Shibu Kumer published his first book in 2018 – a collection of his own poems called Prokrito Ghumer Dupur O Che. He followed it up with Kotha Joto the next year, which consists of a compilation of interviews he had the fortune of documenting on various occasions. It includes the great words of people such as Nurul Alam Atique and Humayun Faridi, divided into categories of film, art and literature. There are possibilities of a sequel of this book, with interviews of painters and music industry legends.
Another book he has been researching on for years and holds dear to his heart is based on his most favourite author, Akhteruzzaman Elias. “The book would be on the late author’s life, but more focused on the intricate details that would help readers rediscover this powerful novelist – including pictures and anecdotes of his belongings like the typewriter that had given life to his famous novels. More interestingly, it would contain some of the writer’s unpublished work, and memoirs shared by people who had known him – ranging from the strange Urdu poet he had encountered in Old Dhaka, to the close friend who he had based his short story Khoari on,” Shibu Kumer explains enthusiastically. With the release of this book titled Uttor Khoari at the Ekushey Boi Mela this month, he truly hopes to make an impact on his readers.
“THE CORPORATE SECTOR IS TAKING MORE CONTROL AND WE’RE LOSING THE OLD SCHOOL ARTISTIC MEANS OF REVOLUTIONS SUCH AS THE GROUP THEATRE, SO THERE IS NO PLACE FOR PEOPLE TO PRACTICE ALTERNATIVE THINKING ANYMORE. THERE’S NO HARMONY!”
A Thoughtful Musician
Having reached the conclusion of ICE Today’s conversation with Bangladesh’s distinguished cover artist Shibu Kumer Shill, he was asked one last question – to describe in one word how the last decade had been for him. Melancholic was the word he used, in regards to what is happening to our world – the ceaseless political unrest, the constantly increasing disparity between the rich and poor, people becoming more barbaric and intolerant, and the obviously lingering frustration of the creative people.
“The corporate sector is taking more control and we’re losing the old school artistic means of revolutions such as the group theatre, so there is no place for people to practice alternative thinking anymore. There’s no harmony!”
Even amidst all the literary work that keeps him busy, combined with his personal grievances, Shibu Kumer did not give up on the other artistic pursuit that he’s long been known by, and brought back his band Meghdol to the music scene after a good long decade!
During these ten years, the band reflected on their philosophy to only produce meaningful music, leaving behind the bindings of media and marketing and the likes, and to not make it just about releasing a CD but rather about sharing their creations on platforms accessible to all. They have already begun releasing tracks from the brand new album Aluminium-er Dana as singles on YouTube, and hope to finish uploading them all by the end of 2020.
Lovers of reading and music alike – a lot awaits you from this versatile artist this year!