Masterpieces in Miniature

In 2004, Kolatkar published three works, two in English and one in Marathi. The Marathi work Bhijki Vahi won the Sahitya Akademi award. The English works – Kala Ghoda Poems and Sarpa Satra – were critically acclaimed by a world that it seems had been waiting for him to publish more. Given that Kolatkar had published very little after Jejuri, 2004 was virtually a Kolatkar flash flood. Also in 2004, Kolatkar passed away, his poetic genius almost completely accepted. But recognition of his book covers hasn’t happened yet. In part, one could attribute this to the fact that book-cover art itself is more or less absent in India. Maybe in Kolatkar’s case, it is time to undo this injustice.


That Arun Kolatkar designed the cover of Adil Jussawala’s 1976 collection Missing Person is one of life’s ironies. For close to three decades, Kolatkar himself was something of a ‘missing person’. But let’s cast that aside and concentrate now on the cover of Missing Person. An uncertain eeriness pervades it. The obliterated face, the everyman clothes and a sense of complete anonymity all come together to convey the sense of the title completely. In an e-mail communication, Adil Jussawala says that the model for the cover did not turn up and so Kolatkar asked Jussawala himself to pose and shake his head rapidly so that the photographer could get a blurred effect, effectively wiping out the face. It was the image Kolatkar had planned in advance and what he got. A scintillating cover with which to begin the discussion.

gieve-432x500Kolatkar designed a number of other covers around that time. Perhaps all of them are not masterpieces, but nevertheless, they do seem to be something fresh for their day or for that matter, even today. Gieve Patel was a medical doctor by profession and How Do You Withstand, Body was his first collection. The kite for the cover seems flippant. But it makes a fine point — that the body is about as strong as kite paper reflecting the title completely.

Thetravelling-in-a-cage_0-418x500 Janus faced cage of Dilip Chitre’s collection is a particular favourite. It was perhaps a dilemma for many who went abroad at that time, torn as they were between the demands of home and hearth and the possibilities of a career abroad.

But my favourite covers of Kolatkar are Eunice de Souza’s Fix (1979) and Jayanta Mahapatra’s The False Start (1980). Fix has the author’s picture with an X prominently etched in the middle of her forehead. And this tells a story. In Nine Indian Women Poets, an anthology edited by de Souza, we are told of how the community that de Souza was born in – the Goan Catholics – reacted strongly to the book. Apparently, the book was even denounced from the pulpit at St. Peter’s in Bandra, Mumbai. This poem might help us understand why (this is a digression, but an important one).eunice


Father X. D’Souza
Father of the year.
Here he is top left
the one smiling.
By the Grace of God he says
we’ve had seven children
(in seven years).
We’re One Big Happy Family
God Always Provides
India will Suffer for
her Wicked Ways
(these Hindu buggers got no ethics)

Pillar of the Church
says the parish priest
Lovely Catholic Family
says Mother Superior

the pillar’s wife
says nothing.

Given that in India poems are published as single pieces long before they are put together in a collection or anthologized, it might perhaps be safe to suggest that de Souza was a target even before she was a published poet, that the denunciation happened much before the book and the cover was actually referring to that in a wry and oblique manner. Or perhaps it was fortuitous. X marks the spot, as they say…

While Fix is provocative, with a ‘bring it on’ kind of demeanour, The False Start on the other hand takes you into the inner world of the poet. The crumpled pieces of paper indicate dissatisfaction and the difficulties of the process of creation. It might be easy to dismiss the cover as ‘filmi’ alluding to the fact that our cinematic poets and lovers are in the habit of crumpling and throwing away pieces of paper when penning love-letters or love poetry. But, that’s unfortunate. The cover is not as much about crumpling paper as it is about torturous process of creation and that is well-captured. It might be appear a little clichéd now. But that would be an unfair judgement.jejuri-book-cover-designed-by-kolatkar

Another particular favourite of mine is the cover for Arun Kolatkar’s own Jejuri. This poem that the influential 1976 anthology, R Parthasarathy’s Ten Twentieth-Century Indian Poets calls ‘a poem of unexpected beauty and power’ and another influential anthology published in 1992 and edited by A K Mehrotra The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets calls ‘among the finest single poems written in India in the past forty years’, is about a visit to the pilgrimage town of Jejuri. The front cover has a terracotta plate of sorts on it depicting a man with a sword riding a horse along with a woman. A little undistinguished at first sight. The sense of journey is conveyed but there appears to be little beyond that. The cover really comes alive when the back cover is viewed in conjunction with the front cover.

The back cover too is akin to a terracotta plate, but it depicts a railway line and the sun at one end seems to allude to the reason behind pilgrimages as such – nirvana or enlightenment. It depicts the modern journey, the route to Jejuri in the modern way, to view the town in its modern avatar. This for me was a ‘son of a bitch’ moment. It reminds me how I felt when I read this bit from Kolatkar’s Ajamil and the Tigers, which is part of Jejuri:

We’ll outnumber the son of a bitch

And this time there will be no hitch. (The SOB who features in the poem was a dog.)jejuri-back

Jejuri’s back and front covers together tell me what the poem is about. An age-old journey that continues into the modern era and is being viewed through modern eyes. The Marathi writer, Bhalchandra Nemade has of course spoken of Jejuri in scathing terms saying, “Kolatkar comes and goes like a weekend tourist from Bombay.” Nemade of course objected to the whole business of Indians writing in English. He wondered who their audience was and in another piece even denounced them and their readers as ‘intellectual pygmies’. But pygmies or weekend visitors aside, the post-colonial environment has spawned a vast army of rootless wonders. And clearly, the poem appealed to them. It is now time for the cover to get its place in the sun.the-false-start-426x500

As a writer, Kolatkar is no longer ‘missing’. His oeuvre is complete for those who care to look at it. But, all of Kolatkar’s covers need a second look. They no longer deserve to be ‘missing’.





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Karthik Venkatesh Written by:

A few words about myself. I am originally from Bangalore, but circumstances took me to Punjab where I lived and worked for more than a decade. This resulted in a keen interest in things Punjabi – history, literature, culture and politics. I have written on aspects of Punjabi history and translated Punjabi poetry. I'm now back in Bangalore and work as an editor with a publishing firm.

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