While teaching a brief book design course at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, Rukminee Guha Thakurta was delighted by the work of her students and their enthusiasm for experimentation. They were just open to ideas, she says.

That fervour became an inspiration for her later as Guha Thakurta discussed the idea of a possible show with Mortimer Chatterjee and Tara Lal of Mumbai’s Chatterjee and Lal gallery. “I immediately thought of a book show because apart from my students, I knew so many people who were engaging with the book form in so many different ways,” she said.

The result is Zones of Privacy, an exhibition of books and book objects that brings together the works of animators, graphic designers, photographers, painters, calligraphers, book artists and illustrators. Instead of being stacked on shelves, the objets d’art here are mounted on walls and arranged around the exhibition to urge the viewer to see the book as a work of art and not a compilation of images.

The idea of the book as an art piece has been explored in the past, including by photographer Dayanita Singh in her Museum of Chance, where 88 different covers were displayed on the wall, each placed inside a specially constructed wooden structure.

Guha Thakurta’s Zones of Privacy will have works by Dayanita Singh, Priya Kuriyan, Prashant Miranda, Himanshu S and Nikheel Aphale, among many others. It explores the themes of humour, darkness, melancholia and love through objects like sketchbooks, scrapbooks and study books.

Acccording to Guha Thakurta, the exhibit doesn’t adhere to a rigid structure.

“They are placed in a way to make loose thematic connections; and to lead a reader gently from a kind of book to the next,” said Guha Thakurta, the founder of design studio Letterpress. “I haven’t really bunched them up together or pigeon-holed them. I hope it will be an intimate, visually and intellectually rich experience. There’s a lot to absorb and a whole lot to read. I would imagine viewers will spend a lot of time at the show or visit it a couple of times.”

Many unusual pieces and individual illustrations have become part of Zones of Privacy – personal journals with illustrated accounts of one’s travel, or pictures within boxes to be taken out one at a time. “Not everything in the show conforms to a rigid definition of the book, for example, some of them may not have a spine to hold pages together or a book may be opened out inside a vitrine because that is how the artist desires you to engage with the work thereby making it a sculpture,” said Guha Thakurta. In Nityan Unnikrishnan’s installation, the book is actually a letter inside a letter box.

By Nityan Unnikrishnan.
By Nityan Unnikrishnan.

The exhibition space has been set up with chairs facing the tables on which the books are laid out, so that the viewer is invited to experience the art at leisure. Works which open like an accordion are mounted on the wall. The idea is to give the viewer a personal space to go through a book.

Guha Thakurta says it is a space to sit down quietly and dive into books, much like a library. The title of the exhibition has been derived from this aspect of book-reading. “All bookish activities: reading a book, writing or drawing in it or the act of making one, are private activities; a delicious escape from everything around.”

Zones of Privacy is on at Chatterjee and Lal gallery at Colaba, Mumbai, till September 3.