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Paper leisure

Paper leisure
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You know a book with a lot of pictures?’ I tried to explain to my father. ‘So like books for kids?’ my father added, not very helpfully. ‘No! A picture book for adults!’ I said exasperated. ‘Ok, that makes sense,’ my father says finally, ‘So that is what a coffee table book is!’

Wikipedia defines a coffee table book as - A coffee table book is an oversized, usually hard-covered book whose place is for display on a table intended for use in an area in which one would entertain guests and from which it can act to inspire conversation. Subject matter is predominantly non-fiction and pictorial or a photo-book. Pages consist mainly of photographs and illustrations, accompanied by captions and small blocks of text, as opposed to long prose. Since they are aimed at anyone who might pick the book up for a light read, the analysis inside is often more basic and with less jargon than other books on the subject. Because of this, the term ‘coffee table book’ can be used pejoratively to indicate a superficial approach to the subject.

Coffee table books have captured the imagination of the publishing universe, making ways for photographers to join in to the fray of ‘authors’ of sorts as topics are taken to create these hard bound books of great visual pleasure and some informative ones as well. From biographies of actors, musicians, artistes to art forms to history and even  food and fashion are in integral part of the list of subjects as far as coffee table books are concerned.

Because of the quality of print, paper and perhaps the degree of curation that goes in to the creation of these books, the prices are well above normal hardcover fiction or even non-fiction. Assuming that the content is mostly visual and the information is more in the form of easy captions than detailed paragraphs - what makes this form of ‘literature’ worth their money?

The main driving force behind such books can perhaps explain that quasi-economic query of ours. David R. Brower, sometimes credited with inventing the modern coffee table book, had the idea for a series of books that combined nature photography and writings on nature, with, as he put it, ‘a page size big enough to carry a given image’s dynamic. The eye must be required to move about within the boundaries of the image, not encompass it all in one glance.’

A coffee table book, therefore, is never a literary addition to a table. It is art. And art has more value than a paperback.

Delving in to a world of coffee table books, we browsed through four very intriguing ones. Here’s a sneak peek.

Spice Story
(Niyogi Books, Rs 1500)

Written by Hugh and Colleen Gantzer and with a foreword by Dr MS Swaminathan, Spice Story takes you through all the spices that we have grown up with. The chilies, the cardamoms, cinnamon, fenugreek, cloves, turmeric right to the fancy vanilla, mint and the saffron. The books traces the history of each condiment explaining how it is made and how it came to be discovered and used. The authors call spices the ‘secret ambassadors’. ‘Historically, mankind called on them to celebrate victories, enhance their myriad faiths in rapture of holy smoke, even to enter the bridal chamber and bring fragrance and flavours to the start of a life-long relationship.’

Kaavad Tradition of Rajasthan: A Portable Pilgrimage
(Niyogi Books, Rs 1495)

The Kaavad of Rajasthan is portable shrine with multiple doors that fold into themselves. The Kaavadiya Bhat or the storyteller, journeys with the brightly painted wooden box to the homes of his patrons, to recite their genealogies and to regale them with the stories of their pantheon of deities. Authored by Nina Sabnani and with a foreword by BN Goswamy, this book unfolds the tradition of the Kaavad with beautiful pictures, tracing the story, the trajectory and also what lies next for this magical box of stories.

Rajasthan: Exploring Painted Shekhawati

(Niyogi Books, Rs 2995)

Cycling into rarely visited  northern Rajasthan, in tiny desert towns, author Ilay Cooper discovers impressive buildings, their walls covered with vibrant paintings. Fascinated he explores further to find that the main painted towns lie in the now defunct administrative district of Shekhawati. 10 years of research makes for a documented record under the commission of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). Cooper is joined by local teacher Ravindra Sharma and through their two-and-a-half years of adventures, the duo describe and document 2,260 buildings across Shekhawati. The unpublished writings and drawings of Colonel Lockett and Lieutentant Boileau, who crossed Shekhawati in 1831, come to light via Cooper’s research. The book traces the history behind the paintings in Shekhawati - a military mission that lead to an artistic one!

Temple Architecture and Art of the Early Chalukyas
(Niyogi Books, Rs 2500)

The temples of the early Chalukyas dating from the 6th to the 8th century, are unrivalled in all of India for their dates of creation and unusually complete conditions. Written by George Michell and brought to life by the photographs of Surendra Kumar, this book brings to life the beauty of these monuments that despite their outstanding significance in both history and architecture,  have lacked a publication that does justice to their artistry.
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