Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A cover-up job

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Indian books, from the 11th to the 19th century, had the most unusual cover designs, involving elaborate art work and jewellery

Shevlin Sebastian

Tushma Kothari, 22, a jewellery designer, carefully takes out the book cover from a brown envelope. In her air-conditioned room at her home in Sion, the only sound is of the rustling of paper. The cover is made of silver and there are delicate etchings of the sun, moon, horse, elephant and other animals. And she tells the story of how she obtained it.

“I was at a flea market in the city,” she says. “As I was walking around aimlessly, I saw something colourful and when I went in for a closer inspection, I realised it was a book cover.” The silk lining was torn but the frontal beadwork was exquisite. It looked like it belonged to the 16th century. “But the price quoted was Rs 10,000, which was too high for my budget,” she says. “I quoted Rs 1000 and in the end, got it for Rs 1,500.”

The story became interesting when Tushma returned home. When she showed it to her parents, her mother loved it, “but my father, being the jeweller that he is, scrutinised it with his eye-glass.” And she noticed a glow on his face, “like he had discovered a treasure. And he had! He said the beads were not just that, but real emeralds and rubies. I could not believe what I had heard; it was a pleasant surprise. The seller did not know what he had sold, and I did not know what I had bought: a priceless piece of art.”

Tushma’s eyes glows as she recounts the story. Soon, she is in the grip of excitement as she shows me an 11th century book cover, which she found in an antique shop when she was travelling in south India. Instead of paper, palm leaves were used. Another cover depicts the 14 dreams of Trishaladevi, Lord Mahavira’s mother and the eight Jain ashtamangalas, which are symbols that Trishaladevi saw in a dream before her son was born.

“All covers are checked by experts to verify the authenticity,” says Tushma’s father, Shekhar, 48. One of the experts was the late Pandit Amrut Lal, a Jain scholar based in Ahmedabad.

Incidentally, there was a historical reason for the profusion of these book covers. In 1299, when the Muslims had conquered Gujarat, writes Albert Skira in his book, Indian Paintings, “the Jains continued to control trade and banking, and since their undiminished wealth could not be used, when tolerance was uncertain for the building or embellishment of temples, they spent it on small objects which could be easily preserved and secreted away.”

Noted Ahmedabad-based art historian Prof. Prabhat Tandan says that wooden book covers and Palmyra strips were used for illustrating manuscripts from the 11th to the 14th century. Quoting from Indian Miniature Paintings by R.K. Tandan, he says, “Thereafter, paper was mainly used and the output was prolific. Later, cloth was occasionally used when the composition demanded a larger surface area. The use of gold or pearls or precious stones on covers was not uncommon.” And even skin.

Tushma points out one cover, made from the skin of a tortoise, which belongs to the Mughal period when Emperor Akbar was on the throne. “I found this in an Ahmedabad flea market,” says Tushma. “Apart from the cover, there was a Mughal manuscript. It seemed to be a romance, because there were romantic pictures.”

Tushma did not want the manuscript; she was only interested in the cover, but the seller wanted to sell it as a set. “To my good luck, a manuscript collector arrived at the same time and bought it instantly,” she says. “So, I got the cover, he got the manuscript and everybody was happy.”

So far, Tushma has collected 30 covers, bought from places like Kutch, Jaipur, Mumbai and Orissa. “One reason why Tushma found her book covers in several regions,” says Tandan, “is because affluent Jain traders commissioned artists to make these covers in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.”

She seems to be the only one in the city who collects books covers. So what attracted her to them? “The cover gives a lot of insight about the content,” she says. “What also attracted me was the rarity factor and the beautiful workmanship.”

The father and daughter are careful about preservation. They wrap the covers in plastic covers and put in cloves. “This prevents bacteria from attacking the paper,” says Shekhar. “Every six months, we just air it out and replace the cloves.”
So, in one corner of Mumbai, historical material is being preserved, thanks to the enthusiasm of a young woman.

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