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WHAT IS A VISUAL BRAILLE?

ONCE UPON A TIME (Published by the author, price not mentioned) by Debal Sen is actually two books in one — a book to look at, and a book to read. The second is better than the first, although a more balanced merging of the two would have been possible with a different sort of approach to book design. The ‘book to look at’ is an unwieldy and self-indulgent coffee-table book, which needed a ruthless photo-editor to weed out the visual clichés and tone down the lyric overkill of pictures matched with poetry. We are all fondly attached to the photographs we take at beautiful or meaningful moments in our lives. But we must think very hard before subjecting impartial others to our photographic “supra conscious” (as Sen puts it), the products of which should be submitted to a rather more impersonal critical-editorial gaze before they are put in the public sphere, where readers may not be as sentimentally invested in them as the photographer understandably is. This is the risk that self-publishing authors take, and it does not help Sen that the book begins and ends with high praise from someone who describes himself, with unfortunate candour, as a “historian, friend, and admirer”.

“Sen has trudged through riverbeds, moraines, gorges, escarpments, marshes, scrub and forest,” writes his friend, “in the search of the right light at the right point of saturation, in pursuit of the first stirrings of fur or feather, the first hint of dawn breaking over Himalayan peaks, or lying in wait for hours for a train to emerge at a particular bend.” This historian also describes Sen’s images as “akin to a visual Braille that helps us reconnect with the past that has inevitably slipped from our sight.” The idea of a “visual Braille” is mind-boggling, and worth pondering at length after the mind unboggles a bit.

So, it is difficult not to want to rescue the second book — ‘the book to read’ — from the overwhelming embrace of the first, for Sen would have emerged as a reasonably good writer if his texts had been presented with a sparer and more scaled down selection of images, in a different kind of design: a smaller, lighter book — less given to photographic excess and dependence on other people’s words. Such a book — for taking to bed rather than placing on the coffee-table — would have encouraged readers to hold it in their hands and actually read the texts, many of which are written with a greater degree of reticence, originality and skill than shown by the photographs. Landscapes, animals, houses and people, particular moods and atmospheres, or specific flavours of wistfulness, are evoked by Sen’s prose at its best, with an accompanying sense of mystery, or loss, that goes beyond the fairytale nostalgia suggested by the book’s unimaginative title.

This image is captioned “Of frogs and galaxies”.