Cover stories of life

Don't judge a book by its cover, we have been told. Yet there are those whose mission it has been to turn that adage on its head. Even if separated not so much by time - barely a decade and a half - as by geography - one ocean and two seas - the "Life and Times" of the late Professor P. Lal of Lake Gardens, Calcutta, India, and the late Brian Roylance of Guildford, Surrey, England, could easily have read the same: publishers of exquisitely crafted, hand-bound books celebrating writing and the arts for the safekeeping of history.

By Shantanu Datta
  • Published 28.03.17
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Don't judge a book by its cover, we have been told. Yet there are those whose mission it has been to turn that adage on its head. Even if separated not so much by time - barely a decade and a half - as by geography - one ocean and two seas - the "Life and Times" of the late Professor P. Lal of Lake Gardens, Calcutta, India, and the late Brian Roylance of Guildford, Surrey, England, could easily have read the same: publishers of exquisitely crafted, hand-bound books celebrating writing and the arts for the safekeeping of history.

Early this month, Genesis Publications announced the reissue of George Harrison's memoir, I Me Mine, a collection of lyrics and rare photographs, updated with elements from the five music albums recorded after 1980, the time of the book's original release and before his death from cancer in 2001.

I Me Mine follows a long list of hand-bound books published by Genesis that chooses to work closely with the author - like the musicians, Eric Clapton, David Bowie and Ravi Shankar, the visual artists, Shepard Fairey and Peter Blake, and the Hollywood A-listers, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg - to create a limited number of collectors' editions for homes and libraries across the world.

Bright future

"I don't know of many people who go to this much of trouble to produce a book anymore. But I think there is a future for it," Roylance once told The New York Times in an interview.

A similar commitment to aesthetics and literature, specifically Indian writing in English, was behind Professor Lal's decision to foray into publishing in 1958. Publish the moderns, but read the ancients, was the motto behind Writers Workshop, he once wrote, even talking of the Swedish "Lovely Bond" paper used as letterheads, the names of co-founders, friends all, elegantly printed in saffron along with the curving leaf house logo.

Among the over 800 titles Writers Workshop has published are the early works of Nissim Ezekiel, Jayanta Mahapatra and Vikram Seth, all of whom went on to receive the Sahitya Akademi award. The books were printed on a small hand-operated para press with minimal paraphernalia. Professor Lal did the layouts and titles in calligraphic style while Mohiuddin Khan of Patuabagan Lane took it upon himself to fold, stitch and emboss each edition by hand using Orissa handloom sari yarn with traditional borders as the cover. Today, Khan's grandsons are upholding the hand-binding traditions of Writers Workshop.

Cherished work

Bound by a deep commitment to excellence and beauty, there are, however, fundamental differences in the approach of the two publishers. While Genesis has had privileged access to the who's who of the world of music and arts - the late Roylance was a dear friend of Harrison - Professor Lal worked with relative unknowns, firm in the belief that at least some of them deserved to be among the who's who of modern writing in English in India. He kept prices to a bare minimum, as opposed to Genesis that has not been hemmed in by such third world constraints.

The good news is that publishing, despite its inherent unpredictability, is thriving. Brian Roylance's legacy is in the safe hands of his son and daughter as it is at Lake Gardens with Writers Workshop being ably guided by Professor Lal's son, a teacher, writer and translator.

The stories of Genesis Publications and Writers Workshop are as enchanting as the work they showcase. Their craft deserves to be marvelled at, their books cherished.