Paramita Brahmachari says she stumbled upon book design serendipitously. The winner of the eighth edition of the Oxford Bookstore Cover Prize 2023 was scrambling to submit her doctoral dissertation in film and cultural studies at Jadavpur University in 2012 when she came across a book cover design course by chance.
She signed up for the course taught by editor and graphic designer Sunadini Banerjee and run by the newly founded Seagull School of Publishing. “Coincidently, the brilliant Sunandini was also my contemporary at Jadavpur University and I have always marvelled at her fantastic cover designs. I took the four-month course and it was life-changing," Brahmachari told Lounge, after accepting the trophy and cash prize of ₹1 lakh on 22 May.
From the six book covers that were shortlisted, Brahmachari's playful yet evocative design for the novella Pebble Monkey, published by Jadavpur University Press, won the coveted prize this year.
Pebble Monkey by Manindra Gupta was translated from the original Bengali version by Arunava Sinha and published in August 2022. It tells the story of a monkey, born from stone, learning about the world while discovering himself. Brahmachari’s vivid design effectively sows the seed of curiosity at the first glimpse.
To Brahmachari, book cover design is in the detail: “When you hold (the book) in your hand, it’s not just the artwork or typography, but the tactile details like the embossing or debossing, foil accents, cutouts, deckle or spray-painted edges, the binding, the way the cover art segues into the spine or fold-over flaps… all (this) becomes something pleasurable and to be appreciated.”
Since 2016, Brahmachari has been working as a freelance designer, focusing on book covers. She has designed covers for Manoranjan Byapari’s Interrogating my Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit, Aruna Chakravarti's Suralakshmi Villa and Dalit Lekhika: Women’s Writings from Bengal edited by Kalyani Thakur Charal and Sayantan Dasgupta, among others. The self-taught designer talks to Lounge about her inspiration, her love of reading, the importance of prizes and her journey in book design.
Jadavpur University Press doesn’t give cover briefs but trusts you to read the book and come up with your interpretations for the cover. They had asked for a monkey skulking across a mountainscape as one of the options for this one, which is now the title page inside the book. For the cover that we ended up using, I drew a pebble-shaped monkey with messy, scribbled lines, to have the feel of a hand-drawn sketch in a journal.
I was also trying to pay homage to the author Manindra Gupta’s line drawings in his enchanting three-volume memoir Akshay Mulberry, which was a sleeper literary cult classic when I was in college. The deep, dark pink is from the apple because I kept thinking of the different protagonists in terms of the apple, the object of desire. There are also the apples that the forest folk eat with glee, and towards the end, it is the apple that underpins the labour, land and indigenous rights of the region.
While it’s early for me to tell, I am hoping good things come out of this. As a freelance cover designer, I am completely unknown, a relative newcomer with no design school training, and have never worked as an in-house designer for a big publishing house. So, I hope this makes someone think of approaching me for a cover or some other interesting design project.
I am also really glad of the attention it has brought to Jadavpur University Press, which does astoundingly good work on a very small scale, as small presses usually try to do.
One of the advantages of formally studying design is that in those three or four years you slowly begin to develop and finesse your own visual vocabulary, helped by the critique and guidance of your teachers and you also learn how to work with different media and challenging assignments. Lacking that, I tried to compensate by learning, very falteringly, how to draw, or experiment with analogue media like print, pastels or watercolours. For example, in the artwork for the cover of Manoranjan Byapari’s Interrogating my Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit published by Stree-Samya and Sage (the cover design was made in-house at Sage), I made a monoprint by smearing relief-printing ink, very viscous and oil-based, on a sheet of glass and then pulling a print from it.
So, learning new and exciting things at every step – this is the part that I love the most. Also, I get to read extraordinary books, like those from Jadavpur University Press’ Portuguese and French Translation Lists from authors like Paulina Chiziane, Mia Couto, Aimé Césaire and Inês Pedrosa.