Tara’s outgoing resident designer Jonathan Yamakami reflects upon the creative journey he embarked upon when working on ‘I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail’. A 17th century English ‘trick’ poem, Tara’s version is illustrated by artist Ramsingh Urveti from India’s Gond tribe.
There was one thing that always struck me during my time as the resident designer with Tara Books. The number of projects which were waiting in line for someone (in this case a graphic designer) to claim them – no doubt the result of the creative energy of an office constantly brimming with new ideas. I don’t remember the exact day when Tara publishers, Gita Wolf and V. Geetha, showed me the artwork for the poem I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail, but I definitely remember how they approached me: “There’s also this project, which we think you might be interested in. Do you know this 17th century poem?”
Looking back now, I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail – a project that took almost two years to complete – was emblematic of my stay with Tara. It taught me a lot about book design and how essential time is in order for a project to mature. It also illustrated for me the importance of collaboration – something that I could always find at Tara – and, at the same time, showed me that a designer must find their own voice in the midst of different opinions.
Gita and V. Geetha might have been nonchalant, but I was more than excited when I saw Gond artist Ramsingh Urveti’s work. Around the same period, I had been involved in designing another book – Sita’s Ramayana, a graphic novel with illustrations by Patua artist Moyna Chitrakar. Moyna’s beautiful panels were so vivid and colourful that Ramsingh’s black and white work felt to me like a quiet respite. It was silent and concise and, in lack of a less obvious word, poetic.
As for the poem, it turned out that I was not familiar with it. It goes like this:
As I soon discovered, the poem contains a game with punctuation and the meanings it hides/reveals. Read as it is, each line describes a fantastic scenario. But if you break up the lines in the middle, an alternative image is born – which someone with a more realistic vision might say makes more sense. ‘With a fiery tail I saw a blazing comet’, ‘Drop down hail I saw a cloud’, ‘With ivy circled around I saw a sturdy oak’ and so on.
From the very beginning the main challenge to me was: how do we create a book that presents both readings without actually printing the poem twice? A lot of different solutions were considered. I think Gita Wolf was the one who hinted at the direction of die-cutting although was still open to other possibilities. Using transparent paper and printing with two colours was another suggestion, but there was an issue of cost and, more importantly, it just seemed too complex for a poem that was in itself so simple. After all, once you crack the puzzle that it holds, you can’t help but wonder how you could have missed it to begin with.
We decided to pursue die-cutting as a solution and here I have to mention Katsumi Komagata, even though I never had the opportunity to meet him in person. I’d been a fan of his books for a few years and I was pretty excited when I found out that everybody at Tara shared the same admiration for his work. I remember seeing one of his books, Namida, for the first time when I was in Japan in 2007.
Now this is interesting because Tara had a good collection of Katsumi’s books in the office, but Namida was not one of them. After I came back to Brazil (in May of last year) I saw this book on my shelf. I didn’t remember what the cover looked like, but I was so surprised when I saw it! It shows how much influence Katsumi had on I Saw a Peacock. It sounds silly to say this about someone you’ve never met before, but often while working on this project, I wondered what Katsumi would think of this book and how we solved the challenges of the poem.
Realising the potential to use die cuts was only the beginning. I didn’t know it then, but the book was to evolve many times before reaching maturity. This was the first ‘dummy’ that I made up, and as you can see, the cuts are all rectangular and quite functional: they existed so that the text on the following spread could be read. It’s a bit hard to explain why I felt that the die-cutting shouldn’t ‘interfere’ too much, but I was still attached to certain ideas of what a designer should or shouldn’t do, and how I was supposed to ‘lead’ the reader throughout this book. At that point, I thought that die-cutting should act much more as a magnifying glass, rather than add another layer of meaning.
After producing this first dummy, I showed it to Gita, V.Geetha and Arumugam, and received a positive response. Some time later, our London-based designer Rathna Ramanathan was in the office and I asked for her opinion as well. She pointed out that the die-cutting should be reconsidered. Not in terms of shape, but in terms of their position on the page and their relationship with the illustrations. She was the first one to mention that the cuts were also telling a story and that I should be aware of that.
As I was about to restart work on the book, Tara received two other visitors: artist Gabrielle Manglou, from Réunion, who was doing a residence with us, and designer Marion Bataille, who was in Chennai to launch her famous pop-up book, ABC3D. Once more the first dummy was shown. Gabrielle’s impression was that the illustrations were not flowing throughout the book as lightly as the poem did. Part of it, she believed, was because I had decided to have fixed positions for the text.
Marion’s opinion was a bit harder to digest. In her very sweet way, she said that the die-cutting wasn’t working at all, which took me aback. As a designer you constantly have to present your ideas and receive feedback, that’s only natural. But I confess that it is hard when someone points out that whatever you have done is NOT working at all – you can’t help feeling a bit lost. As far as I remember, Marion was also the first person to use the word ‘play’. The book had to be playful and, if there were so many possibilities lying there, why were the die-cuts so austere? Why was the text fixed in such a strong grid?
Once I realized that die-cutting had to be organic and add to the illustrations, the second part of designing this book started. It was an exciting moment because I didn’t feel lost anymore – the question became how to do something rather than what to do. Trying to find out which shapes I could use for the die-cuts on a spread was an interesting puzzle because the same shapes still had to make sense once the page was turned. So I was looking for common imagery that I could use. The peacock feather could become a comet’s tail. The shape of a tear could also be the one of a flame. And again, when you’re working on a poetry book, there is a lot of freedom as well. As time passed, I became more and more bold with the shapes. The book starts with circles and simpler forms that grow in complexity.
So we reached the production stage, and here a new challenge arose. Up until that point I had done several different dummies by hand. But it is one thing to make one dummy yourself, another story is to print 3000 copies of a book.
We were lucky to be working with a very attentive and careful printer in China, but there were a lot of trials and tribulations to work through. The fact that we were so far from the printer made us extra cautious as well. Because the book doesn’t open entirely flat, some of the cuts moved, even only millimeters, and had to be repositioned. I remember some emails in which we asked the printer to move a circle one millimeter to the left. They reassured us and mentioned that part of the binding would be done by hand, and I guess it shows. When we finally got the advance copies from China there were no bad surprises. The book was just beautifully done and we have to thank the printers for all their care.
My only regret about this project is the fact that I haven’t seen Ramsingh’s reaction to the final book – I was about to leave India when the copies were sent to him. I met him in Bhopal for a workshop in February 2010 and I found him to be extremely focused, extremely introspective and (as many Gond artists) very good at translating complex ideas into visuals. I hope we meet again and we’re able to talk about his impressions.
I’m writing these lines from my new house (it feels to early to call it home) in the US. I came here to pursue my masters in Graphic Design at the Rhode Island School of Design and I’ve been living in Providence for less than a month. It’s ironic to be working on this text right now as I’ve recently realized that going back to school will be more stressful than I had foreseen – there are so many deadlines already and here I am talking about a book that took almost two years to complete!
I don’t want to get nostalgic (if I start mentioning all the things and people that I miss in India, it might take a while) but I do miss the pace at Tara. I do miss contemplation and working and re-working on projects. Obviously we always do and redo things, but there’s something about time and the processes it triggers. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet some of these people if it were not for the extended period in which I worked on this book. RISD has been a very exciting place and I hope that I’ll be able to write future posts about new projects with Tara – even if long-distance ones.