Rakesh Khanna and Rashmi Ruth Devadasan (ed.), The Obliterary Journal

A version of this appeared in today’s Indian Express.

 

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“Obliterate Literature!” proclaims an anthropomorphised danger sign in the foreword to The Obliterary Journal. In comic format, a Mayan glyph, a Chinese seal script character and the abovementioned sign (warning of nearby ionizing radiation) argue for the eradication of literature that relies too heavily on text. They are crushed by an army of alphabets, but manage to squeak out one last message of defiance.

If The Obliterary Journal doesn’t quite do away with words entirely, the twenty pieces of which the book is composed do generally manage to relegate them to the background. Some pieces contain no words at all – notably Vidhyun Sabhaney’s “Gurk”. “Dhool Ghoul”, by Rashmi Ruth Devadasan and B. Anitha, is a collection of alarming images – skulls (complete with long, plaited hair, mallipoo and pottu) and blood-stained roses. Amitabh Kumar’s story uses a symbol for its title. “Kovai Gay Story” by Bharat Murthy only incorporates words in its framing narrative. Even in the comparatively straightforward exerpt from Yukichi Yamamatsu’s Stupid Guy Goes to India, the narrator’s incomprehension of the languages around him is depicted in speech bubbles filled with meaningless symbols.

Somdutt Sarkar shifts the focus from letters to numbers with his illustrated riddles from Bhaskaracharya’s Lilavati; if you notice the words at all, it’s to wonder why the English translations take up so much more space than the original Sanskrit versions.

It’s fascinating to see the extent to which The Obliterary Journal exists outside its own pages. This is a printed book, and therefore words and pictures are the most it can do. But both the cover and the table of contents are presented in the form of signs painted on physical walls by S. Venkataraman and photographed for the book. A large proportion of the book consists of pictures of street art – such as Tammo Schuringa and Paul Faber’s “Exerpts from Shaved Ice & Wild Buses: Street Art from Suriname”. There are all sorts of unlikely motifs here – Bollywood actors and international politicians jostle for space next to Bob Marley and Wailers, Che and the golden gate bridge. Zen Marie’s “Autoraj” is another collection of photographs documenting a project that exists far more in public space than it does within the confines of this book.

And then there’s “The Nayagarh Incident”. In 1947 the Princely State of Nayagarh was witness to an alien invasion. Of course, the nation was going through other significant events in 1947, and this incident passed almost unnoticed (though events in Roswell, New Mexico only a few weeks later would become the staple of conspiracies for decades afterwards). The only real record we have of the Nayagarh Incident consists of a series of unlikely looking creatures in the traditional talapatra chitra art of the area. Sri Pachanana Moharana’s amazing palm leaf etchings of robots really exist – the journal only contains photographs of this remarkable art.

Another section is dedicated to the Hand Painted Type project started by Hanif Kureishi, and focuses on archiving the various typefaces produced by roadside painters. If this section is text-heavy, it is so in a way that renders the text (or what it says) irrelevant, turning alphabets into convenient shapes. “Danger Taxi Book Post” collects photographs of hand-lettering. The authorship of “Twenty-Three from the One Gross” is credited to an inanimate object, “durrrrk mixer grinder serial no. 30277XM03”. It is soon clear that these short “stories” (ranging from a couple of words to a paragraph) are randomly generated. What meaning there is, then, is in Malavika P.C’s art.

What we have, then, is a strange mixture. The Obliterary Journal features a number of quite conventional (though usually excellent) graphic pieces – such as Amruta Patil’s “Atlantis”, Roney Devassia’s “Karuna Bhavanam”, Orijit Sen’s almost wordless “Emerald Apsara” and the promising extract from Jai Undurti and Harsho Mohan Chattoraj’s Hyderabad Graphic Novel. But it also functions as a record of a number of forms of literature that cannot by definition be contained within a printed book – reminding us of them, but also setting itself up to fail at depicting them. Which makes the whole enterprise (depending on where you stand) either spectacularly ill-conceived or utterly wonderful.

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