Each Saturday this February, Delhi’s art enthusiasts made the most of northern India’s short-lived spring season by visiting Sunder Nursery, a restored 16th century heritage park and arboretum.
There among UNESCO World Heritage sites and over 300 types of trees was a different kind of repository – a trunk of rare and beautiful photobooks painstakingly collected and lovingly preserved by Anshika Varma, a photographer and the founder of Offset Projects, an organization dedicated to creating public engagement with photography, art, and book-making.
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Amid the balmy weather and the lull in COVID cases, locals rummaged in Varma’s trunk to browse, borrow, read, photograph and discuss the photobooks with others before returning them to their case. Many visited frequently, eager to explore and absorb more photobooks by holding them and claiming their ownership for a short while. The project, known as Offset Pitara, after the Hindi word for “trunk” is a kind of travelling photobook library that Varma opens to the public for a few hours each weekend, sometimes in New Delhi, but often elsewhere like Goa and Jaipur in India and Hong Kong.
As an amalgam of two of Varma’s greatest passions – photography, her chosen professional medium, and literature, which she studied at university – Offset Pitara’s appeal for her is obvious. In her professional practice, Varma has often encountered strong bodies of work that used photography in books, and was therefore aware of their democratic nature and potential for widespread reach.
In 2018, Varma decided that she wanted to change the idea that photobooks were merely ‘catalogues’ and began promoting them as an artform by launching Offset. However, Varma found that one of the difficulties with popularizing this lesser-known art form among people of varied ages and walks of life was that photobooks are often difficult to find and prohibitively expensive, particularly in India. And so, in 2018, the traveling library was born.
Though an essential part of the initiative is to spread the knowledge and appreciation of photobooks as an art form, Offset Pitara is only one of many schemes under the Offset Projects umbrella. Varma and her frequent collaborator, photographer Adil Hasan, organize workshops, residencies, artist talks, and collaborations in publishing to create public engagement with the medium.
Most recently, the two published their first photobook which was unveiled at the India Art Fair 2022 in New Delhi. Titled Guftgu, the Urdu word for “Conversation,” it is a unique deconstructed photobook featuring the works of ten contemporary photographers from South Asia. In a collection of zines consisting of photos and text across formats like booklets, pamphlets, and accordion-style albums, Varma encapsulates the internal and external dialogues of artists during the emotionally taxing lockdown of 2020.
Varma is not the only Indian artist to recognize the photobook’s potential to celebrate personal realities with richly-woven visual stories that hold democratic appeal. Widely celebrated artist and photographer Dayanita Singh has used the medium for years. A vociferous archivist of her own life, Singh published her first book, Zakir Hussain, in 1986, and, since then, she has published numerous photobooks and presented various exhibits exploring the many artistic forms this medium can be translated into. Earlier this year, she won the Hasselblad Award, a top photography prize.
Singh once claimed that she made photographs to make books, then made books to make exhibitions, and now makes exhibitions to make books.
Last year, Singh joined Varma for a digital talk on the conceptual form of book building, where she advocated for the creation of a space that married the publishing house with the art gallery, as a way of furthering the relation between dissemination and the image.
Thus far, photobooks have been largely overlooked by the Indian art fraternity. However, through Singh’s advocacy and initiatives like Varma’s Offset Projects and its travelling library, the situation is changing. At this year’s India Art Fair, an entire booth was dedicated to photobooks for the first time in its 13-year history. The move followed the IAF’s initiative to present more contemporary art and lure a younger audience, while shaping tomorrow’s collectors.
The result? The fair received an unprecedented footfall despite Delhi’s heat wave, while the photobooks were the star of the fair.
As Varma gears up for the international launch of Guftgu at France’s Arles Photo Festival in July, she marvels at the tremendous positive response to her work. However, knowing the universality of photography and the deep impact of visually rich text on the human race, the success of Varma’s unique practice should come as no surprise.