Listening to Shubigi Rao read from her book Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book (Vol. I of V), confirms Hemingway’s Iceberg theory, where much of what is being said remains under the surface. She calls Pulp a curious work, telling readers how some best-sellers are printed only as window displays. But, more importantly, it’s about the history of book destruction, censorship, and resistance.
Singapore-based Rao’s book won the Book Design Award at D&AD in April this year. By including curated photographs and ink drawings, personal narratives and research, Rao’s 320-pager is crafted to suggest the book as both symbol and a tool of dissent.
But it is actually part of a decade-long project envisaged by Rao that is much larger and more eclectic in scale. Beginning in 2014, Rao started out on Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book, as an overarching project straddling film, book and visual art.
Some film clips from this project include voices of people from Sarajevo, who braved the Serbian army, to save books and paintings from being destroyed.
Artists, writers, actors, and musicians fire fought their way through the national library during the Bosnian war, armed with only their will to save a culture from erasure. “The moment you attack culture, you take away a people’s purpose and their link to the land, you strip them of what it is to be human,” says Rao, 42. In another video, an elderly Croatian man speaks of the loss of vital records of birth and death. “It is worse than what the Nazi Germans did. People had to suddenly prove that they were even born,” he says. Rao showed these clips during her Khoj Studios residency recently, and at the Asia Assemble in Delhi, where she was one of the speakers.
She remembers her childhood in Darjeeling surrounded by rare and archival books. Her parents’ library, which she calls her third parent, was where she feasted on natural history, science, gods, mythology, translations of religious texts and even witchcraft. “I lived in different books. It’s where I began believing in a shared humanity,” says Rao. In her growing up years, she witnessed the revolution of the Gorkha Liberation Army. Next, the family’s move to Delhi in the ’80s brought them into the thick of riots and violence. “Much of my work comes from a place of anger, though I try to use humour to make it palatable,” she says.
She left for Singapore in 2003 to study at the Lasalle College of the Arts. This is also the time when S. Raoul was born — a fictional scientist and archaeologist Rao presented to the world through books and pseudo-scientific theories, as her mentor, and her passport to hitherto inaccessible vaults of libraries and research centres. “I taught myself archaeology and neuroscience so that I could write and present art. I was in the space of science, art and writing, and the nexus between these arenas is very loaded against women, and I had to prove a point,” says Rao.
“As storyteller and compulsive archivist, Shubigi’s immersive tongue-in-cheek books, artworks and installations employ puns, both textual and visual — from creating archaeological archives of garbage, to writing ‘How To’ manuals for building a nation and a culture from scratch,” says anthropologist Sarover Zaidi, who was the critic at the Khoj Studios residency.
Rao also speaks of instances where regimes perceived books as potential threats. She points out the Patriot Act, implemented under George Bush. “This was soon after 9/11. As part of state security initiatives, the government ordered the American Library Association to provide borrower records, which the institution refused on the grounds of privacy. Soon, automated borrowing machines were installed in public libraries, which collected digital data of every single user. Quite surprisingly, these machines began shutting down, one by one. These were librarians, who you imagine are not tech-savvy, but did all they could to sabotage government diktat. It could be seen as an act of treason, but it takes remarkable guts to defy the state,” she says.
“Shubigi’s creative form is ever emergent and moves in different languages like a ventriloquist, who speaks in many tongues, that of an artist, a scientist, an archivist. It is one person and she holds them all,” says Zaidi.