Earlier this year in the month of February, Delhi’s art enthusiasts made the most of north India’s transient spring season by visiting Sunder Nursery, a restored 16th-century heritage park and arboretum. Amidst the UNESCO World Heritage sites and over 300 varieties of trees was a different kind of archive— a trunk full of rare and wonderful photobooks diligently collected and lovingly preserved by Anshika Varma, a photographer and the founder of Offset Projects. It is an organization promoting to create public engagement with photography, art, and book-making.
The local residents hunted through Varma’s trunk to browse, read, borrow, photograph, and discuss the photobooks with others before returning them to their case. Many enthusiasts regularly visited, curious to explore and absorb more photobooks, hold them and claim their ownership for a little while. The project is known as Offset Pitara(Pitara is the Hindi word for ‘trunk’) and is a traveling photobook library that Varma unfurls to the public for a few hours each weekend, sometimes in New Delhi, but often in places such as Goa and Jaipur in India and also Hong Kong. The project’s aim is to explore the various engagements and sociological impact of receiving the world through creative expressions in visual language.
Offset Project combines two of Varma’s greatest passions— photography, her chosen professional medium, and literature, which was her major at university. In her professional sphere, Varma has often encountered remarkable works that used photography in books and that made her realize their democratic nature and potential for reaching the masses. In 2018, when Varma launched Offset Projects, she wanted to change the outlook of the idea that photobooks were mere ‘catalogs’ but started promoting them as an art form. In the initial days, the most pertinent difficulty she faced was popularising this art form in a place like India where photobooks are hard to find and notoriously expensive. To find a solution to this, the idea of the traveling library was born.
Varma is not the only Indian artist to realize the photobook’s potential to celebrate our realities with richly-woven visual stories and hold democratic appeal. Renowned artist and photographer Dayanita Singh has also used to medium for years, ever since the publication of her book, Zakir Hussain, in 1986. Varma also often collaborates with photographer Adil Hasan in organizing workshops, residencies, artist talks, and talks with publishers to create more public engagement with the medium.
In the history of Indian art, photobooks have been largely overlooked. However, through initiatives like Varma’s Offset Projects and its traveling library, the notion is changing. For the first time ever, in this year’s India Art Fair, an entire booth was dedicated to photobooks in its 13-year history. The move was because of the IAF’s initiative to present more contemporary art and attract a younger audience while shaping tomorrow’s archivists. The result? The photobooks were the prime attractions of the fair. IAF’s success or the positive outlook towards Varma’s initiative should come as no surprise because the universality of photographs along with good writing always has to ability to tap into human emotions.
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