E025 Stories of Visual Culture with Ragini Siruguri – Part 1

In this episode we talk to Ragini Siruguri about her work as a book designer at Tara Books. She shares how she got started and tells us about her interesting book projects while working there. We also discuss her eye for visual communication and the ways in which she documents the world around her visually.



Ragini currently works at Tara Books, founded by Gita Wolf. 

Ragini talks about the patuas of West Bengal, and gond art, among other traditional Indian art forms.  

She shares her experience of designing a book with photos by Kodai Matsuoka, and narratives by Bajju Shyam, a gond artist.

Matchbook, An Ideal Boy, and Frida Folk are Tara Books which have inspired Ragini to dig deeper into visual culture. 

She tells us about Hydandseek: A Visual Tribute to Hyderabad, a collaboration with her mother Sadhana Ramchander, and photographer Lakshmi Prabhala. 

Ragini is inspired by the instagram handle of @aperturebroughtmehere

She mentions ‘The politics of Design’ by Ruben Pater

Ragini is teaching a course with Indian education platform, Ownpath

You can follow her on Instagram @yellowchameleon




Angie: Hi Ragini! Welcome! We’re so excited to talk to you about your journey. I’m sure it would be so inspiring and also very useful for those who are beginning to understand visual communication or even students who are pursuing it. 

Ragini: Well, thanks for having me Angeline. It’s a pleasure to be on your podcast.

Angie: So let’s let’s start from the beginning and talk about your creative journey so far. 

Ragini: So I grew up actually surrounded by books and art as a child. I used to read a lot. My parents and grandparents always gave me a book for my birthday every year and I was constantly doing something or the other with paints and paper and this and that.

And actually the funny thing is, that for the longest time, I wanted to open a stationery shop when I grew up, and stock all these things. I think now I just hoard all that stationary myself anyway.  

Angie: Interesting!

Ragini: Also, the other thing was that both my parents are editors and they work closely with information design and books. So while I was growing up, there would always be conversations about these things like design, printing, bookmaking, CMYK and offset… and so I grew up listening to all these terms. And then sometimes on the way back from school, my mother would pick me up and she’d say, hey, let’s just stop by the printer and pick up some proofs.

And so I kind of grew up hearing all these things and I was introduced to software – Photoshop, InDesign at a very young age. So I think most of what I am today,  I owe to my parents in a way and my whole family is kind of creative. So I think it’s also in the genes. 

Angie: So how did you take that interest forward in terms of your education and

career that you chose specifically?

Ragini: Choosing to study graphic design actually happened via a process of elimination, if I think about it now. By the time I had started to seriously think about what I wanted to study, I knew it was going to be in the creative space. So in school, I never really took to the Sciences. I preferred Economics.

I enjoyed Economics and when I finished 12th, I was also looking at journalism or media and communication but then what happened was quite interesting. 

When I was 9 years old, I started learning Hindustani classical music vocal music in Hyderabad, where I’m from. So I learned for almost 10 years and at that point I was fully immersed in it, so much so that I think that I began to think seriously think about taking up music as a profession, and a lot of people told me that Pune was a good place to start to learn classical music and that I would find a lot of very good teachers.

So I found and I applied to this very intensive, but really exciting course in music at a university there, but at the same time, there was also an interest in studying design. So I applied to a couple of communication design courses. There was one at NID, one at Srishti and one at Symbiosis, which was again in Pune.

So when it came to finally choosing between all these options, I felt it was more practical to take up design as a profession, but I wanted to continue learning music on the side, so then I chose a Symbiosis. I got into symbi and Srishti. I didn’t get into NID.. So then I chose Pune and I think now when I look back, I think it’s a really good decision.

And at the end of it, I couldn’t make as much time for music as I wanted to but in Pune, I think I met some of the best people – I found my tribe, if I can call them that – so it was a really good experience. 

Angie: Do you still practice your music now?

Ragini:  I took a long break for the past five to six years. I was so into working on freelance projects as a designer that there was no motivation to get back to music. But, in the past six months, I have started singing again, and I’m trying to do projects that combine visual communication and music somehow. So that’s an area that I find very fascinating. 

Angie: That’s interesting. I was just going to ask you about how your music affects your work as a designer. Probably you’re looking at projects that try to combine both of your interests. 

Ragini: Yeah, in fact while I was in college I started doing this project with a design studio called Folo, that was initially based in Ahmedabad, but the guy who started it, who is a very good friend – Aditya Dipankar – he’s now kind of traveling everywhere. So I worked on a project with him, which involved making infographics that simplify the concepts of classical music. So this is a project I started working on but never really finished. Aditya and I also worked on this project called Raagya which is an online radio.

In classical music, at least in Hindustani classical music there is a concept of ragas based on the time of day. Certain ragas have to be sung at certain times of day. So what this Radio does is, when you go to the website, it automatically plays a raga based on what time of the day you are on the website.So while Aditya conceptualized and set up this project, I worked on the logo for the project. 

Angie: Currently you work with Tara books, and since I live in Chennai, I’ve been to the lovely Tara books office and it’s so inspiring. I really wanted to know what it’s like working there! You mentioned earlier that you grew up reading some of their books and now to end up working there must be amazing. So tell us more about that. 

Ragini: I will first tell you a bit about Tara. Tara books is an independent publishing house and we are a collective of artists, writers and designers and based out of Chennai. Tara typically publishes books based on the visual arts for both children and adults.

Tara works very closely with indigenous art and storytelling traditions in India and they’ve been around for 25 years now and they’ve specialized in creating screen printed books. So they also set up a screen printing workshop, which is, again in Chennai, where everything is done by hand, including the binding.

So design plays a very central role in bookmaking at Tara and also exploring the form of the book, trying to break out of the regular forms and trying something new. So this is something that Tara has come to be known for and Tara is essentially as much a design and print studio as it is a publishing house.

Tara books has design and art residencies, and that’s actually how I came to work here. There was a call for designers, in a post on Facebook – and one of my close friends sent it to me and I will be grateful to her forever for this. I was six months out of college, and I was freelancing in Hyderabad. 

My mom used to buy us books when we were growing up, so I knew their books as a reader and it was only during my last year at design school that I had begun to appreciate these books from a design point of view. So when I got this call I said, Okay. Why not? I have nothing to lose really, so let’s just take this six-month detour to Chennai. It will be a fun stint. Six months is the minimum time you need to kind of understand the workings of a Publishing House, to be able to learn anything from what they do and vice versa. But the funny thing is, those six months kept multiplying because I’ve been there for three years now.

Angie: So the residency never got over!

Ragini:  Still going on! Also there was another really funny thing that happened when I got here in 2016. One of the first projects I was given was the redesign of an old book called Puppets Unlimited. Puppets Unlimited was an activity book for children about how to make puppets out of ordinary materials that you find around the house and this was published in 1998.

So I was around 5 years old at that time and a couple of years later I bought this book when I was 11. I bought this book for my mom, not for myself, and I gifted it to her and then 15 years later, when I joined Tara, they gave me this same book to redesign.

Angie: Wow!

Ragini: it’s crazy! I feel like that some higher Force operating here. 

Angie: What a flashback!

Ragini: Absolutely. it’s a very, very inspiring place to work at and it’s a privilege to be part of the team. Everyone here is just so experienced and sometimes it feels unreal that I work here.

Angie: Do you wanna talk a little bit about maybe those early months when you started working and how you started picking up stuff?

Ragini: I think one thing that you really notice about Tara’s books is how much attention they pay to design and as a designer you feel really valued when you’re working on a certain book. So the whole book-making process is really collaborative. And it’s very design-centric so that the designer is involved from a very conceptual stage. My colleagues and I are involved in conversations about a certain book from the beginning. It’s not like the author writes a piece of text and then there are illustrations and then it comes to the designer. So it’s never a linear process, really. And it’s interesting to see all the design decisions that you make, how they influence how a book is formed or the final product, how it appears to be, just by involving the designer at a much earlier stage. 

Angie: You mentioned earlier about using Indian art in some way. What kind of research do you have to do even as a designer in terms of trying to understand some of the elements that you could use in the book itself?

Ragini: I think for me, what is very exciting is to discover the diversity in all these traditional forms of art. These are all traditions in India. So when you think about it, there are so many existing storytelling traditions that inherently have graphic design as part of that art. So if you take the patuas of West Bengal, they paint really long scrolls and they go from village to village and perform these scrolls. So they naturally have this knowledge of breaking up stories into panels, which they slowly open up and tell and perform. So there’s a lot to learn from them just by observing how they make what they make. It’s not that being a designer with a fancy degree, you are above them.You get to learn equally from what they have to offer.

Angie: How do you go about research and does it involve traveling to places where you can find interesting Indian Art?

Ragini: So the thing is, that these projects usually take much longer than you think they will. So, in 2018 that we did a trip to Raipur in Chattisgarh. That was a workshop that we organized with some of the indigenous artists there. So again, this was more of a field trip, but the thing is it’s very difficult to grasp an idea and then push it towards becoming a book, and I think this is what we really saw (Tara’s founder) Gita Wolf do while we were there and it’s amazing how she can see an idea for a book in any ordinary activity or in any performance.

I’m currently working on a couple of projects that do involve field trips, but these are yet to happen. So it might take a year or more. It’s hard to say 

Angie: It’s also interesting how you would select the kind of visual elements and the form of the book itself, that would support the kind of story that you want to tell. 

Ragini: Exactly. So there are some art-forms that, say, have a very textural quality to them. So then naturally you would lean towards maybe making a screen printed handmade book where you can actually touch the art and when the textures really come out but on the other hand, maybe when you’re working on another project, the story takes a higher role. Maybe it’s more fascinating. This is when the illustrations go into the background a bit. As a designer, you’re kind of in control of how you create meaning between these two things in any book. In any book, there’s always the author, the illustrator, the designer and finally the printer. So in each book that Tara does, one or two of them might take a higher, more important role. So it always keeps changing. It’s never a linear equation. 

Angie: So tell us about one or two of your favorite book projects that you worked on at Tara, and what you enjoyed about designing for that story.

Ragini: So my current favorite project is a project that I finished today. It’s actually going to press tomorrow morning. So I’m quite nervous about it. This is a book called Origins of Art. So the book is about a village in Madhya Pradesh called Pathangad. And this is where the gond that tradition is said to have been born.

So the book brings together two perspectives. One is of a well-known gond artist called Bajju Shyam. Tara has worked with him on a lot of books. And the other narrative is of a Japanese photographer. His name is Kodai Matsuoka. He had visited path and good and he ended up with this ‘ready huge collection of fantastic photos of the village.

So he documented the art. He documented farming. He documented festivals, the animals of the village, the people of the village. So the book is essentially a dialogue between this artist and this photographer. So when I started designing this book, I think about two to three months ago and while reading the text and while looking at his photographs, I realized that it’s very necessary to also intersperse these photos with actual illustrations by gond artists, and when I looked at the books that Tara has already published, it was quite serendipitous to see that the artwork that we already had in our books were very similar to photographs that Kodai had taken. The similarities were mind-blowing so, you kind of could see where these artists were getting their inspiration from. I really enjoyed putting this book together because, every day I would discover these coincidences.

And as a designer, what I had to do was to create some kind of meaning between the photograph, the illustration and whatever anecdote there was on the page. So every page felt like creating a new story, and I think that so far, this has been the book that I have enjoyed the most at Tara.

Angie: Sounds really exciting!

Ragini: Yeah! There was one more book that I really liked doing, but this was before Tara. This is a collection of Street photographs of Hyderabad. The book was actually conceptualized by my mother. Sadhana Ram Chander and the photographs were by a photographer in Hyderabad called Lakshmi Prabhala – she was the one who had sent me the Tara books call. So my mom had conceptualized this book, and we decided to call it Hydandseek but there is a pun on the word hide. So it’s hyd as in Hyderabad. This was originally the name of the photographer’s blog. 

And so this was a photo book. It had all these wonderful street photographs and then when we were designing the cover, we noticed that a lot of photo books just had one photograph on the cover and it was usually the most iconic Monument of the city or it would be something very stereotypical but it could be a typical image of something that is that the city is well known fault.

So we wanted it to be a bit different. So there was this really nice photo that Lakshmi had taken from the top of Charminar, of the view from up there. So what we did was, we put that photograph on the first page of the book and for the cover, we took one of the jaali patterns of Charminar and laser-cut it onto the cover.

So when you look at the book, first you see this jaali and through the jaali you see the view from the Charminar. On a practical note, it was an expensive option. But then at the same time, it captured the essence of Hyderabad without being too obvious about it.

So now we are really glad we did this because the cover has received a lot of appreciation. So I think this has been one of my favorite covers also. 

Angie: Sounds really good. When you’re designing a book there are actually lots of things that you have to bring together, especially if you’re going to use all these elements.

You have photography, maybe illustration and there’s your type. For example, if you’re working on a poster, you’re really focused on one particular message and how you lay it out, but when you’re working on a book, you need that continuity as well, on each page. So how do you go about that? If you look at other books, like even a novel or something, it’s really all about the type. But if you look at a Tara book, whether it’s for adults or children, it’s really all about how this story is told visually, using all these elements. So, you know, how do you go about that? If you can, hmm talk to us about composition or choice may be? 

Ragini: I think it’s a bit hard to explain without having a visual reference. But at the same time there are many things that are kind of directing the way this design happens.

So sometimes it’s the art itself or it’s the nature of the art that you’re working with that can give you certain constraints which drive the design, or if the text calls for attention or if you feel like the text needs more focus. So when you see the artwork and when you read the text, there is some sort of visual language that you have to establish that you have to keep in mind while you design the rest of the book.

I think it depends on the context. It depends on the content of the book and for who it is for definitely. You can’t use 11-point type for a children’s book. No child is ever going to pick it up and read it. So I think there’s no formula ever. It just keeps changing but with context.



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