Adnan Syed reviews Mazaar Bazaar.
Breathless… the first word that came to mind.
This book leaves you breathless. In anticipation – and in exertion. Six years is a long time to wait for a book and waiting for it to come out was akin to the anticipation for the latest Harry Potter – or Dan Brown as some would have it – but as with all such eagerly anticipated events, how does the book measure up?
Unlike other publishing events, there was no hype except in certain circles. There is no other book of its kind to compare it to in the local book scene. There was a book on Pakistani architecture by Kamil Khan Mumtaz published years ago, which was welcomed as a much needed discourse on the architectural scene; and there have been a number of books on various aspects of the arts and crafts scene by notable people but none has ventured to cover so much as this one. At 347 pages, covering a wide spectrum of the visual universe surrounding us, 33 written and photographic essays, the book does leave you breathless.
It has been a long journey for Saima Zaidi, who described her exploration of topics:
“In its earliest stage, the focus was only on retail packaging design, later it narrowed in on those that were purely Pakistani brand icons. Then the project expanded as I started to investigate everyday imagery, popular and mass culture with comparisons to contemporary art and eventually I included ancient art and design as historical visual references.”
Kudos to her for initiating the process and OUP (Oxford University Press) for giving us the book in its printed form. The author was straightforward when queried about the book’s funding.
“Procuring the funding was pretty easy and straightforward. I had learnt of the Prince Claus Fund through Arif Hasan and Asma Ibrahim, and I applied for a grant. The Managing Editor, Peter Stepan, responded by offering not only to provide a grant but also a collaboration with the Prince Claus Fund Library in the Netherlands.”
As to my next obvious question, she was very frank.
“At that time, I knew of no other individual, or organisation, that would support a publication of this nature.”
The book is divided into four sections. Dekh Magar Pyar Se deals with vernacular and folk culture, Read talks about calligraphy/typography, Be Pakistani, Buy Pakistani deals with the consumer/ advertising culture and Long Live Pakistan is about developing a national identity through flags, currency and postage stamps, and finally there is an historical overview from Mohenjo-daro to the present day.
The four sections provide a wealth of knowledge on key aspects of our visual environment. The Be Pakistani, Buy Pakistani section is the easiest to read and digest; obviously, you might say, because it is about advertising and hence dumbed down. But I vehemently, repeat, vehemently, disagree. Not because I am an advertising person myself, but because I resent being deprived of the other vital pieces of knowledge in the book simply because I don’t have a PhD to understand the overdose of academic prose in some of the essays. The piece on PIA is informative and brings to light background information and creative work which would have otherwise remained hidden from the public eye. An unabashedly promotional piece, it makes one proud to be Pakistani. Another interesting bit of information, gleaned from the Pakola article, was the fact that Pepsi taking over the cola scene and Pakola falling by the wayside was not merely due to competition between companies/brands, but to the fact that Pakola chose to focus its energies in one direction to the detriment of their original brand.
The section on typography lacks meat. It’s like a delicious looking pulao with lots of meaty pieces that turn out to be mere bones, with a few scraps of meat sticking to them. The visual essay on the development of the Jang masthead is far more interesting than the written one. In a different way, the article on the development of the ‘hero’ is far more informative than the visual imagery that accompanies it. Typography plays a very important role in the development of design and visual culture, and the section barely skims the surface of the power of the Urdu script.
Similarly, the Dekh Magar Pyar Se section is perhaps the most exciting, and yet it is also disappointing. Apart from the articles on film billboards and wrestling posters, the others fail to impress. They are too heavy to digest, or too brief, or superficial. Either way they fail to make an impact and one is left wondering what, if anything, did one learn about how and why this type of art was created.
The most poignant pieces are found within Long Live Pakistan, specifically the ones about the national flag and the Quaid-i-Azam. They make abundantly clear how shabbily and superficially the two biggest national icons are treated in our visual culture. The simple structure of the national flag itself is worth the price of the book! The article on stamps may be the longest in the book but it is worth reading if only to absorb our endeavours in a very undervalued field.
For the history buff there is an impressive section on pre-Partition going all the way back to Mohenjo-daro’s coinage. Very useful for students and if only our institutions were able to incorporate the idea that learning from history and building upon it is essential to the development of a nation’s identity.
When I shared a book from our office library with an artist friend of mine he spontaneously commented, “Uff… iss mein to pictures hee nahin hain!”
Although we laughed it off, that comment served to pinpoint a serious shortcoming. We have become visual gluttons, choosing to devour visual stimulus and not bothering to undertake any mental exercise. Our advertising has become a reflection of this; all flash and little substance. This book, however, has ample doses of both visual and intellectual food for thought. It is stuffed with visual imagery, mostly with helpful captions and explanations (and a very welcome credit list at the end) which serve as parallel studies alongside the written essays.
Which brings me to something that bothers me no end. As an exercise in graphic design the book is beautifully laid out. But it is hellishly difficult to read. The miniscule text, especially in the coloured portions, is enough to give you a headache. The paper is lovely to feel; thick and textured but doesn’t do justice to our richly colourful visual culture. The written essays leave much to be desired. They are uneven and although that is to be expected with so many different contributors, one is left with a nagging sense of being unsatiated. Except for a few which make for interesting reading, the others are either unreadable because they are either too heavy on academic prose, or shallow. Which raises a fundamental question: What is this book trying to be?
Is it a survey of visual culture, in which case it is unreadable in many instances, or is it an attempt to understand the development of visual culture?
The blurb on the jacket says it is an “…interdisciplinary study… the book documents contemporary visual vernacular and provides an overview of the diverse cultures assimilated over several millennia. It reflects social, commercial and geopolitical changes influencing this region, and addresses a broad horizon of graphic expression… an indispensable sourcebook for designers, artists as well as students of communication design and culture.”
Is it a book for goras or for us desis? Going through the book leaves you breathless at the quantity of information, but perhaps in trying to promise too much to too many people, the book loses out on its true greatness.
In the way that a person with a sweet tooth always craves for that extra ‘bit’, the book leaves you craving for more. n
Saima Zaidi, ed. Mazaar Bazaar: Design and Visual Culture in
Adnan Syed is Chief Creative Officer, Adcom. email@example.com