It has been a couple of weeks since I started my internship at Zubaan, and the famous ‘Reading Lady’ is everywhere as I look. On books, perched on the website header, a painting leaning against Elsy’s desk and even at lunch, up on the wall behind, except here she is in her young avtar, holding up a book as she skips. Not much of a talker, I’ve noticed, she’d much rather be with a book. “Tch! Tch! She has no manners.” I hear people complain. “A girl shouldn’t read too much lest she gets the wrong ideas.” But she appears unfazed, and I imagine her mind somersaulting instead through the universe held inside her book.
Curious to know her story, I approached Urvashi Butalia one afternoon and what she told me was nothing short of fascinating. In the 1990s, she tells me, there was a “great push for literacy all across India” and women—especially ones in rural areas—emerged as its most enthusiastic participants. As a tribute to the cause, Dhokra artists from the Damar tribe in eastern Indian states began to cast images of women reading in different positions: sitting, standing, lying down or on their sides, and engrossed in books even while breastfeeding. Made of non-ferrous metal, they were cast from the same technique called lost-wax, as the Harappan Dancing Girl over 4000 years ago. Urvashi recalls that they were quite the rage at the time and came to her as the instinctive point of reference for Zubaan’s logo which, in fact, is a stylized silhouette of a Dhokra reading lady designed by Uzma Mohsin.
Dhokra Reading Ladies, from Urvashi Butalia’s personal collection
After reading some more on Dhokra casting, I imagine this is how these women would have come to be, enduring several stages of transformation before turning full metal. Each ‘Lady’, as we’ve taken to calling them in the Zubaan office, began as a vague, embryo-like clay form, coated with wax. Artists plied the clay with their nimble hands, giving shape to her limbs and features as well as to the other details that they moulded with beeswax—such as the drape that snakes her body, anklets around her feet and the chunky bangles on her wrists. She was then anointed with sheets of clay, taking on the form of the wax underneath. Once that had dried, she was ready to be planted into a mud hearth, a womb of fire in the ground where wax melted out of an opening below, as the clay hardened. She was just a hollow now, susceptible to breaking. Very carefully molten metal was poured in, slowly filling the void to give an enduring metal female form, born holding a book in her hands.
‘Lady’ who lent her silhouette to the logo
Everything about the Dhokra Reading Lady evokes in me a profound sense of fierceness and strength, which I also feel looking at the Zubaan logo, where she sits with a pronounced vertical posture and head placed confidently on her shoulders. Not cowering or sitting with her back turned, but holding the book to her face in full view of society, as though challenging detractors to stop her if they can. I take is as a profound indictment of the systems of oppression that have been in situ for centuries, denying women even this basic human right. She also appears very much at ease in defiance, arms resting comfortably on her knees drawn in just the right amount to make for a sustainable sitting position, which is important if she is to exist like that in the foreseeable future. I find it interesting that the surrounding rectangle does not enclose her fully but stops short with her head rising above, which Urvashi mentioned was intentional, “symbolizing breaking of boundaries.” Sitting firm on the word ZUBAAN, she makes a loud and most unequivocal claim to the voice that she has fought for. I think she is Zubaan’s most overworked employee because, no matter what time of day it is, she squats tirelessly with her nose in a book as if reminding people that read we must. To not only discover new stories, but also learn to tell our own. She takes me back to my room, to those moments of private absorption only a reader can know, and gradually I begin to think of her not only as a woman but also a mould that I have come to cast myself in unknowingly.