HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksGunjan Ahlawat: ‘The pandemic offered me the gift of time’

Gunjan Ahlawat: ‘The pandemic offered me the gift of time’

When and how did you come to see slow as beautiful? Do you consider this approach a part of your personality, or as a universal truth? 

I feel that this book has been brewing within me for years, but it was during the first lockdown when work slowed down and I was at our family home in Meerut that I got a bit more time to sit and introspect. With so much chaos, anxiety and sadness due to Covid, coupled with the personal loss of a friend, I took respite in nature through long walks. There was a sort of comparison of how nature addresses all these aspects of life, and I felt very beautiful about it.

There were life lessons hidden all around, but it was the slowness of the time that allowed me to form that lost bond again with nature. It offered a renewed vision. Upon returning home, I would make drawings of what I saw and write what I felt. It was all very personal and mostly in abstract sketchy forms. In one of my catch-ups with my publisher Meru Gokhale, I shared this with her, and she instantly wanted to see it. This is how Slow is Beautiful began. We started building on it, but I didn’t think it would turn into a book one day. 

176pp, ₹599; Penguin

The pandemic offered me the gift of time, and it allowed me to work at a slow place to give the book a form and a structure. Losing my dear friend also became a reason for me to reflect on every aspect of life as I questioned ideas of attachment, belonging and letting go.

And yes, slowness has always been a part of my personality, but I guess over the course of the last few years, I too got consumed with a fast-paced life, technology and visual fatigue. This book came as a reminder to me as much as it does to the reader.

Why did it seem important to get readers to explore slowness in an experiential way?

As a designer, I firmly believe that there are no fixed or singular answers. Exploring and figuring your own way is how I look at design and art. Constantly developing and embracing possibilities is the way of being for me.

What was the thought process behind the structure you devised for this book. Was it influenced in any way by your piano playing?

Initially, I thought of dividing the book into three parts – me as a designer and painter, me as a farmer’s son, and me as a human being – all rooted in nature. This started to feel more like a monologue and I wanted to embrace the sense of a dialogue, one that I myself experienced with nature. I wanted the reader to feel the same and hence make the final structure more interactive. Then the reader could be an active participant in the book and sense making. When you are drawing or painting from life, you know what’s going on in the piece and in the moment. You are both creating and changing reality together.

Any form of art that you practice or possess inherently becomes an integral part of your being. While this book is not at all based on my piano music, the high and low notes that make the music offered intense emotional value.

What practices that you learnt at the National School of Design in Ahmedabad and the Glasgow School of Art found their way into Slow is Beautiful?

I am a self-taught painter and writer. Neither of the schools offered that skill set. What they did offer is the zeal to learn and chase quality in thinking, doing and picking yourself up on failing; to see the world in a certain designerly way, to make connections, to embrace ambiguity and above all distil complex ideas with intelligence and clarity. I could utilise my formal design training when it came to the designing of the book, and most of it I resolved in my head before getting down to the computer. This was the easiest part for me.

While creating this book, what kind of target audience did you imagine? How did you strike a balance between what you were moved to offer as an artist, and commercial considerations around paper quality and pricing?

Since this was a personal project to start with, I didn’t really worry much about the target audience. I knew that anyone interested in nature, art, design and the concepts of observing and absorbing would be able to relate to this instantly. Publishers helped on the commercial and production modalities, so I totally trusted their experience and judgements on that side. We discussed the size, printing, paper quality and pricing and I didn’t interfere with it at all.

What kind of materials, textures and colours do you like working with? Which of these did you use for Slow is Beautiful?

Honestly, I’m a bit of a mess. I use everything that I can find in my painting studio, from watercolours to acrylics, pens, crayons and gouache. I like collecting branches, feathers, pebbles from my walks to make my own tools for painting. I started dabbling with acrylics, but finally finished the book in gouache. 

Poet Ranjit Hoskote has written the foreword to your book. Earlier, you have designed the covers of his books Jonahwhale and Hunchprose. Tell us about your collaboration.

I am an ardent lover of his craft and him as a human being. He is one of the gentlest and most talented people I know. It is such a delight to interact with him, as all the conversations are so rich and full of life. His eye and voice in art and literature is exemplary and I’m truly blessed to know him, to work with him and more particularly to collaborate on Slow is Beautiful. Along with all the above, he is the most generous individual. I couldn’t have thought of anyone better to write the foreword for my book, as he knew my work, my thinking and about the making of Slow is Beautiful. 

The Ganga canal near Meerut (Sakib Ali/HT Archive)
The Ganga canal near Meerut (Sakib Ali/HT Archive)

In the foreword, Hoskote mentions that you have been spending a lot of time in your family home on the outskirts of Meerut. Could you describe the place for us?

Our family home is a beautiful patch with the Ganga canal passing through and a variety of trees, birds and seasonal crops. We have mango orchards and mustard fields. I spent the initial years of my life there. There were no cell phones then, no Netflix for distraction and the air carried no stress. The little artist in me always took solace in these tall, green and old friends. I have vivid memories of making small drawings of our fields, canal and the skies. 

After almost 20 years, I was back with a lot of time at hand and slowness in my heart. I tried to capture exactly what I saw and felt – realism in thought and expressionism in execution. The place has remained the same, but my ways of seeing, appreciating, observing and absorbing have undergone a transformation. That made a huge difference in the most beautiful of ways. 

You’ve been staying behind the scenes and designing covers for books written by Amitav Ghosh, Perumal Murugan, Moni Mohsin, Namita Gokhale and so many others. Your own book is out now. How do you feel about interacting with audiences at literature festivals? Are you ready for that, or is it a distraction from the slow life? 

I believe in completing the circle through informed and educated ways. While I wouldn’t push anyone to buy the book, I would love to spread the word, talk about the book at festivals and place the book in the right context. The rest is for readers to decide. It feels like bringing a baby to the world so an initial nurturing is essential. Then one would let it go and allow it to explore the world on its own.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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