From Palm Leaf to Book: A South Asia Quest

By Davids, Betsy | Printing History, July 2011 | Go to article overview

From Palm Leaf to Book: A South Asia Quest


Davids, Betsy, Printing History


LEARNING letterpress printing, for me, was a do-it-yourself project. My teacher was a book: Printing as a Hobby by J. Ben Lieberman, the very J. Ben Lieberman whom this lecture series commemorates. Lieberman's how-to paperback, which I discovered in the Whole Earth Catalog in 1970, described a way of rigging a basic flatbed proof press with a makeshift tympan and frisket. I did so, with a group of students and colleagues in an experimental program at California College of Arts and Crafts, in order to produce a publication of texts and images in the college's printmaking studio. Our first little broadside wasn't great printing, but it wasn't a failure either, and by the time we came out with our publication, a magazine-in-a-can entitled CCAN, I was producing tolerably competent letterpress work. In retrospect, my DIY approach and Lieberman's confidence that would-be printers could learn from a book seemed validated.

In contrast, my current learning effort without formal training has proven to be much more challenging. My project is to make a palm-leaf book, using actual palm leaf, in a joined-leaf structure I happened upon while traveling in India in 2007. Palm leaf was a prevalent material for making books in South and Southeast Asia for many centuries, but by the mid-twentieth century, it had been almost entirely replaced by paper. The palm-leaf work that caught my eye at a craft fair in Chennai came from a singular community of artists in the eastern state of Orissa, painters by heritage, who in recent decades revived the art of working on palm leaf and made it an important part of their livelihood [Fig. 1].

In their preferred palm-leaf structure, individual leaves are joined to adjacent leaves by sewing along the longer edges, creating an accordion-style closing and opening. Closed, the structure becomes a stack of leaves; open, it becomes a flat surface. What especially attracted me about the structure is the double-layering of leaves before sewing, so that an underlayer can be revealed by cutwork and by flaps. Lift a flap, and a new image becomes visible [Figs. 2a-2b]. Because I am an artist-writer whose central content is the dream, I keep an eye out for structures that provide an appropriate physical space for the inner life and an embodied experience of accessing inner worlds. This structure could work for me, and probably for other book artists too.

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From an historical perspective, this structure is unusual, though joined leaves (without flaps) have some presence among extant historical illustrated palm-leaf manuscript books (chitra-pothis). (1) By far the most common traditional structure is a stack of single leaves, unjoined, each with one to three holes, strung together on cords, often through only one of the holes, typically the left [Fig. 3]. The strung stack is held between wood covers, and the cord is wound around and around the covers. The stacked-strung traditional structure is simpler to make but offers neither the large flat surface of the joined structure nor the layering possibilities of the Orissan artists' particular version of joined structure with flaps and cutwork. The traditional structure is also more vulnerable to damage through handling, such as cracking around the holes and at leaf edges.

Whatever the structure, palm-leaf work has been handmade and one-of-a-kind, with rare exceptions. Historical palm leaf work throughout Asia might be written with pen and/or painted, or it might be incised, like the current Orissan work. The Orissan artists incise with a needle-pointed iron stylus called lekhani. The incised lines are inked and wiped; the ink stays where the leaf surface has been cut and wipes clean elsewhere. It is not printed.

Looking with my Western book artist's eyes, I saw the joined structure as a book, though none of the makers I talked with used a book vocabulary and all examples appeared designed for hanging. …

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