Cover art from the Kathryn Hansen collection of Nautanki chapbooks

Working on this collection was an absolute delight, peppered with bits of personal frustration – why, oh why, had I neglected to learn Hindi and Urdu? The Kathryn Hansen collection of Nauṭankī chapbooks is incredibly visually appealing; I enjoyed looking through the different cover designs as I processed the collection, and yet I couldn’t read any of them! Still, I was able to pick up on some interesting patterns just from the information that Kathryn Hansen provided when she donated this fantastic collection to the Kislak Center.

The chapbooks in this collection are Indian folk tales and plays. They include Ālhās (oral epics); Gīt and Bhajan (songs); Nāṭak (theatrical plays); Qissās (tales); and Sāngīts (printed Nauṭankī play scripts). Some re-tell local legends and folk tales, while others tell popular romances or new stories in poetic language.

While they do not have any internal illustrations, many of the chapbooks in this collection have intricate and colorful cover art. Certain publishers seem to be more likely to have included vibrant cover illustrations. Some of my favorites come from Agraval Book Depot and N. S. Sharma Gaur Book Depot. Though it’s difficult to say without being able to read them, some of the cover illustrations appear to relate to the story being told in the chapbook, while other covers are more decorative.

Other publishers seem to have taken a single cover design and applied it across the board. Dehati Pustak Bhander used a somewhat intricate design featuring four swans on a colored background, with detailed line work. The design stayed the same, but the background color changed with each chapbook. Other publishers like Shyam Press or Shrikrishna Pustakalay/Shrikrishna Khatri used a photograph and border design on every cover. All of these reused designs were likely both cost-effective and good branding. Dehati Pustak Bhandar’s swans, Shyam Press’s portrait of a man in a turban, and Shrikrishna Pustakalay/Khatri’s photo of a standing man all appear repeatedly throughout the collection.

It was really interesting to see the variety of cover art and decoration on these chapbooks. Since I couldn’t read any of them, the cover art was my only point of reference for what one might find within. Considering the use of publisher cover images, as well as what I know about modern day cover art, I don’t know how much the illustrations can really tell me about the contents, but it is still fun to speculate, and it was an enjoyable collection to work on.

The Kathryn Hansen collection of Nautanki chapbooks is now open for researchers.

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