Slow Is Beautiful: The Ultimate Art Journal for Mindful LivingAhlawat Gunjan
180 pages|₹ 599
OVER THE PAST few decades, in an increasingly frenzied world, one often hears the maxim that encourages one to “stop and stare”. This adage would, perhaps, be more effective if instead of a direct slogan, it unfolded subtly and gracefully, as it does in Ahlawat Gunjan’s book Slow Is Beautiful: The Ultimate Art Journal for Mindful Living (Penguin Studio; 180 pages; ₹599).
The book could be categorised as a journal, which celebrates nature through paintings. It comprises Ahlawat’s observations on the world. The artworks are bold, vibrant ink and watercolour paintings of the natural world, such as white waterlilies floating among dark green lily pads, bright pink tiger-lilies, purple brinjals, red birds in flight, dark trees in bloom. These vivid, unforgettable images are painted in broad strokes, and the fluid style seems at turns both abstract and impressionistic. Each artwork is accompanied by a few lines of Ahlawat’s thoughts on natural beauties, and a small exercise to hone the reader’s observational and art skills. Ahlawat expands on this idea, saying to Open, “The point is how do you start a conversation with nature in this hectic modern world?”
In the book’s introduction, the author suggests, “A walk in a park without headphones means noticing the chirping of birds, the hum of insects, the texture of the grass, the intermingled scent of flowers and foliage.” He emphasises using one’s senses, both as an artist and an observer. One way to do this is to pause in this fast-paced world with its fast-paced and demanding lifestyle. He notes, “Being an artist myself, I feel slowing down is the first step in mindful seeing.” Artists see the world differently, and despite the range of his accomplishments, Ahlawat is an artist first.
Award-winning designer, painter, TedX speaker, and design educator, the Head of Design at Penguin Random House India, Ahlawat is no stranger to experimenting. This book can also be seen as an experiment, “a pure accident” that happened during the lockdown.
Ahlawat says, “I started to feel that we are in some sort of a rush in life and have lost the art of pause, seeing, giving attention and seeking inspiration. Partly because increasingly, there is so much to visually consume at all times, that we feel lost about what to pick or not.” The idea of this book rests on the notion of pause, through the lens of nature.
Being an artist myself, i feel slowing down is the first step in mindful seeing, says Ahlawat Gunjan, author
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While the concepts in the book all come from nature, they are also transferable to an individual’s day-to-day life. He adds, “This book is based on pillars to transform your ways of looking to ways of seeing. Slowing down is one of the most important and beautiful pillars.” This principle comes mainly from his training, as slowness and mindfulness are two guiding forces in his design work. “While designing too, I take time to absorb the manuscript, and I let the ideation process simmer for days. Once I have given the ideas visual shape, I spend a few more days before sharing with the stakeholders. The outcome is always satisfying.”
Slow is Beautiful is filled with similar tips about how to apply what one has absorbed from nature into one’s work. Next to a painting of a tree with broad yellow leaves he writes, “All trees may seem symmetrical from a distance, but from close quarters, each tree is unique in its asymmetry. Nature balances both symmetry and asymmetry effortlessly and gracefully.” And again, after an image of a tree with lilac blossoms, the question is posed: “Does your seeing define your art or does your art define your seeing?” The text is peppered with questions to make readers reflect and examine themselves and their routines. The paintings are just as memorable and evocative as the words. One particularly haunting image is of a tree where the grey trunk contrasts with its red flowers and leaves. Another is more arresting, with swirls of lemon-yellow blossoms. Next to this are Ahlawat’s words, “Visuals are created in my mind’s heart. The outcome is just an interpretation of that imagination.”
It is no surprise that this is such a visual book, as Ahlawat has worked for years in designing book covers. His most recent awards in art include the Oxford Bookstore cover prize for Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island (2021), and the Atta Galatta Bangalore Literature Festival prize for Perumal Murugan’s Rising Heat (2020). The strangely vivid and disturbing image of a white dog against a fiery sky in Rising Heat, and of a twisting snake among flowers against a black background in Gun Island excite the reader’s curiosity. Ahlawat is best placed to answer the question: what does one look for when designing a book cover? To give the reader an idea of the plot, or just to grasp the reader’s attention? He replies, “While every cover comes with its own set of expectations and challenges based on the content, genre, readership and cover brief, for me, the core philosophy remains how to present and distil complex concepts with clarity, visual directness, brevity and intelligence. It’s a collaborative process and all the stakeholders need to be on board regarding the temperature of experimentation. The tonality of the text is a huge guiding factor along with how we wish to position a certain book to a reader.” Ahlawat’s personal style is based on conversations and collaborations, negotiations and experimentation.
Just as Ahlawat’s writing this book was an accident, so was his journey into designing in 2007. He says, “It was a beautiful one without any regret. My first job was with Hidesign in Pondicherry and I wanted to move closer to home, so I worked with Dorling Kindersley (DK). I was really enjoying the processes of book-making and image-editing, as well as managing large-scale book design projects. I worked on one cover and it turned out well and this was the starting point, so to speak.” Ahlawat did four more covers and realised he wanted to do this for a living.
During the 2020 lockdown he began to design and write a book. “I lost a dear friendship and it broke me down beyond repair. This was the lockdown phase, and I was at my parents’ farm near Meerut. Slowly and silently, I faced the day. I started taking these long walks to our fields, to internalise and to make sense of the grief. Nature has always been a great comforter to me, but this time I felt it also had some answers to some of the unresolved matters of the heart. It transported me to a completely new level of seeing. New ideas came to life, which eventually became the lattice for Slow Is Beautiful.” Ahlawat dove into his readings from design school, such as John Berger and Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life by Beth Kempton, and revisited painting masters like Claude Monet, Paul Nash and Ivon Hitchens. “Above all, I started observing my surroundings more passionately and that became my loyal repository for the book. I tried to capture exactly what I saw and felt. Some sort of realism in thought and expressionism in execution.” An avid gardener himself, his knowledge and passion for flowers colours the text and paintings in the book.
The entire process took him almost three years. At first glance this book may seem like a random collection of his thoughts and exercises for artists, but it is in fact carefully divided into six sections, with his ideas and suggestions, bolstered by quotes from the philosophers, painters, and poets who inspired him.
The curator and poet Ranjit Hoskote writes in the book’s foreword, “Walk through a garden set in the heart of a city, or through a forest. You will find yourself breathing a fresher, immeasurably more capacious and regenerating air than your embattled lungs encounter in everyday life.” Ahlawat’s book has this effect as it makes the reader walk slower and pause longer.