As often said and assuming that its true that an artist’s real identity is his or her work, then I have known Fatah Halepoto way before knowing his name and knowing him as an individual. When I was around 4-5 years old, my father used to have a small study in the house, with all walls covered with books, shelved vertically and horizontally. At that time I did not even know how to read, but I somehow knew all the books on shelves very well. My father used to ask me to bring a certain book… and I instantly knew which book was he talking about. It was only sometimes, he felt any need to explain the imagery or color on the book cover at all, but most of the time he just uttered the title and without any confusion I would run and get it for him.
Now reflecting upon this job of an illiterate librarian, I feel cover designs actually works as a title of the book in visual form. In many ways, it is the same exercise of giving a title to your novel, essay or a poem. In terms of giving a title to a painting or an art work the exercise is essentially the same, only reversed.
In that very study-room I started drawing way before I had started writing alphabets. I used to copy images on book covers and illustrations inside them. My drawing was not, and has never been so good – so I used carbon papers and tracing sheets to copy them. I still do the same with projectors and other tracing techniques. It was much later; during my Art College days, I found out about all those artists who had made most of the images that I was replicating as a child, was Fatah Halepoto.
Fatah Halepoto is a multi dimensional, multi-faceted talent – a story writer, a poet, a painter, a designer and an art teacher. He can be recognized for each of these disciplines independently but it is actually the fusion of all these that makes him ‘the artist’ that he should be known as. And the real feat of his creative career is how he has fused all these art forms with each other.
While thinking about book covers, a seemingly irrelevant story comes to my mind by a Persian writer, that I read in Urdu. Plot was very clichéd. Its one liner summary could be that a teacher is lecturing in his class and a girl is taking whatever he says too seriously. story is really irrelevant here, but what I remember as the crux of it was that he encourages students to interact with nature, to face the reality and not to bury their heads all the time in books like an ostrich. A line and a strange comparison from the story that has always stayed with me was that ‘the library is like a graveyard and opening a book is like digging a grave’. One can be very skeptical of the statement or not agree with what writer is saying. But somehow I am always reminded of this analogy after eyeing any boring book cover. To me they actually look more like headstones than book covers. I agree that there is an inexplicable nostalgia and romance lingering over in old-gold books and book covers. But if you look at old books whose covers used to be printed in the same typography as the content of the book or written by a calligrapher, you will find that these covers really do look like gravestones. The book’s name is on the top, writer’s name in relatively smaller font at the bottom or vice versa, and around all four sides of cover page you would find different patterns of flowers and geometrical shapes like tombstones of Makkli graveyard.
Sindhi books, too, went through the same phase. But during 70’s and 80’s, because of Halepoto’s thankless and unrewarded services the Sindhi book covers were adorned as lovingly as if a mother has sent her child to the school of literature. He created some of the most memorable covers for almost of all prominent writers of Sindhi, like Sheikh Ayaz, Ustad Bukhari, Tanveer Abbasi, Ali Baba and many others.
The cover of the first novel I have ever read, Bukh, Ishq, Adab (hunger, love and literature) by now-Indian Sindhi writer Mohan Kalpna, was also designed by him. If I start comparing Sindhi books, which are being published these days with books that I had seen in my childhood, I cannot deny the decline of quality. It evokes a painful realization that maybe we have lost honest designers with artistic sense or a good artist with designer’s sensibility who can produce book covers like Fatah did. Is today’s designer only someone who knows to operate computers and softwares like photoshop or corel draw ?
Consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, Fatah has also used his book covers as a means of teaching and preaching the colors of creativity and artistic sensibility. Looking at the hand painted images on a book cover and illustrations in magazines, for the new generation of Sindh, was his way of telling and teaching them that visual art is also a medium of expression that one can use. I am thinking about my own scenario that I had never met Fatah until I passed out of my art college. But he had always inspired me to dive into painting and drawing.
Art may be an important means of self-expression, but sharing this with others is equally significant. An artist always wants to share his work with others and he needs a means to complete the process. To not show an artwork simply means not allowing it to come into being at all.
In many societies extensive networks of private and public art galleries and museums exist to showcase works of artists. But dryly, we have only the drawing rooms of the rich, banks, offices and the buildings of multinational companies for this purpose. In many countries even graffiti is appreciated and governments preserve the walls on which prominent graffiti artists have painted. But the walls of our country only yell about religious and political gatherings, slogans of ‘long live’ and ‘down with’, advertisements for the cure of male weaknesses and yehan peehsab kerna mana he…
With the lack of encouragement from private sector and not enough patronage from the government, all the names in the visual arts of this country deserve all the encouragement and big praise. Fatah Halepoto is one of those names.
Whilst the people of Sindh slept on colorful Rallis [a Sindhi patchwork bed sheet], he did not let the language of its colors go unspoken. I feel that because of the shortage of art galleries to share work within, Fatah chose a unique means and place for his work, “the hands of the reader of his books“. The cover of Sindhi books became like a makeshift art gallery where Fatah’s solo show has been on display for years, culminating in over 2000 book cover designs. And his makeshift gallery will remain be alive within the hands of the readers and will be passed on to generations by hand.