Do you remember the covers on your school textbooks?
I cannot remember mine for the simple reason that I never found them attractive. I preferred covering the books with brown covers than look at their dull colours and dispirited animations.
I cannot speak for everyone, but Kathir Arumugam from Tamil Nadu echoes my complaints.
However, unlike most of us, Kathir is fixing boring textbook covers by replacing them with eye-catching and captivating designs.
The 33-year-old has been hired by the Tamil Nadu State Board to redesign textbook covers and make them interesting enough for children to judge the books by their covers!
Ironically, Kathir is a school dropout who quit studying when he was in the ninth grade.
A Journey That Started With Quitting
At a time when his classmates were planning their futures and deciding which college to go to, Kathir’s decision to quit school was not an easy one.
A native of Arachalur, a small village near Erode, Kathir was in the ninth grade when he realised that even if he cleared his 10th boards, he wouldn’t be able to afford college. Besides, he knew that his real calling was in the field of art.
After his father passed away, his mother worked as a daily wage labourer and juggled odd jobs to raise her two sons.
Speaking to The Better India about his interest in art, Kathir says,
I remember every art camp that was conducted in our school every year. For me, drawing and painting were as good as meditation.
While Kathir was passionate about his art, he was aware of its limited monetary scope.
Thus, he decided to study financial management, but his qualification or the lack of it, came in the way.
After he quit school, he took menial jobs, at places from where he could learn and grow. For instance, he worked as a tea boy in a design company in Erode.
We lived on a hand-to-mouth existence as my mother was the sole earner and used to earn Rs 80 per day. I wanted to help her, but at the same time, not give up on my dreams, so I found a mid-way, he says.
It was here, at this very designing company, that he was first introduced to the concept of graphic designing. Every day, he would serve chai to the graphic team, and study their work in detail.
Someone told me about the graphic designing course where I could polish my art, but the classes would cost Rs 4,000. It was a huge amount for me, so I continued working, Kathir adds.
From painting houses for Sri Lankan refugees, working as a construction labourer to delivering newspapers, Kathir worked hard to buy the necessary stationery to practice art at home.
I knew that I would be tied up in jobs and eventually forget my talent. I took conscious efforts to save money and time. A person does not become an artist overnight. It takes days of practice to master the art, he says.
Once he saved up enough to afford the classes, he enrolled in them. But leaving the job to pursue his passion was not an option.
From 8 pm-5 am, he worked in a night shift and at 6 am, he attended the class. He travelled every day for 20 kilometres from the class, “I am very grateful to my teachers for letting me pay my fee in instalments and complete my course in six months instead of three.”
Finding Recognition: Up and Onwards
Kathir had several mentors who inspired him to improve his art. Shivaraj from Cuckoo Forest School was one of his first gurus who introduced him to the world of books.
“He gifted me a book by Vincent Van Gogh. The Dutch post-impressionist painter’s articulation of Western art helped me concentrate on minor details, which can make a lot of difference. Shiva anna also introduced me to artists from Chennai and took me to various art galleries,” he says.
One of the artists liked his work and got him a job at a regional magazine in Tamil Nadu. Working as a cover designer for five years was the turning point of his life.
Kathir then went on to design book covers for noted Tamil authors like Sujatha, S Ramakrishna, Bala Kumaran, Jeyamohan and so on.
In 2018, Kathir’s life took another turn after he received a call from IAS officer and collector T Udhayachandran from the Tamil Nadu Text Book Corporation.
“They were looking for a designer who could design quirky covers for children. It was a proud moment for me when the State Board approached a school dropout to design school textbook covers. My prayers were answered,” he chuckles.
Kathir has so far designed over 400 book covers for students from Classes 1-12. He now works at a designing lab in Nungambakkam, designing textbooks.
When asked his secret recipe behind designing attractive covers, Kathir answers,
It should have a message disguised under the creative image. It is not very difficult to design such covers. I only have to think like a child while doing so.
The Way Forward
Kathir wishes to start his own art classes to help children who cannot afford expensive sessions. In addition, he also wants to develop Tamil font styles.
“There are thousands of font styles available for the English language but very few for Tamil. I want to work on newer font styles,” he concludes.
As for his family’s financial condition, it has improved significantly, especially since Kathir’s work is now being recognised.
Here are some colourful textbook covers designed by him:
You can get in touch with Kathir here.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)