Riaz Ahmad, 56, appears to be well at ease. He speaks gently, revealing different aspects of his personality, layer by layer, almost unassumingly. Here’s an artist who has designed the titles of over 10,000 books till date.
Of course, he didn’t clinch this ‘record’ overnight; Ahmad has been in the field for the past more than three decades now. His earliest assignment was at PAF’s Shaheen Foundation, in 1985, as a graphic artist. He had just finished a two-year diploma course in arts at Alhamra Art Council. A few years later, he joined a leading English daily in Lahore where he worked as a designer. Soon he realised this wasn’t where his heart lay. So, he left the job and decided to devote all his time and creative energy to designing book titles.
Ahmad says he has designed titles of books on a wide array of subjects — literature, philosophy, criticism, social sciences, history, you name it. He also claims to be a big reader of Urdu literature, and dabbles in short-story writing, too. Currently, he is attempting his first novel, and hopes to send it in for publication soon.
Most recently, he has been elected as the president of the Progressive Writers’ Association, Lahore chapter, where he holds literary sittings with religious fervour.
But, at the end of the day, it is book titles that he loves working on the most, and also calls his forte. “I was always fascinated by art,” he tells TNS, in an exclusive meeting. “My time at Alhamra helped me develop the necessary skills. It was there that I got the chance to train under such fine arts giants as Colin David and Khalid Iqbal. I believe they influenced my work a great deal.”
“Book titles are a serious business,” he adds. “You must have a sound background in literature if you wish to create thought-provoking titles. You must also be familiar with history and philosophy.”
Here he recounts how celebrated artists like Sadequain, Abdul Rehman Chughtai, Iqbal Mehdi, Azer Zubi, Aslam Kamal, and Hanif Ramay designed the titles of books during their lifetimes.
Over the years, Ahmad has worked with leading publishers of the country such as Mashal, Fiction House, Nigarshat, Al-Hamd, Sanjh, Jahangir Books, and Izhar Sons. “Back in the day, it [title designing] was considered a delicate art, as we’d do things manually. Today, with computer graphics, things have become a lot easier in a way.”
Recognition came especially as one of his titles impressed the legendary writer of the subcontinent Amrita Pritam. It was ‘Ankhain,’ an anthology of poetry by Sara Shagufta which Pritam had liked. In fact, she is said to have spoken especially of the way the title successfully captures the inner anguish and turmoil of the written lines.
Senior poets like Ahmad Rahi and Qateel Shifai also showed trust in his work, and Ahmed was approached to design many of their book titles.
When asked if there is a book he wishes he had designed the title of, he says, “Parveen Shakir’s ‘Khusboo,’ for sure. When I first saw its title, I thought it was rather banal — just a picture of a flower wasn’t doing injustice to the great poetess!”
Another book title he distinctly remembers having hated was that of ‘Tanqeed Ras.’ “Apparently, the publishers took ‘Ras’ too literally and put a photo of a glass of juice on the cover. It was hilarious.”
He is of the view that the role of the publisher cannot be discounted. “His [the publisher’s] seriousness can be judged from the book cover itself,” he declares. “Majority of them wouldn’t care much for this aspect, as they want to save on their money. So, they make do with whatever titles they can get hold of in the shortest possible time and for as little money as they can.
“Most publishers now have the ‘facility’ to lift images from the internet and use them as titles. This is totally unacceptable.”
So, the job of designing book titles isn’t a financially viable option, he admits. “You’ll do it only if you love it!”
Interestingly, he was offered a lucrative job at the Oxford University Press (OUP) which he refused, because “I’m the footloose-and-fancy-free kind. I don’t want to be bound by spaces or places.”