What a wonderful cover design this is – the sort of artistic magic that a novel of this quality merits. It’s the work of Cyril Satorsky for Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s fourth novel The Householder, published in 1960.
And thanks to Cyril, here’s the story behind the design: a compelling tale of three Indian women (and there was a fourth in Cyril’s life, but that’s not for telling here).
Cyril was born into a Jewish family in Whitechapel in the East End of London in 1927. He now lives in New Orleans and as his website testifies, he is still busy as an artist.
I bought a first edition of The Householder recently and dropped Cyril an email to say how much I liked his design – and that led to a couple of long phone conversations, the key points of which I record here with Cyril’s blessing.
As a young man in his early 20s, Cyril got to know – and like – an Indian writer, Indu Dutt, who introduced him to Tagore. “I’m still enchanted by Tagore,” he tells me. He helped with her book, A Tagore Testament – first published in 1953 – and designed the memorable cover.
Both Bulbul and her husband returned to India – he kept in touch for a while but never met them again and understands that both are now dead.
Alongside this introduction to India and its culture, Cyril also attended dance performances in London of the Radha-Krishna story by Ram Gopal and his company – among whom the young Kumudini Lakhia was a luminous beauty and a great talent.
He found the energy and elegance of the performance intoxicating. “What was mind altering to me,” he says, “was seeing Indian dance.” Cyril recalls that he managed to get access to the dancers’ dressing room and got to know Kumi; they became firm friends.
”India was totally mythical to me – but I was drenched in it,” Cyril says. He visited the Indian galleries in the Victoria & Albert, eagerly consumed Indian performances in London and even joined the nationalist India League.
”I was a student at the Royal College of Art, and it made me think of my work differently”.
It was the publisher John Murray who approached Cyril to design the jacket for The Householder – an intimate, acutely observed novel about lower middle-class Delhi written by a woman who had married into the country. He read the book and loved it – and the figure of the mother-in-law reminded him of the matriarchs in Jewish families.
So he turned to the design – and to a woman whose beauty lingered in his memory.
The young Indian woman on the cover is Bulbul – though she never knew she was the model. He had a passport photo to work off, “but my memory of her was sharper than that photo – Bulbul came to me on that page”.
And the other figure? “The man sitting at the table is me.” Of course. The character he represents is the ‘householder’ of the book’s title, a young, recently married Indian school teacher.
Being asked about the cover, and the network of Indian friendships it brings to mind, has given Cyril a wistful pleasure – a chance to reflect on people and moments which have meant a lot to him. “I don’t think I’ve ever talked about this before with anyone except my wife, Dale.”
I asked if he had ever managed to make the journey to India. Yes – 17 years ago, at Dale’s urging. And as a result of a chance encounter at an Indian airport, Cyril and his wife spent a week as guests of Kumi and her family in Ahmedabad where she runs a renowned dance school. And so a friendship dormant for half-a-century was rather magically rekindled.
Cyril Satorsky says his connection with South Asia has greatly influenced his art. ‘My paintings now are really abstract – but they have jumped out of India. Indian art is not abstract on the surface of things – but go beyond the surface and it is.’
India has also shaped his approach to life. “For one thing, it has changed my idea about women: women are cleverer than men – their perceptions are larger, deeper, wider.”
This article was originally published on Andrew Whitehead’s blog. Read it here.