Onu Tareq is a traveler. He has been to treacherous forests and high tides in the sea, but his visit to the Sherwood forest in England meant something special.
"Walking into the woods of Sherwood, I recalled the story of Robin Hood, whose legends trace back to this very forest," says Onu, who first saw picture of Sherwood in a Sheba Prokashoni book cover.
Going to the place that he saw in a book cover amazed him.
Out of excitement, Onu called Kazi Anwar Hossain, the writer-publisher of Sheba Prokashoni from Sherwood. "Thank you Kazi da, you don't know how much you inspired us to read and imagine."
Onu is an avid collector of Sheba books. His Facebook album of almost a thousand picture of Sheba books is a testament to his love for the pulpy, sometimes risqué but aesthetic cover art of Sheba Prokashoni.
A handful of people have been in the shoes of a Sheba cover artist in the space of 50 years. Hasan Khurshid Rumi is among them. He fondly remembers about his routine visit to Nilkhetto source cover art inspirations. The cover art was done as a collage. If you ever see an 80s film star on the cover of a Masud Rana novel, chances are, it was a cutout from entertainment magazines.
"You see, Sheba's cover was done in a different style. It was made with cutouts of movie stars, foreign landscapes and guns, fighter jets...you name it," Rumi's description about the process will strike a chord with the readers. He used to go to Nilkhet to buy magazines, from which he would get bits and pieces of the cover art he was assigned to create.
When landline phones were a household name, Rumi used to talk to Ranobir Ahmed Biplob, brainstorming about cover art ideas. Biplob is another Hall of Famer among the cover artists of Sheba. This one time, Rumi was looking for a particular cover element, say it was a hand grenade or a machine gun, apt for a Masud Rana cover.
"I called Biplob to see if he could help me out, but someone eavesdropped our chat," Rumi recalled about the "cross connection" that ended up being a comic relief.
While talking to Biplob, Rumi said, "Hey, do you have this gun?" Biplob replied, "Yes, but I'll need a grenade too." A third person cut them mid-sentence saying, "Apnader jonnoi desher aaj ei obostha!" (It is for people like you, the country has gone to dogs!)
Rumi was actually asking for a gun cutout while Biplop asked for a grenade's picture. The two of them cut the phone call short. But the third man must have smelt about a national threat!
Veteran painter Hashem Khan is a bigwig of the art scene, but his formative years began with the likes of Sheba. The Ekushey Padak winner reminisced about his first cover art for Sheba in the 60s.
"Kazi Anwar Hossain spearheaded genre literature across the country, but his vision for Sheba book covers were ahead of its time," says Hashem Khan. Paperback books were not welcomed in the publishing industry, until Sheba changed the game.
In the first few years of Sheba, cover art was printed in offset papers. It was very difficult to print multicoloured art on offset papers, so Hashem Khan thought he should try "collage", an art form where cutouts, photos, drawings and even fabrics are used in layers to give it a complete look.
"Since Masud Rana books were adaptations of foreign novels, I tried to give the books an international look. I frequently borrowed cutouts from Times magazine back then for the collage," Hashem recalled.
Sheba Western novels are about gunslingers, outlaws in the desert and lots of 'hat tipping.' Covers for this series were borrowed from cigarette advertisements.
"Advertisements for Marlboro cigarettes were mostly western thematic, so Sheba borrowed elements from those printed ads for my book covers," says Rowshan Jamil, writer and translator. He has written almost forty books for Sheba, mostly western novels.
Dhruba Esh is arguably the most famous cover artist in Bangladesh- with over 20,000 book covers in his portfolio. In 1986, Dhruba started working as the cover artist of "Rohoshyo Patrika," a monthly publication of Sheba.
"Rohoshya Patrika stressed on feature stories. So, the magazine required cutouts of exotic locations, celebrities, cars and what not," says Dhruba. "National Geographic magazine was my go-to source for the magazine cover," Dhruba said how one magazine cutouts helped create the cover of another.
The covers of Sheba have a retro appeal that deserve an exhibition of some sort. The books are still in print and selling well, but the original covers were changed over the years. If the old covers cannot be on print, it can surely get a new life in a digital archive.