I am delighted that our blog post this week is by Gita Wolf. She is talking about Tara Books, the company she founded 20 years ago and which has worked to produced high quality, innovative and content rich books for young readers ever since. Tara Books is a truly inclusive organisation, having its books manufactured by a local printing collective, working with folk artists from around the country and concentrating on creating content that abides to its core values of respecting individuals and their cultures. It is a unique publishing house, based in Chennai and with an impressive international reach.
Sarah Odedina, The Read Quarterly.
Tara Books turns twenty years old this year. When I started the publishing house two decades ago, I had neither a concrete business plan nor a definite programme. The project was tentative and exploratory, with only this overarching idea: to widen the scope of what we think of as children’s literature, particularly in India. I was also keen on exploring visual narratives, and the dialogue between words and pictures. So with the help of a few creative friends, that is what Tara set out to do.
From the very beginning, we felt that the entrenched form and content of children’s books needed to be challenged. Particularly in India, a limited range of themes, styles and renderings had to stand in for ‘what children like’ – and therefore, what they will be offered. But, in our understanding, it all came down to what children were exposed to. We also doubted whether all children (even within a particular age group) were alike in their tastes and preferences. Like adults, children are individuals – some like humour, others love a good mystery, some are serious, others more light hearted. So a genuine variety of perspectives was much needed.
That is what we have tried to create, over these twenty years, and it remains the basic direction that we continue to take. Meanwhile, Tara has grown into a collective of writers, designers and book makers, and it is owned by the people who run it. There are eleven of us in the office, and after years of working out of small rented houses, we’ve now built our own space, called Book Building. Our offices are on the first floor, and on the ground floor there is a bookstore and gallery where we hold exhibitions, events and workshops. Visiting artists have painted murals on the walls, and on the top floor, we have a studio apartment for the artists, authors and designers who come to work with us on projects. Book Building’s reputation as a destination for lovers of books and the arts is growing, and we’re pleased at the number of visitors who come by.
We generate most of our titles in-house, but we also collaborate with other adventurous professionals both from within India and abroad. It is these dialogues and interactions, between ourselves, but also with others, which allows Tara to grow – each creative individual sets us off in a new direction.
For instance, a serendipitous meeting with a wonderful silk-screen printer gave rise to the first book we made entirely by hand, from the paper to the printing and binding. That printer is now part of the core group at Tara, taking care of our entire production. Meanwhile his screen-printing workshop, which Tara helped to set up, has grown into an artisanal fair trade collective of twenty-five bookmakers. The unit is located a couple of kilometers away from our office, and is run as an independent entity, producing books exclusively for us.
The work of these printers and binders has ensured that over the years, Tara has come to be known for a range of handmade books, where the art, paper, printing and binding offer a supremely tactile experience to the reader. Because of our unique set up, we’re able to offer what are really limited editions of artists’ books, but at an affordable price to the average book lover.
Creation by Bhajju Shyam, with Gita Wolf. A collection of origin myths from the Gond tribe in central India.
Gobble You Up by Gita Wolf, Sunita
A cumulative rhyming story of a jackal that swallows all the other animals. Illustrated in the Meena tribal art style. One of the favourite motifs of Meena women artists is pregnant animals ‑ which led to the idea for this book.
When we started publishing in 1995, there were hardly any interesting picture books for children in India. Ours has been a largely oral tradition, and the notion of children’s literature came from abroad, so Indian children’s books tended to be derivative. They were also very didactic. One of our aims was – and still is – to celebrate the sheer pleasure of reading for fun. All of us who love books first began to read because we enjoyed it. At Tara, we find it particularly vital to foster this enjoyment, as in India, most parents tend to be competitive and ambitious for their children, and are therefore disinterested in books which provide too little ‘information’. Our flouting of this received market wisdom certainly was (and continues to be) a risk, but it’s one we’re willing to invest in. Two examples of the light-hearted and fun books that we publish are Alphabets Are Amazing Animals and Captain Coconut and the case of the Missing Bananas.
Alphabets Are Amazing Animals
Captain Coconut and the Case of the Missing Bananas by Anushka Ravishankar and Priya Sundram
Ace Detective Captain Coconut, who can solve any mystery, is called in to investigate the case of the missing bananas. He soon finds himself on a slippery trail of peels and missing numbers. This is Anushka Ravishankar at her absurd best. British-Indian artist Priya Sundram’s collage art brings together elements of popular Indian imagery.
At the same time we have always been interested in pedagogy ‑ not in terms of traditional ‘information’ books, but in exploring a more complex yet accessible approach to learning, which does not shy away from difficult social issues. We’d like our books to reflect our own ethical positions on gender equality, environmental engagement and human rights. So, our approach to pedagogy is to frame the theme around a story or an argument, and offer the reader ideas to ponder, as well as practical activities which lead to a more nuanced understanding.
Trash! by Anushka Ravishankar, Gita Wolf and Orjit Sen
A combination of fact and fiction Trash! tells the story of a runaway village child who ends up as a ragpicker in a big Indian city. Along the way, it explores a range of issues—from child labour and child rights to waste and recycling.
An area of learning that we’re particularly interested in exploring is art and craft education. For a country as colourful and visually exciting as India, the state of our visual literacy is dismaying. There are barely any art classes in schools, and what there is available tends to be stodgy and unimaginative.
An art class in action in the Book Building
8 Ways to Draw an Elephant by Paola Ferrarotti with various artists. An unusual art activity book featuring the Indian elephant that introduces children to a variety of Indian art traditions. The elephant is imagined and rendered in eight different folk and tribal styles, put together by Italian designer Paola Ferrarotti
Of all the art on offer in India, we’ve always been particularly drawn to the incredible wealth of folk and tribal forms. Unlike in most parts of the world, these traditions are not confined to history, and artists who practice them are very much our contemporaries, with a lot to offer us. They often come from rural or remote communities, and their images keep to certain traditional themes and styles of rendering. Originally painted on floors and walls, most of this art arose from common everyday practice: the decorating of homes, community spaces or places of worship. Over the course of time, these artists began to paint on paper, and also to sell their work.
Many of our artists come from poor and marginalized communities, and before they met us, hardly any of them had ever read a book, let alone made one. Some of them could barely read and write. But we found that they had an astonishing wealth of talent, imagination and intelligence – and, equally importantly, they came from a world completely unfamiliar to the middle class urban Indian child. This, to us, was one of their greatest strengths, for along with their skill, they also effortlessly brought in an entirely new way of looking at the world.
Women of the Warli tribe from Maharashtra depict the busy activities of their village on the walls, with special paintings done on ritual occasions. The iconic simplicity and dynamism of the form can translate into a wonderful children’s book as in our book Do! which was inspired by traditional paintings on walls. This is a set of action pictures, rendered in the Warli style of tribal art from Maharashtra, western India.
Women of the Bhil tribe in central lndia draw in a typically colourful, joyous style of painting which uniformly dots all things and all beings and we worked with Bhil artists on both Visit the Bhil Carnival and Tree Matters
Sample spread from Visit the Bhil Carnival. Subhash Amaliyar with designers Catriona Maciver and Oliver Mayes.
Before we began working with these artists, Indian children’s publishing had not drawn on these traditions in any significant way. At that time in India, a form of Disney-inspired cartoony style of illustration was considered ideal children’s fare. So our work was quite pioneering, and at the outset we faced a lot of skepticism about how children would respond to such radically different visual languages. We ourselves never seriously considered this a problem as to us taste seemed largely formed by what was available and ubiquitous – how could we pronounce on what children liked, when they hadn’t been given enough choice to decide for themselves?
We are interested in Children’s Books with Folk and Tribal Artists
Alone in the Forest by Gita Wolf, Andrea Anastasio and Bhajju Shyam. A powerful exploration of the psychology of fear, this is the story of how a boy slowly overcomes what he is afraid of. Illustrated by the well-known Gond tribal artist Bhajju Shyam, the inspiration for this book came from Bhajju’s stories of his own childhood.
Over a period of twenty years, we have created a set of children’s books with folk and tribal artists that, through stories and images, offer very different perspectives on the world. The themes are quite varied, ranging from the artists telling their own stories to collaborations with authors from other background. If there is one basic premise on which this list is based, it is that when the artist is not painting her own tale, she has freedom to interpret a different story or theme in the light of her own visual tradition. In this sense, she is also an ‘author’ of the text, and actively creating meaning. And this in turn means that she actually reverses the usual anthropological gaze. Folk and tribal communities are usually described by others, we rarely find them speaking for themselves. In making this possible, we imply that their skills and experiences are valuable, and worth preserving and passing on.
What do such voices bring to children’s literature? Exposing children to a variety of perspectives sounds simple, but is in fact one of the hardest things to achieve, particularly nowadays. Today, it feels like we have more choice than ever before but in reality much of it is really homogenous – popular books are marketed worldwide, television programmes are beamed across the globe, internet content is available everywhere…This gives us an illusion of unlimited choice, yet all these things often originate from quite similar – and fairly limited – sources. Seen another way, it is the market and the media which largely decides on what is put out and what is worth taking notice of. There are a handful of independent publishers around the world who dare to take the risk of publishing truly unconventional books, but it is a struggle to survive.
One way for us to bring in radically different worldviews is through working with folk and tribal artists. Their perspective is unlike anything any of us normally get to hear or see, so it is not just a question of replacing a white figure with a brown one. Indeed the challenge here is not to set them up as exotic outsiders, or as a niche. We’d like them to be seen as our contemporaries and equals, and that what they have to say is as relevant as all the other voices we listen to every day. When a book is successful, the reader actually identifies with the protagonist, and if that protagonist happens to be an individual who is normally ‘invisible’, or not part of the reader’s everyday experience, then the book has the potential to be transformative. In this case, universality need not be a global sameness, but more an empathy with those who are not like us. We think this realisation is as valuable to an urban middle class Indian child as it is to a youngster from an entirely different background.
And in a larger publishing sense, this mirrors the way we see ourselves: our content may have arisen mostly from within an Indian context, but we think a sizeable number of our books transcend their location to become accessible to readers everywhere. This is obviously not the case with every title – and we do need books that have a purely local flavour and relevance. But by and large, our success with selling rights to our books (we’ve collaborated with about eighty-seven publishers around the world to date) bears out the fact that we are not niche; but rather we are actively a part of international publishing. This is quite unusual in the history of Indian children’s literature as India has always tended to buy in more books than we send out.
What enables so many of Tara’s books to travel so widely? Apart from the universal values which inform them, an important factor would have to be the focus we place on contemporary design and careful production. Clearly, good design plays an important role in re-framing tradition for the modern reader. But there is another reason why design is fundamental to how we conceptualize our books. From the very beginning, one of our core members (who is a designer) has emphasized the idea that the function of design is not merely to embellish a book, but also to contribute to the way that meaning is created.
Exploring the idea of ‘designer as author’ has been an ongoing project for us, not only in order to render traditional art into a more contemporary idiom, but also as an undertaking in its own right. We’re keen on experimenting with typography and layout, and also on exploring radically different forms of the book, to push the boundaries of book design as we know it. This is also where we see ourselves as part of an international conversation.
Sample spread from Visit the Bhil Carnival. Subhash Amaliyar with designers Catriona Maciver and Oliver Mayes showing innovative novelty elements. Combining the elements of a map, a puzzle, a pop-up, and a storybook, this interactive title is about a wonderful carnival called Bhagoria, celebrated by the Bhil people of central India every year
The Enduring Ark
Joydeb Chitrakar, Gita Wolf. This Indian version of the Biblical tale of the great flood is illustrated in the Bengal Patua style of scroll painting. Each flowing fold of the accordion takes the reader from a deluge of water to a rainbow of hope.
From the beginning, our publishing vision has always relied on dialogue. The process continues to be a very collaborative, and through the course of all our successes and failures, what we’ve always enjoyed are the scores of enriching conversations that we’ve had with people. We’ve learnt a lot along the way. Next season, we’re looking forward to a number of books in collaboration with young Japanese illustrators, and along with them, our quest continues to be an old one: what possibilities can we uncover in a world that is increasingly dominated by big business, much hype and the safety of homogeneity? We’re proud to be part of a small group of independent publishers across the world who continue to take the risk of this challenge.
Gita Wolf is a writer and publisher. She founded Tara Books in 1994. Follow Tara Books on instagram @tara_books and on twitter @TaraBooks. Their wonderful books are available from bookshops and amazon worldwide.