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August 17, 2018

Tara Books’ Handmade Offerings Are An Ode To The Art Of Bookmaking

Text by Lavanya Mohan

Gita Wolf’s Chennai-based publishing house creates sustainably produced, thought-provoking titles, that help younger readers navigate cultures, societies and geographies with sensitivity

You’re often quoted saying that you’re trying to revive the physical form of the book when everyone else is writing its obituary. Given the numerous distractions that children have in the form of screens and gadgets today, isn’t it an uphill task?
About 10 years ago, there was this huge worry in the publishing industry when the Kindle arrived. But the physical book publishing industry is still vibrant because the book satisfies senses that the screen doesn’t. For children, it’s more difficult because the screen is addictive. Today, it’s very tough to say ‘Go read’ to your child. It will require time and effort on the part of the parent and the educator to instil the habit of reading in the child — maybe by creating rituals, like reading before bed. Slowly, they’ll start asking for the book and soon enough they’ll have their favourite ones. The publisher’s job is to create good books, but it’s the parent or guardian’s job to get the child to read.

Wasn’t that the reason why Tara Books was born? You started the publishing house because you didn’t find many interesting books in the market.
Yes, if you asked me who my ideal reader is, I would say myself. Twenty-two years ago Tara Books was started to create books that we would have liked to buy or see on shelves. You essentially do something because you like it, and if it communicates to others, all the better!

You have a strong role in writing and shaping the books that are published by Tara. How does that work?
We are less a publishing house and more a design studio. Traditionally, a publisher is someone who puts together content that comes their way. We don’t do that. We actively create it, and the final product will have a part of us in a visible or invisible way. There’s a lot of shaping and interaction that is needed to bring out the books, especially with our traditional artisans because they are not accustomed to making books.

You’ve worked with Bhil and Gond artisans — and they have their own stories. Do you give their stories context or do you get them to interpret your ideas?
We do both. We published a book called Do! that featured Warli art where we worked with women artists. Warli paintings traditionally show everything that is going on in the village, so we decided we could show verbs using these paintings. So we instructed our artists to ensure that all the little characters in the painting are doing the same thing, for example, in the page that says ‘climb’, all the characters, including a little Warli monkey, are climbing. So that’s an example of creating from something that already exists — it’s a very simple nudge. We expose the child to the Warli art form, to verbs and there are lots of stories within the paintings that are to be discovered.

This book is also a great example of how you combine pedagogy with art — a theme across all your books.
I’ve always been fond of art. Back when I was studying, there was no real career in design. Had it been open to me, I would have been a designer. Art, design and content are very important for me and for the identity of Tara Books, and they all have to go together.

You also work with some seemingly ‘heavy’ themes like feminism, history and poverty….
My co-founder V. Gita and I were part of a feminist group when we were young so that’s a big part of our identities and it translates into our books. We ensure that our books have equal male and female characters. As for themes like poverty and recycling — children are very observant and sensitive to what’s going on around them and just because you choose to not discuss these things doesn’t mean they don’t know what’s going on. We think the key is to discuss them without being too moralistic about them.

Another common theme that seems to show up in your books is sustainability.
Yes, all our books are created and published here, in the building, with the exception of work done in a small workshop in Perungudi (a few kilometres away) where we have our screen-printing workshop. We have 25 artisans who print on fabric to create our handmade books, which is a time-consuming process. People ask us, are all your books expensive? We say no! We go from books that cost 200 rupees, like our 8 Ways To Draw An Elephant series that are inexpensively printed to handmade books that can cost 4,000 rupees, like The Cloth Of The Mother Goddess, because it simply takes that much time and effort to produce a single book. We also sell a lot of rights internationally.

When you work with international artists and storytellers, like you did in Japan, how do you select the stories and the context of the stories that you want to publish?
We recently travelled to Australia to work with aboriginal artists and although the art was similar to our tribal artists’ on a superficial level, their histories and stories are so different. How do you evaluate this? The point I think is to create a dialogue and connection. So when we work with international artists, we want stories that are based out of those countries but have common themes that our readers, who are also located across the world, can understand and enjoy.

What are your plans for Tara Books’ future?
We are working with the aborigines of Australia and also a few architects for books based on cities. We don’t really plan for the future, but we hope to continue creating beautiful books and grow a few more branches in our little tree.

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