A 12-year-old girl writes and illustrates a book based on a pretty well-known story. Tara Books unhesitatingly publishes it, and the book goes on to win several international awards, some the first for an Indian title. The story, just in case we forget to mention, was The Mahabharata.
That should begin to tell you what the tiny publication house, tucked away in a quiet tree-lined street in Chennai, is capable of — with no more than ten people in the office, and fifteen craftsmen in their printing press.
“The concept of Indian children’s literature itself is very new — we come from a largely oral tradition,” says its founder, Gita Wolf. So in 1994, she decided to do something about it, and Tara was born.
Since then, each of their books, singularly crafted by hand, using processes such as silk-screening and letterpress printing, have been telling unusual stories, their artists ranging from tribals from forlorn districts in Madhya Pradesh to graphic designers in France, following mysterious creatures and characters from Greek tragedies, as they lurk in the dark corners of the imagination.
As their website reads, “Tara is run as a feminist, non-hierarchical set-up,” and it has evidently worked, having won some of the most illustrious awards in international publishing, such as the Johannes Gutenberg Award, the New York Book Show Award, the Andersen Award and the Alcuin Citation for Excellence in Book Design.
“Independent publishers can do things that don’t conform,” says Gita. And Tara’s books don’t. Besides being aesthetically spectacular, they also recognise the need for change, boldly putting their finger on issues that, as Dylan sang, we pretend not to see. They do so not with pedagogical overtones, but by merely opening the eyes of the reader to the power of the imagination, and making things visible.
Such as its very first book, Mala, A Woman’s Folktale, a richly illustrated story in which a little girl Mala discovers that it is fine to be exactly what she is — a girl — when she tracks down a demon that has swallowed the rain seed and brought drought to their land.
“Our books always have brown-skinned children in them,” laughs V. Geetha, historian and writer, also part of Tara. “What is that pale peach shade you find in books? Who looks like that?”
The Tamil Nadu Government bought the rights to one of Tara’s books titled Pillai Tamizh, a simple book of pictures now used in more than 45,000 primary schools, with photographs of people who largely remain unacknowledged in our day-to-day lives, such as waiters and autorickshaw drivers.
“Most children grow up with books that present a generically middle-class scenario. So what about the others? We want to return their world to them,” says Geetha.
The publication house has also taken the stories out of their beautifully textured pages directly to the people by getting the Gonds of Madhya Pradesh and the Patuas of West Bengal to conduct art workshops in schools. “We want them to know that adivasis and folk artisans can be teachers as well; shift the source of knowledge from your regular urban, upper-class figure.”
Behind the stories
Besides children’s books, Tara also has a collection for older readers, including non-fiction, pop culture, and several Tamil titles. And, there are intriguing stories behind some of the books themselves. Such as Fingerprint, which artist Andrea Anastasio was inspired to create after he was fingerprinted by airport immigration authorities in the U.S. The art is entirely, as the title suggests, his fingerprints, which tell the powerful story about resisting state control and surveillance. “Our books find few takers in India,” says Gita, “and we rely on our sales abroad to fund things here.”
Here are books that tell you to colour outside the lines, that buffaloes can blow blue bubbles, and that fish can fly. Books that free art from its institutionalised moorings, and let you negotiate your world. They reinstate folklore and tribal art, not in the way that museums do with the quiet respect one reserves for the dead, but with an irreverence that place them in the context of our twenty-first-century-lives, merging easily with the world and emerging so much richer and fuller for it.
Such as The Night Life of Trees, the first Indian title to win the prestigious Bologna Ragazzi New Horizons Award. Inspired by the tales of the Gonds, and their belief that the spirits of several things dwell in trees, The Night Life of Trees captures — in astonishing detail, in incandescent shades of turquoise, dark red and violet, silk-screened onto black handmade paper — mysterious stories of the spirits that reside in trees. A hint of poetry, of imagination and the unexplained. That’s what these books do. Open one, and by the end, you believe again.