BY PRADEEP SEBASTIAN

In Tara Books, a book is not just another book; it is a work of art.

Together the illustrators, the writers and the designers of Tara books execute each step of a book’s production, and have control over every aspect of the book.

For more than a decade now, almost all the nice looking books to see (and touch) in our bookstores have invariably turned out to be titles by Tara Books. Not just finely drawn, handcrafted and designed but interesting for their emotional, intellectual and political content as well. The Night Life of Trees, for instance, silk screened and hand bound, is filled with ‘luminous, intricately drawn visions of trees’, and features the art work of three fine tribal artists: Bhajju Shyam, Ram Singh Urveti, and Durga Bai.

Re-visualisation

At the 2008 Bologna Children’s Book Fair, Trees won the ‘Ragazzi New Horizons’ award, making it the first Indian book to do so. No less an art critic than John Berger described it as ‘A book where the nightingale sings until morning.’ Shyam also illustrated another hand bound book, The Mermaid’s Story, which re-visualises the Andersen fairly tale in a tribal cosmos. Tare Books in Chennai is a marvellous example of a Fine Press in India. Their books have found shelf space at the MOMA, the Guggenheim and the Tate Modern.

Gita Wolf, who had lived and worked in Germany as an academic, returned to India in the early 1990s looking to do something unconventional in publishing. From conversations with friends from the Cholamandal Artists village, the idea grew to use traditional art forms to create children’s books. This is a familiar story in some ways, but the next step in Tara’s design credo is what immediately set it apart from other Indian publishing houses: to make these books by hand. A Fine Press was born.

One of their first books, The Very Hungry Lion, featured illustrations in the Warli style of painting, setting the tone and style for the rest of the books that would follow, featuring traditional visual art. Gita made another publishing decision, bold for an independent publisher but ultimately inspiring for the way it succeeded: to use quality paper and printing. Tara is probably the only fine press to have published more than 160,000 handmade books, all of them from workshops run on fair trade practises. Tara is now collectively owned by those who run it.

The books of Tara that I am fondest of, and connect with deeply, are the ones on popular culture. The series of books in this line is the work of two exciting, prodigious and playful in-house Tara writer-editors: V. Geetha and Sirish Rao. Baby! is a book that takes you straight back to your childhood and those calendars you saw everywhere (offices, schools, barber shops) of the Agricultural baby, the Military baby, the Nehru baby, and all those crazy, impossible, bureaucratic-government-imagined babies in caps and uniforms and tractors.

We dismissed it as kitsch art, and in time, came to be embarrassed by such calendar and picture postcard art. Tara’s genius was to recognise that these pictures and images had actually become our emotional past, making us instinctively long for more such picture books. The Match Book is my personal favourite. Pictures of Indian matchbox labels: Cheetah Fight, Judo Deluxe, Tip Top, and Chaavi, to name only a few brands from nearly a thousand colourful labels; the collection of just one man, Shahid Datawala. The book is even designed like a matchbox, and comes in a slipcase.

The 9 Emotions of Indian Cinema Hoardings is another vibrant creation: a homage to those wild, giant-sized, colour-exploding cinema hoardings that once festooned our main thoroughfares. The paintings by the Chennai hoarding artists featured here (who were behind all those huge, vibrant Tamil movie cut outs on Mount Road) were commissioned for the book, each illustrating an emotional trope from our cinema. Illustrated by M.P. Dakshna. Central to bookmaking and design for Tara are C. Arumugam, bookmaker, and designers Rathna Ramanathan, Natasha Chandani, and Avinash Veeraraghavan.

Works of art

Tara Books and other Fine Presses work in what is now called a book arts environment. This is the physical book as crafted object, as a work of art. Together the illustrators, the writers and the designers of Tara books execute each step of a book’s production, and have control over every aspect of the book. It could be handmade or from a hand press.

Betty Bright, an independent scholar, historian and book art curator (and author of No Longer Innocent: Book Art 1960-1980, the first comprehensive history of the book art movement) notes on her website that “Artists’ books transform the reading experience into a participatory interaction involving intellect and emotion, the body and the senses”.

Tara works as a collective of writers, artists, and designers and this seems to be in keeping with the spirit and tradition of book arts environments everywhere. I like how they see themselves and their books: “Our books are largely visual in nature-and radical, witty and informed in spirit. The India we represent is neither a timeless fount of wisdom, nor another struggling developing country. It is dynamic, frustratingly contradictory, often bleak, and always interesting.”