In the summer of 2013, when Gita Wolf was invited to the Itabashi Museum in Tokyo to run atelier workshops for Japanese illustrators and designers, the publisher conceived a programme that would tie together the interest of the Japanese in paper art and the unique book-making journey of her Chennai-based independent publishing house, . The theme — forms of books — yielded a prodigious crop: three of the projects became published books, with one more underway, but it also spread the word about Tara’s exhilarating work in publishing. Over the course of the last two years, Kiyoko Matsuoka, one of the chief curators of the Itabashi Museum, and her team travelled to Chennai to meet up with Wolf and V Geetha, editorial director, to plan an exhibition on their work. On November 25, last year, “Beautiful Books Can Change the World: The Universe of Tara Books”, opened at the Itabashi museum, featuring over 300 original artwork created by tribal and folk artists for Tara’s diverse range of publications, short films on the making of noteworthy titles and first editions.
The second phase of the exhibition will open in April in the city of Nagoya and then travel to other parts of Japan later in the year. “(Matsuoka) conceived of this in the form of an exhibition that would trace our book-making journey, both our experiments with the handmade book and our publishing across genres, from children’s picture books to visual essays for adult readers, art activity books to books on contemporary social concerns that bother children,” says Geetha.
One of the stalwarts of indie publishing in India, Tara’s work in its 23 years-long journey has been remarkable for the way it combines India’s indigenous art forms to tell enduring stories to a young, primarily urban, readership. Titles such as Sita’s Ramayana by Samhita Arni and Patua artist Moyna Chitrakar, A Village is a Busy Place by V Geetha and Rohima Chitrakar, or The London Jungle Book by Gond artist Bhajju Shyam experiment as much with the form and art of the book as with the plurality of narrative voices. “Geetha and I were part of a feminist group in Chennai, Snehidi, and amongst other things, we tried to build a small feminist library. In the course of conversations, we would end up talking about what is available for children to read, and … I wondered if we could not have a different sort of children’s book, which spoke to our context, and with characters that Indian children could identify with. This is how the idea for [Tara Books] emerged…,” says Wolf.
At the exhibition, a segment was devoted to Tara’s groundbreaking work with Gond artists, featuring, among others, The Night Life of Trees, a handmade book by Bhajju Shyam and Durga Bai, that has been published in eight languages, including Japanese. Scrolls, 12-15 feet long, flank the section focussed on Patua art — one of the first art forms that the publishing house incorporated in their work. Their collaborations with Japanese writers and artists on works such as Koki Oguma’s The Barber’s Dilemma and other Stories from Manmaru Street, an illustrated book for children, with art that is inspired by doodles, Kaori Takahashi’s architectural book for the very young, Knock! Knock! and Nao Saito’s Travels through South Indian Kitchens also feature in the exhibition.
While the earliest of their collaborations with tribal and folk artists date back to 2001, Geetha says their publishing list is a result of their eclectic interests. “In a very simple sense, we publish what we like and we are convinced by. Some of our choices appeal to our readers and so some books sell very well, some others don’t. Nevertheless, we publish titles that we think ought to be out there, such as say this book on the Sri Lankan civil war, The Boy Who Speaks in Numbers,” she says.
What guides Tara’s publishing approach, she says, is a faith in “the importance of visual communication, especially the fact that it helps cut across various social differences, including of language, region and caste and class, our commitment to the form of the book, to the idea of the book as a valued cultural object, and our politics, based on feminism and social justice.”
At Tara, projects evolve out of their conversations with artists and in workshops. “There are broadly two ways in which books come about: those for which artists create art that expresses their ideas, points of view, stories – and we bring to these projects our experience as book makers, working with design ideas and the form of the book. Where we work with texts that are by others, say, children’s classics such as Pinocchio or well-known folk tales, such as The Musicians of Bremen, artists work as illustrators do, with story boards: we translate these texts both orally and in written form, into Hindi or Bangla, as the case might be, and they illustrate them, evolving pictures in and through dialogue sometimes, and at other times, on their own,” adds Geetha.
In Japan, the reception to the first phase of the exhibition has been enthusiastic. “We were there for two weeks beginning with the exhibition’s inauguration and by the time we left, we were told that over 3,000 people had viewed the exhibition. This included school children, publishers, book sellers, designers, illustrators, museum-going public – and, unexpectedly, the Empress of Japan,” says Wolf.
Top of the Shelf
V Geetha picks her favourite Tara projects
Another History of the Children’s Picturebook: From Soviet lithuania to india: (2017, by Giedre Jankeviciute and V Geetha) . For the children of the late Eighties and Nineties, who have grown up, with books from the former USSR, this one is a trip down memory lane. It explores the curious politics of Soviet children’s literature and is sumptuously complemented by a rich treasury of art work.
toys and play with everyday materials: (2004, by Sudarshan Khanna and Gita Wolf). As one of India’s leading experts on traditional toymaking, Khanna has worked closely with indigenous toy makers in the country. Along with Wolf, he explores the politics of play and the role toys have to play in it.
the god of money: (2017, Karl Marx and Maguma). Based on extracts from Karl Marx’s reflections on money, published in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts in 1844, this is a modern-day interpretation of the stupendous power that money bestows. The form of the book is equally exciting: it’s an accordion-style book by Spanish illustrator that puts Marx’s arguments in contemporary context and opens it up, literally, for a wider dissemination.