Published: 16th May 2019
Tara at 25: Why Gita Wolf has always steered clear of 'market standards' and regular publishing
A publishing house that doubles up as an art gallery, indigenous artists who get the same treatment as authors...there's a lot to fall in love with at Tara Books
After 25 years of reinventing the term 'publishing house', we can safely say that Tara Books has been publishing books that no one else would dare think of, let alone imagine. With books that heavily feature tribal art and Indian folklore (done by actual artisans) while covering a wide range of themes like environment conservation, child rights, and gender rights, it stands to reason that Tara's body of work is refreshingly different. As they capped off 2018 with the Gond tribal art made by their artisans being showcased at various museums in Japan, Tara's Co-founder Gita Wolf takes us through their two-and-a-half-decade journey and let's us in on why they do what they do. Excerpts from a chat with Gita:
The Book Building: At Tara Books, they take their art very seriously (Pic: Ashwin Prasath)
It's been 25 years of Tara. Would you say your vision has changed any from when you first started?
We started out with one or two books, 25 years ago. Back then, the vision was basically to create something that hadn’t existed before and something that was very different. Over a period of time, other people joined (us) and brought their own vision into the process. So it is constantly evolving.
You've used a whole bunch of different printing methods over the years? Are you partial to any of them?
Silkscreen is probably my favourite method because of how vibrant it is — the colours and the way the art shows through on the paper is very beautiful. We are also very interested in different ways of producing books — not only the printing, but also the form that the book is in. (We ask ourselves) Does the book have to be one page after the next? Can it open differently? How does it communicate?
You've also done a few handmade books. What would you say is the biggest challenge there?
I think the biggest challenge is quality. Since you touch everything by hand, it tends to get quite dirty. For the book to be handled that many times and still be good enough to go to the bookshop — that’s the challenge. Another challenge is the weather, because if it’s damp and humid the paper will curl and the ink won’t dry. So the production method is quite a challenge. But I have to say that it is being done in such a way that the artisans are very dedicated. They are involved from the first stage to the last and they know how well the books are received, which is very helpful.
Over the years, you've published a wide variety of titles. How do you select your authors?
Artists are as important to us as authors, so we work a lot with some of our folk and tribal artists. Some of these artists have come to our notice through our field trips and from research.
You have a range of themes that talk about environment conservation (Trees Matter, Where has the Tiger Gone), child rights (TRASH!), gender discrimination (Sita’s Ramayana). How do you handle these topics in a way that young readers understand it?
You can’t talk about huge topics in one book. Every topic has to stand for a lot of things. If you understand one particular thing, that’ll help you understand a lot of other things. A reader usually takes the side of the protagonist, so in this case, if it’s Sita, the readers will identify with Sita, even if the reader is a child.
Why did you choose to focus on tribal and folk art?
The interesting stories the tribal artists have to tell, and the way they tell it and the fact that when you have art, you almost don’t need language is why we lay an emphasis on art. You are able to communicate with people who don’t speak the same language. We know of contemporary artists from galleries. But there is a lot of art around us in India from so many communities that are so diverse, that are very vibrant and hold beautiful points of views. Many of these things, before Tara started, were restricted to crafts. But to bring them into the book and have the artist tell the story — these are things that we came up with over a period of time.
Indigenous art: The publishing house that doubles as an art gallery (Pic: Ashwin Prasath)
You've been on both sides of the publisher's desk — publisher and author. Is there a preference?
Both are two very different aspects and I don’t know which I prefer. One is quite solitary, while the other involves a group of people. There are certain things I like to write and sometimes if I’m inspired, I’ll do it. But publishing is an activity where you are generous about the talents of other people, which I think is equally important. You bring out that book in the best way possible and deliver it to the readers in the best way possible. So I enjoy both.
What would you say is your biggest achievement in these 25 years?
I think the biggest achievement is to stay afloat and not to be swayed by the ‘market standards’. We create the taste and we create the market as we work. It’s not like ‘Do people want to buy this, let’s make it. Let’s make the thing and then get people to like it’. The other thing I’m proud of is all the people it takes to make us what we are — our artists and our partners.
I’m sure you get this a lot but what is your favourite title from the ones you’ve produced?
Oh! I have several favourites. My children’s favourite is Tiger on a Tree, which I think is a classic. It has all the elements that I think a children’s book should have — it’s funny, it’s got a message, the design is just wonderful, the typography is wonderful. Everything is great. Another very successful book for us has been The Nightlife of Trees which was a very beautiful story from the Gond (Dravidian tribe from various Indian states) handmade book. Another very important book for us has been The London Jungle Book, because I think it’s a very radical book. It’s the story of a Gond artist who went to London and wrote and drew a travelogue. It’s a really personal story. Bhajju Shyam, the illustrator, has won the Padma Shri, and this book has been quoted, so it’s very important for him. It’s something that has been successfully done by a Gond artist who moved to London.
I read that you were working with some Australian communities now. What's that going to be like?
We’re mostly working on Aboriginal art with some of the communities there. Since we’re quite well known for what we have done with our artists here, some of the art communities from Australia asked us to come and do workshops with them.
A quarter of a century down, what does the future hold for Tara Books?
We’re doing a lot of work with textile tradition, and women’s art — including Kolam — which we’re really looking forward to. There’s one book with embroidery, where endangered plants are embroidered on plastic by a French artist. She wanted to make a point that plastic is covering everything and plants aren’t able to survive. Another a wonderful project is on the Banyan tree in collaboration with a Japanese illustrator. It’s a proper cut-out book that’s opens like the tree itself.