Run by a collective of writers, artists and designers in Chennai, India, Tara Books is an independent publishing company that produces beautifully illustrated children’s books, many of them handcrafted using traditional artisanal skills. Nicky Potter went to meet them.
‘…we’re rapidly finding a readership on our own terms in the international market. 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.’ Tara Books
My sister and brother-in-law had just invited me to holiday with them in Goa when Tara Publishing, based in South India, moved their distribution to Frances Lincoln and asked me to do their PR. When I told Tara about my holiday plans, they convinced me to extend my visit to see their operation.
So, after a week relaxing on Goa’s beautiful beaches I flew to Chennai (formerly Madras), India’s fourth largest city. After the serenity of Goa, this bustling and polluted city startled me. Flower-festooned religious shrines, vibrant street markets and tiny shacks harbouring large families struggle for space against the new hi-tech buildings sprouting from India’s booming economy.
Tucked away in a quiet suburb is Tara Publishing HQ. Our meeting took place in their sunny garden, under the shade of a mango tree. Gita Wolf, V. Geetha and their team talked about their list of local authors, and the many tribal and folk artists they champion. They opened up a trunk to reveal traditional painted scrolls backed on colourful swaths of sarees. Some depicted stories from great Indian epics such as the Mahabharatha and the Ramayana, while others captured more recent events, including an ingenious representation of the 2004 tsunami as a demon spewing vast waves of destruction. Gita explained, ‘We give the artists’ work new forms in an effort to bring them recognition and keep their dying arts alive.’
After our meeting, Shalini, Tara’s charming publicist, drove us to the book-making workshop – weaving through lopsided buses, lolling cows, families of five on motorbikes, and classes-full of children packed into rickshaws made for three. We drew up to a huge house painted marigold yellow, where the workshop’s staff of twelve was busy working on Elephants Never Forget , a new book by Tara’s most prolific author, Anushka Ravishankar.
We watched one of the team pour paint on to the screen, and then sweep it smoothly, evenly and effortlessly across the page. The process is repeated with each of remaining colours that will make up the image.
Watching the process – continuing through drying, collating, hand-sticking spreads, to finally binding the locally produced paper into a book – made me understand what ‘local craft’ involves, what skill and talent goes into each of these books. The workshop is run on fair-trade principles, employing a team of men and women from the nearby villages. They were trained by Tara’s production manager C Arumugam (known affectionately as Mr A) and will, in turn, pass their skills on to others, providing careers for an otherwise under-employed local population.
‘We’ve created about 120,000 hand-made books – each page of every book is an original screen print, so that works out as approximately 6,000,000 impressions,’ Mr A told us proudly as he proceeded to demonstrate his newly-acquired letter-press. Shalini added, ‘And he personally “quality-checks” every single page.’
The following day we took a three-hour drive south to meet one of Tara’s illustrators, Emanuele Scanziani, an Italian who lives in the international community of Auroville, near Pondicherry. Emanuele spent days sketching the Pondicherry market, artwork which evolved into the new book, To Market! To Market! Anushka Ravishankar provided the story, about a little girl who has such a good time at the market she forgets to spend her pocket money. Emanuele took us to his source of inspiration…
Colourful stalls selling garlands vied with spice sellers shouting their wares while the fish stallholders clamoured to proclaim their own fresh ‘catch of the day’. The aromas of spices, fresh flowers, fish, fruits of all kinds, and pastries (one obvious remnant of Pondicherry’s French colonial past) combined with the noise of the stallholders and local craftsmen making tools, and repairing bikes, clocks, shoes – anything that had any useful life left in it. The sounds, the smells: it was life-affirming. It was joyous.
Emanuele, trying to locate one of his ‘models’, showed stall-holders his proof copy. There were shrieks of delight when they realised this was their market depicted. We were pointed towards the stall where we could find ‘the bangle man’. We eventually found the stall but unfortunately ‘the bangle man’ wasn’t there… but his son was, and he was absolutely amazed to see his father in a book. He passed the book, with pride, to his neighbours, and gave Emanuele bags of candy when the artist promised to return with more books.
The next day, with the sounds of the market still ringing in my ears, I was flying back to London. I was sorry to leave, but the trip had also re-affirmed my love of books, and why I work in this industry. And, like the little girl, I had forgotten to buy anything in the market – so surely I’ll have to return?
Illustration from To Market! To Market! by Anushka Ravishankar, ill. Emanuele Scanziani, 978 81 86211 99 1, £10.99 hbk
Nicky Potter is a freelance publicist.