Weaving folklores, going worldwide

Weaving folklores, going worldwide

Heading a publishing house that brings out handmade books with desi stories, Gita Wolf is on a mission to make the world fall in love with Indian folklores, finds out Hema Vijay

Today, if children in western countries are enjoying stories based on Indian mythology and tribal folklores, as much as they love their Walt Disney animations and fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm, then a great deal of the credit should go to Gita Wolf and her publishing house, Tara Books.

For two decades now, this Chennai-based children’s book writer-turned-publisher has been churning out stories on literature, folk art, philosophy and politics with intriguing narratives and mesmerising imagery imprinted on fabulously textured handmade paper.

Despite being very Indian in their look and feel, Tara imprints have a pan-global appeal, thanks mainly to a generous use of images from various local folk art traditions like Andhra Pradesh’s kalamkari, Bihar’s madhubani, Odisha’s patachitra or Maharashtra’s warli art. 

According to Gita, “A book can be many things. The idea is to reinvent the book as a cultural object, not just a textual one. We make a conscious effort to put together text and art in a manner that is easy to understand, especially for people who are not familiar with it, and we present it along with a strong universal theme. We also address a wide range of genres from fiction and mythology to peace and gender studies.” 

Gita, who has written more than 14 award-winning books for children and adults, has always been open to experimentation. As someone who had been trained in English and Comparative Literature, she turned to publishing, moved by the lacuna she experienced when she tried to source some good quality indigenous books for her own child.

Moreover, she had always been fascinated by the nuances of communication, both visual and literary. That’s how she made up her mind to start Tara Books in 1994.

Over time, Gita has roped in a range of talented writers, folk artists, contemporary illustrators and designers from around the world, some already critically-acclaimed, while others relatively unknown, to infuse creativity into the world of children’s literature.

Presenting their brand of creativity in this already unique world of eclectic storytellers are tribal artists from different parts of India. How did the publishing house hit upon the game-changing idea of getting these tribal artists to illustrate their books? 

Explains Gita, “We felt that India has several living art traditions that need to be explored. We network with museums, craft centres, and, of course, our researchers go to different villages across India to locate these tribal and folk artists.Our books derive heavily from such research explorations because tribal art offers new ways of seeing the world and is great for illustrating children’s books.”

Apart from the artistic traditions that hold an exotic appeal to the world audience, what adds to their appeal is that not only are they entirely hand-crafted, but they are imprinted on handmade paper as well. Elaborates Gita, “We wanted to find a way to create books that are aesthetic and tactile, too. Machine-made books lack this character. But it is not just books that interest us. Tara also conducts workshops, research and documentation on various subjects.” 

Tara’s Book Craft Workshop, in Chennai, now manages to mass-print handmade books at an unheard-of-production-speed of 18,000-22,000 books every year, that’s about 65 books per day. This is surely a record for any handmade book production centre, anywhere in the world.

Live demonstrations of the printing process at Tara’s Book Building are available by appointment. Gita Wolf has definitely created a strong legacy in the children’s book publishing domain, as acknowledged by the various awards that have come her way over the last few years, including the 2014 London Book Fair’s inaugural International Book Industry Excellence Award in the Trade Children's & Young Adult Category, the Alcuin Citation in Canada in 1997 for her book The Very Hungry Lion and the 1999 Biennial of Illustrations Bratislava plaque for Hen-sparrow Turns Purple.

“Our identity lies on the border of what is local and what is universal, and between what is traditional and what is contemporary. The imprints explore different ways of seeing, representing and thinking,” maintains Gita, as she signs off. 

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