Revisiting: Tara Books

So, over the Christmas break I was able to do as I had threatened in the comments for my last post on Tara Books, and actually visited Chennai while I was in India. The journey began, however, a few days before the actual trip, during which time I was able to correspond with Tara Books‘ lovely communication manager Meagan Dobson Sippy and arrange to have some questions answered over email while I took a tour of their charming Book Building. While the building itself was quite distinctive, the best part had to be the auto-rickshaw that first greeted me:


After which, I was in the gentle hands of one of Tara Books’ designers, Tanuja Ramani, who showed me around the store, the meeting area, and the offices, while providing a brief explanation for some of the fabulous folk-art that adorned their walls.

I even got to visit their printers who begin with a blank piece of handmade paper, use silk screen printing, dry the pages, compile them, stitch them, and bind the stitched pages with a hard cover to ready them for Tara Books:

(I’ve put some of the details in the captions of the photographs. Feel free to click and enlarge the pictures.)

And now, for the interview!

Would you oblige us in providing an origin story for Tara Books? Starting a publishing house is one thing, but coming up with the intention of producing picture books with South Asian art styles and Asian stories is quite another. What was the motivation behind this specialization? 

In 1994, while talking to artist friends the idea of starting a publishing house came to Gita Wolf, who wanted to combine her childhood loves of books and art.

When Tara started publishing in 1995, there were very few pictures books for children in India. The fundamental question for Gita and the group of like-minded people who soon joined her was how can children’s literature be fundamentally re-imagined?

This is still our vision today: What possibilities are there in a publishing world that is increasingly dominated by big business, best sellers, and a certain sameness in what society thinks is suitable for children?

Now Tara is a worker owned company, run by a group of writers and designers, and we have started publishing books for adults as well. Our collaborations are now rich and varied, spread not only across India but also across the world. We have grown in depth and complexity, and hope to carry on doing so.

Could you tell us more about the TERS program? Was it an idea that was born along the same time as the publishing house?

Tara Educational Research Society was set up to undertake research and do workshops – with children, teachers, artists, designers, writers – to generate ideas that would eventually feed into our books. TERS has a library and school support programme, which we carry out with donors’ assistance, through which we offer books at vastly discounted prices to community libraries and schools for underprivileged children. 

In a sense TERS helps us get to a book and also to take the book out into the community – we see this as work that has to be supported in its own right, since these costs cannot be built into the book or understood in commercial terms alone.

Typically, what is the acquisition process like for a publishing house like yours? How long does the book birthing process take with Tara, from acquisition to printing?

It very much depends on the project, but a typical book can take up to three years to develop into its final form. In our early days we needed to do extensive research into tribal and folk art forms, to find potential artists that we could work with. These days we have an extensive network of contacts, and because our books have become well-known, artists often approach us. 

A book however rarely develops as it was initially conceived of. We’re open to it developing and changing, as part of a dialogue between all the creative people involved in the project: from the artist or artists to translators, writers, designers and editors.

Of course the production stage is also very important in realizing the book as an object. Our Production Manager has to work closely in the final stages (whether the book is offset printed or handmade) to ensure the final quality of what we produce. Again, in the early days of Tara this was sometimes more difficult – sourcing high quality handmade paper for the first time, working out how certain inks behaved with handmade paper, or how a hand-bound book would respond to humidity. As our Book Craft workshop enters its nineteenth year, these issues are things that have been worked out through experience. Although because we are ever-keen to innovate there are of course always new challenges!

What is your favorite project that you got to work on? Tell us about it?

That’s a difficult one! As we work with a wide range of texts and artists and designers, we cannot hope to have permanent favourites. However there are pioneering books that we continue to be proud of – which we loved working on. I think that everyone within Tara would have a different answer to this question, so this answer comes from a few of us:

Tara Publisher and Editor V. Geetha singled out: 

The Mahabaratha: A Child’s View, as it was great to work with a hard-working and earnest child author, as well as The London Jungle Book which was when we first discovered the joy of working with Gond tribal artist Bhajju Shyam. Matchbook was also special for what it taught us about the need to critically contextualize popular art and Signature was a very moving project, where we could bring together the everyday and the aesthetic.

Tara’s publicist Maegan has another perspective:

I’ve enjoyed the projects that have been a bit different, and allowed me to research new audiences. For example I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail was the first book that I worked on that allowed me to reach out to the design community. I See the Promised Land was such a groundbreaking book that it meant I had to be in touch with many diverse audiences: reviewers who usually deal with straight-forward graphic novels, as well as designers, those interested in Indian art, historians as well as educators with a  particular interest in Martin Luther King Jr.

Our Production Manager and Head of our Book Craft Workshop C.Arumugam has yet another response:

The projects that stand out for me are the ones that are challenging, where we solve the problem in our own way. In Legend of the Fish the lines in the artwork were so fine that it was extremely difficult to expose them for screen printing. For one book – Antigone – the quantities of paint were so huge that we needed to use cricket bats to do the mixing. Some projects have so many colours that it is difficult to separate them for the silkscreen printing process. Beasts of India had an incredible number of colour impressions – 127! These books stand out in my memory.

A bonus question! Name two picture books that you would recommend to everyone? (One from Tara and one from a different publisher.)

Again, this depends on who you are asking, so we’ve put together a few people’s responses!

Tara’s resident designer Tanuja Ramani said:

If I had to pick one Tara book, I would say The Night Life of Trees – it’s a perfect example of content, artwork, and crucial, yet subtle, design choices, all coming together to create something really special and unique!

For one none Tara book Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg – The visuals are stunning and to me, represent just how far it is possible to push a simple medium like graphite. This has a wider significance, to me, for how to approach different kinds of projects- the idea that you can do a lot, and create impactful, skilled work, with the simplest of mediums.

Tara’s publicist Maegan said: 

I would recommend Following my Paint Brush to anyone because of the combined impact of the art, story and design. Dulari’s powerful autobiographical recollections demonstrate the limitless potential that we all have, even in the face of hardship. I also recently found out from the designer that the hot pink cover mirrors the Bihari style of sari fabric that Dulari often wears, which somehow clinched it for me.

In terms of a non-Tara book, I love The Wave by Suzy Lee, for the way it plays with the spine/central divide of the book, and makes it into the pivotal point around which the story unfolds. I was lucky enough to hear Suzy Lee speak about her work at a conference in Mumbai as well as to see some of her sketches exhibited in Bologna, and find the way that she experiments with what a book can be truly inspiring.

Back to front, left to right: Shamim, Arumugam, Gita Senthil, Jarvis, Arun, Maegan, Tanuja Naguma, Ramya, Nancy, Nia. [Not pictured: Editorial Director V.Geetha, US Representative Bhakti, Packing-in charge Ranjith and Sales Manager Manivannan.]
Back to front, left to right: Shamim, Arumugam, Gita
Senthil, Jarvis, Arun, Maegan, Tanuja
Naguma, Ramya, Nancy, Nia. [Not pictured: Editorial Director V.Geetha, US Representative Bhakti, Packing-in charge Ranjith and Sales Manager Manivannan. Photograph provided by Meagan.]

Thank you so much to Tara Books for their kindness and generosity! From our team to yours, we wish you a fantastic and successful 2014! Cheers!