Friday, January 24, 2014

Interview with Gita Wolf of Tara Books

We are delighted to have Gita Wolf of Tara Books on Saffron Tree. Before we get started, here's a short bio about Gita and her work in the arena of children's publishing.

"Gita Wolf has written more than 14 award-winning books for children and adults. She was an academic by training before she moved into publishing, with a research focus on comparative literature. She continues to pursue her interest in exploring and experimenting with the form of the book and its status as a revered cultural object."

It's indeed a treat to get insights into her books as well as hear about Tara's over-arching role in promoting folk art.

Tara no doubt has been instrumental behind some fabulous works of children's fiction focusing on handmade books and folk-art for the last twenty years. Kudos to the entire Tara team!

Gita, on behalf of Saffron Tree, I wish to thank you for your time. Through interviews such as these, we get to know our favorite creators better. Thank you, Maegan of Tara Books, for helping co-ordinate this interview. We greatly appreciate it!

A book simply can't get any more beautiful was my instant reaction when I first picked up Gobble you up. The trickster tale told in cumulative rhyme is a delight to read-aloud, eye-candy like no other, a keep-sake to hold on to. Our children learn so much - about a new culture, craft traditions and people. Needless to say, Gobble you up is another goose-bump inducing work of art.

1) Let's start by asking you, how was the whole experience working on it?

The process of creating the book was an extended and satisfying experience. We first met Sunita when she came to Chennai for a workshop that we held on women's floor art back in February 2011. One of the most striking themes within the Meena repertoire is the pregnant animal, depicted with the baby inside its stomach. It is from this iconic image that the idea for Gobble You Up! originated. Why not construct a tale around an animal within an animal?

We asked Sunita and her husband Prabhat, a Hindi writer, for a story along these lines and Sunita remembered a tale told by her grandfather, about a cunning jackal which swallowed one creature after another. Prabhat wrote down the oral story that Sunita remembered, and Susheela Varadarajan translated it into English. From the basic plot of the original tale, I wrote the text with cumulative rhyme.

Illustrating the story in the Meena style of art involved two kinds of movement. The first was to build a visual narrative sequence from a tradition which favoured single, static images. The second challenge was to keep the quality of the wall art, while transferring it to a different, and also much smaller, surface. We decided on using large sheets of brown paper, with Sunita squeezing diluted white acrylic paint through her fingers.

We photographed Sunita’s images, and Production Manager C.Arumugam converted them into flat graphic images that could be printed by silkscreen. In order to draw attention to the sophisticated detailing inherent in Sunita’s art, book designer Rathna Ramanathan split the images into two colours. The jackal – the protagonist – is rendered in black, and the creatures he swallows in white. Gotham, a modern typeface inspired by an architectural vernacular was used as a compliment to the contemporary quality of the art.

The book was then printed on Kraft paper, specially produced for us in large rolls. The paper was cut to a printable page size, printed by silkscreen in two colors, section sewn and hand bound by our team of printers and binders. And that was how it was done!

2) You published 10 and ABC pop ups, when do you think the cross over to Indian pop ups will happen?

I'm not sure about other Indian publishing houses, but we're always ready to experiment with the form of the book, and I think that in terms of production it's certainly possible. Our book I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail - while not a pop up book - uses die cuts to allow each page to interact with the next, and has been one of our most popular books in recent years. The art is by Ramsingh Urveti - a Gond artist from Madhya Pradesh, while we worked with Japanese Brazilian designer Jonathan Yamakami to realise the design.

3) How did you decide that you would focus on Indian folk artists across almost all your work?

We realised that there was a rich indigenous visual culture around us, that hadn't yet been explored as an art form that could be used in the book.

In India there are rich traditions of art and seeing that we know too little about, and some of it seems perfect for illustrating children's books. This is one of the best ways for children to get to know this art without heavy handed pedagogy - they accept this different kind of art as 'natural' - not something to be looked at in a museum. It becomes part of what they grow up with. I think it is very important to get to know what I would call 'other ways of seeing and describing' - we live in an age where there seems to be endless choice - at least for the urban middle class child - but in the end everything is homogenised. Exposure to Indian folk art, on a coeval basis, and not as something exotic, is a great way to democratise what we think is worth knowing and passing on.

That being said, we don't exclusively work with Indian folk artists, and our work brings us into contract with illustrators and artists coming from a diverse range of backgrounds and contexts.

4) You are one of the few to have published a child- Samhita Arni's book. What are your concerns and criteria while taking on a child author ?

I think that in Samhita's case we really felt that she had a story to tell that was new and refreshing. Naturally there were things that had to be taken into consideration because of her young age at the time, which we worked through in collaboration with Samhita and her mother. The main thing was that Samhita was enjoying the experience and took the whole thing in her stride.

5) We often hear "Tara books are beautiful but expensive" What is your response?

That's interesting, as we often hear either this or it's exact opposite, namely: "How can you make handmade books so affordable."

In answer to the first question: our books are always set at a price that allows fair compensation to be given to everyone involved in creating them: from the author, artist and book designer to those involved in the production process. We are also very strong on the quality of our production and the ethics of our books. So we're not prepared to cut corners on either quality or environmental impact. For example, many of our books use either handmade or recycled paper.

In answer to the second question that I often hear - we are able to sell our handmade books at such an affordable price compared to other artists' or handmade books because of our Book Craft Workshop run by Master Printer C.Arumugam. Arumugam and his team of sixteen artisans have refined their process of silkscreen printing over the years to enable them to print silkscreen printed books in unprecedented numbers.

Our Book Craft Workshop has now printed and bound 250,000 books. On average we print and bind 18–22,000 books every year. That averages out at about 65 books per day. On average a book has 63 impressions (separate screen-printed colours), which is a grand total of 1 million and 24,000 impressions a year.

As far as we know, we’re the only publishing house in the world that produces handmade books in these numbers. In effect, what we do is make artists’ books in enough numbers so that they become affordable for the average book buyer. It’s our way of nurturing the physical form of the book in an age that is busy writing its obituary.

6) Have you looked at exploring folk art from other countries through Tara?

Yes, it's definitely something that we're exploring. Last year we were invited to Mexico, as part of a project working with traditional artists. Some book projects are currently in the pipeline as a result of that trip, so do watch out for those.


Artnavy said...

Always maintained that Tara makes Art books not picture books.

Also found the answer very very enlightening to the query about Tara being expensive (or affordable as one views it)

Thanks P and Gita.

Sheela said...

Thank you, Gita! Love your commitment to bringing folk art to the readers! Enjoyed learning about the process that went into making Gobble You Up. And, it was nice to read:
"our books are always set at a price that allows fair compensation to be given to everyone involved in creating them."

Thank you, Praba, for a lovely interview!

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