Publishing Lives 10: Gita Wolf, Publisher, Tara Books

‘Publishing is a very individual vision,’ begins Gita Wolf.

About a week before Gita’s scheduled master class at the Seagull School of Publishing, a few cartons had arrived from Tara Books, Chennai, the publishing house she co-founded in 1994. From the cartons had emerged an exquisite selection of finely crafted books, ‘unusual and rare voices of art and literature’ as they justly proclaimed themselves to be. As Gita begins to speak at the master class, one is already aware of the imprint of individual vision that each of these books triumphantly displays.

But where does that individual vision come from? Gita calls herself ‘a former academic rash enough to start a publishing house’. The rashness, the individual vision, lies in the instinctive nature of the start-up—no market surveys, hardly a business plan. Who will read my books? is a question she does not ask herself. The books have to see the light of day because there is no alternative. They have to be born. ‘You do not expect any audience for your books apart from a few people you already know. The books find their market, their readership,’ says Gita. One is struck by recognition: at Seagull, we have heard Naveen Kishore, publisher, utter those words so very often. The truth of this maxim is evident in our independent-publishing lives, quite magically so.

A quick look at Tara’s array of books will tell you that they are ‘art books’. For over a decade, Tara has been in dialogue with the incredibly rich and varied forms of traditional and tribal art in India, bringing artists’ work into the form of the book. In 1996, Tara created its first ‘handmade’ book. The Very Hungry Lion featured art based in the Warli tribe of western India; the images were silkscreened onto handmade paper, then stitched and bound entirely by hand. Several books have followed since, each more ambitious in scale and meticulous in production. Gita shows us a short film on the making of The Night Life of Trees—a book by three of the most eminent Gond artists, Bhajju Shyam, Durga Bai and R. S. Urveti; a book where, according to John Berger, ‘the nightingale sings until morning’—at the end of which we impulsively burst into an applause.

One realizes immediately why this book, like each of Tara’s books, is not just another art book on your coffee table. ‘This book is not about art,’ warns Gita, ‘It is art.’ The claim is undeniable if one looks at the way each book is handcrafted. Delving into Tara’s catalogue, one finds: ‘Our production manager, C. Arumugam [. . .] runs a print workshop in Chennai, employing 16 artisans he has trained into expert screen printers, binders and bookmakers. [. . .] The handmade book workshop is run on fair trade practices, and the workers live together as a community. The statistics are astonishing: they’ve created over 180,000 books, which require 11 million impressions, or individual ‘pulls’ for each colour.’

The printed book was the first mass-produced cultural artefact which, in the mid-fifteenth century, changed human lives entirely. Arguably, the book remains the most beautiful mass-produced object to this day. Tara has stayed true to that initial spirit of the printed book and has made art as accessible as possible. Pick up Water Life by Rambharos Jha, and, for less than Rs 1,000, you walk away with a masterful artwork, a thing of beauty, a joy for ever.

Tara’s early books were meant for children. It is accepted that books with pictures are meant primarily for the young. But, increasingly, pictorial books are becoming adult. Tara’s response is unique. In looking for traditional storytelling practices in India, one is bound to arrive at patua scroll art of eastern India. Being one of those rare narrative traditional art forms, the medium lends itself perfectly to the form of the graphic novel. Moyna Chitrakar’s Sitas Ramayana (an age-old yet widely neglected perspective on a timeless epic) and I See the Promised Land (a biography of Martin Luther King Jr, an imaginative collaboration between blues singer Arthus Flowers and Bengali scroll-painter Manu Chitrakar) testify to the success of the experiment. Moyna and Jaydeb Chitrakar’s Tsunami, recounting the terrifying 2004 event, goes further, nearly replicating the very format of the patua scroll.

The question starts to creep into one’s mind: What kind of thought goes into the design of these gorgeous books? Over two days, Gita spends three sessions with design students at the school. ‘I have no formal training in design,’ she says. (Recognition strikes again in Seagull minds—Sunandini Banerjee, Seagull’s senior editor and designer, and dean of design at the school, has often described herself in the same way.) ‘Design is functional before it is aesthetic or decorative,’ Gita continues—a pivotal concept—‘A product’s beauty must be very close to the way it needs to be used.’ The plea is for that delicate balance between how it looks (good) and how it works (perfectly). The interplay between content and form, text and design must be accurate: each must be inextricable from the other. They must together create meaning. The designer is the co-author. That is how Tara’s books are born.

Two examples shine, books that Gita talks about at length. The well-known English folk poem ‘I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail’ is a seventeenth-century trick-verse classic which appears nonsensical at first but, given a break in the middle of each line, begins to make sense. As with most folk poems, it marvellously teases out meaning beyond grammatical trickery. Gita talks at length about how the designer, Jonathan Yamakami, shaped the book, using Ramsingh Urveti’s Gond art and integrated die cuts, re-creating the poem by exploring fully and most precisely the complexity of its meaning. Without the design, the book will not exist; it will be pointless. The design is the meaning; the design is to be read.

And then there is Andrea Anastasio’s Fingerprint, a little artist’s book, in which the art is executed entirely through thumbprints of different colours. Shorn of text, the thumbprints tell a story of immigration and racial integration—of identity, a concept so indispensible to the thumbprint, from the days of slavery to the contemporary menace of airport security. But as you literally ‘thumb’ through the book, it demands your engagement—you want to tell your thumbprint tale as well, assimilate yourself in the madness and pattern on the pages. You realize that through the thumbprints, another story is also being told: the story of reading. You have left your invisible thumbprint on every page you have turned in those much-thumbed books of yours. And those turned pages have made you into who you are, given you your identity, the madness and the pattern that is uniquely you. You have read, read more and become who you are.

So, when Sunandini, in order to wrap up two days of scintillating discussion, asks Gita one final question—‘What makes a good designer?’—Gita’s unflinching and natural answer is just that one word: ‘Reading.’

Bishan Samaddar

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