We caught up with Gita Wolf, founder of the Chennai, India-based publisher Tara Books, in New York a few weeks ago, while she was en route to the Guadalajara Book Fair.
Attracted by the cover of the Tara Books catalog, a waiter in the Upper West Side coffee shop where we arranged to meet asked if he could look at it. The image that caught his eye came from the May 2012 title I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail, based on a 17th-century poem and illustrated by Ramsingh Urveti in the traditional Gond style from central India. The art and craftmaking aspects of Tara Books certainly draw people's attention.
This year, Tara Books celebrates its 15th anniversary; it published its first book, The Very Hungry Lion, written by Gita Wolf and illustrated by Indraprimit Roy, in 1996. Roy used the Warli style of painting from western India, and it was the publisher's first handmade book. It has sold more than 49,000 copies, each made by hand, one at a time. Wolf joked that she owes a debt to production manager C. Arumugam, whose mantra is, "Nothing is impossible." Also, nothing is wasted: the house recycles run-offs and misprints as "flukebooks," one-of-a-kind notebooks that retail for $11.99.
The Great Race, coming in June 2012, by Nathan Kumar Scott, is a hare-and-the-tortoise–style retelling of a popular Indonesian folktale featuring Kanchil the trickster mousedeer and Pelan the snail. Artist Jagdish Chitara makes his debut with this book, using the Mata-ni-Pachedi style of ritual textile painting from Gujarat, also in western India. Wolf explained that Chitara's "brush" is actually a sharpened twig, to get the fine outlines you see in the artwork. This is the first time this form of traditional art has been used to illustrate a story.
Tara Books titles have twice won the Bologna Ragazzi Award, in 2010 for Do! by Gita Wolf, illustrated by Ramesh Hengadi and Shantaram Dhadpe, and in 2008 for The Night Life of Trees by Bhajju Shyam, Durga Bai and R.S. Urveti. Wolf is on a mission to preserve the art of bookmaking. Together with her collective of writers, designers, artists and others, Wolf is establishing a Center for the Book Arts in Chennai. The center will house a gallery, a bookstore and work space for artists.
After the Guadalajara Book Fair, Wolf met with a team in Mexico that wants to create a collective modeled on Tara Books, and work with indigenous artists such as the Mayan community. Wolf acknowledges that the Internet is important for spreading the word about books. But it also plays a role in homogenizing the titles that come to market. Her approach, on the other hand, is all about the uniqueness of each book. "People are making publishing decisions who know nothing about bookmaking," Wolf said. "That's why independent publishers are so important." --Jennifer M. Brown