Ever since the internet and inexpensive computers and e-readers came into existence, people have been speculating on the death of the book. From where I sit, though, books are flourishing. Instead of killing off the book, I think new technologies have allowed more people to produce more kinds of books and find an audience.
One of the newer presses I’m particularly grateful for is Tara Books. I’m pretty sure I would never have even found out about them if it weren’t for modern networking through the internet. Tara Books was started in Chennai, India, by visionary publisher Gita Wolf over 10 years ago. Here’s an excerpt from an article by the Christian Science Monitor, July, 2014:
“Over the past 10 years, she (Gita Wolf) has collaborated with women tribal artists to create award-winning publications. In doing so, she’s helped the women step across the gulf that divides preliterate societies from the modern world of arts and letters.
”She had a young son and was dissatisfied with the available children’s books. She wanted to see bold illustrations that showed children the world of India, and she enlisted friends who were writers and designers to help create them.
“She was also active in the feminist and anti-caste movements. Five years ago she turned Tara into a worker-owned collective.”
The first book I bought from Tara was The Night Life of the Trees, by artists Durga Bai, Bhajju Shyam, and Ram Singh Urveti of the Gond tribe. It was a pleasure to read, touch and see. The art was exquisite line work in bright colors on black handmade paper. The ink had a presence: it had what artist Tom Sarmo calls a “thingness.” The narrative was poetic and told tales that blurred the borders between trees, humans, and creatures. It was true work of art, handbound, and I could purchase it here in Portland for about $30. Anyone anywhere could purchase it from Amazon.
It’s almost miraculous that these beautiful books by tribal people from a remote area can be bought and treasured everywhere in the world.
Not all their books are silk screened and handmade, but all of them are beautifully presented.
The latest book I got from them is Hope is a Girl Selling Fruit by Amrita Das. Das has painted in the Mithila tradition of art, which originated from women living in rural Bihar. Das builds on traditional style and creates a compelling story. Her art illustrates her personal journey and the journey she imagines of an impoverished girl she met on a train. The story honors the traditions of women in her culture but also questions the confines of their lives. Even the girl who represents hope is a mixed metaphor -- the art beautiful, the life it portrays hard.
“This other girl was poor too, and her clothes were torn. She had lost a leg, but she managed to push her cart around confidently. Two boys pointed to her and laughed, but she wasn’t bothered…. She’s her own creature, I thought, she walking around, she’s earning and supporting her family.”
I learn more about human strength and dignity in a book like this than I can ever glean from the news or documentaries. Tara doesn’t print books about artists, the artists speak for themselves. And it turns out their personal stories are universal, with undertones of myth and magic.
In a similar vein, Following my Paintbrush by Dulari Deva, text by Gita Wolf, is done also in colorful vibrant Mithila art. It starts out simply:
“I am an artist, but I wasn’t always one. This is the story of how it happened.”
She tells how she worked in rice fields, cooked and took care of brothers and sisters, sold fish, and washed other people’s dishes. “Time passed and I grew up, but I still did the same work. I had never gone to school, so I was not trained to do any other job. Sometimes I wished I could do something else. Everyday was the same, as it had been from the time I was a small girl.”
One day, she sees a group of children playing and makes a picture in her mind. Next she paints a fish in the mud. Then she finds out a lady she works for is an artist. The artist encourages Deva and she begins to create not only gorgeous art but a new identity for herself
Tara publishes all sorts of stories. They have both men and women artists and storytellers creating books.
Alone in the Forest, by Bhajju Shyam, Andrea Anastasio, and Gita Wolf, is a folk tale. Musa has to gather firewood because his mother is sick. “I’m grown up now, I’ll get the wood!” But it isn’t long before the sounds of the forest convince him that he is being stalked by a wild boar. His imagination runs wild as he hides in the hollow of a tree.
The illustrations of his imaginings and fear are enchanting, even when they’re scary. The text is integrated into the drawings and furthers the visual delight. The colors are muted and natural; it feels like you’re looking into a forest. The style isn’t realistic but it portrays the chaos of feeling lost. The trees and animals are highly detailed -- imagination and traditional imagery are at play here. I love that a yellow cow comes to the rescue, in its peaceful way, and brings Musa home.
Gobble You Up, by Sunita and Gita Wolf, is another of Tara’s hand made books. Printed on handmade brown paper with black and white drawings, it’s a captivating book in all regards. An adaptation of an oral Rajasthani trickster tale, featuring a wily jackal who tricks and eats his friend the crane. Then he proceeds to gobble up every animal he comes across.
Sunita is an artist from the Meena tribe in Rajasthan, who works in a traditional finger painting style called Mandna. This book is the first time that this art form has been used to illustrate a children’s story. To keep the feel of the art, it’s been silkscreen printed in two colors by hand on specially made kraft paper. The drawings have a lacy, delicate feel that speaks of the transitory nature of all life.
I’ve loved introducing children here at Bridge Meadows to this book at Halloween time, when funny scary stories are in demand. It’s a work of art they can touch. They know a jackal can’t eat an elephant, but they also know greed can be insatiable. It delights them to see all the animals in the bloated jackal’s belly and then see the animals come back to life. We love the off kilter rhymes and expressive texts.
And I, too, know that greed can be insatiable. I feel insatiable about the books Tara is creating and encouraging. I have to buy them rather than just check them out at the library. I feel like they are little art galleries I can open and immerse myself in. And when I’m done, I can slip them back onto the bookshelf in my small apartment, where they will wait til I need them again. As I collect them, I'll share what I find.
These books are available in some libraries. The Multnomah County library has Following My Brush, Alone in the Forest, and, surprisingly, Gobble You Up!, a limited edition. (They have #99 of 7000). So, if you can’t afford them, check them out at the library. Most libraries will help you get books from other libraries through their networking system.
You can learn more about Tara books here.
Here is a direct link to a video of their printing process: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=om6i3enGZ8c
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