Face to Face with Gita Wolf, head of Tara Publishing
by Swapna Dutta*
Gita Wolf, one of the most original and creative voices in contemporary
Indian publishing, started Tara Publishing in 1994. Trained as an academic
in English and Comparative Literature, she opted to write and publish
books for children because of her special interest in communication,
both visual and literary. Over the years, she was joined by other writers
and publishing professionals who could visualize Tara's unconventional
objectives. Wolf herself has written over a dozen books for children
and adults, many of which have won prestigious awards such as The
Very Hungry Lion, which won the Alcuin Citation in Canada in 1997,
and Hensparrow Turns Purple which won the 1999 Biennale of
Illustrations Bratislava plaque.
How would you describe the current set up
Tara consists of a core group of writers, artists
and designers who function as a creative collective. We are a small
and independent publishing house based in Chennai, India. We work with
a range of adventurous writers and artists. We also create books in
Can you tell us a little about the others?
There is V.Geethaa historian and writer, and Sirish Rao, a novelist.
Rathna Ramanathan is a graphic designer with her own studio. She designs
the majority of Tara's books while C. Arumugam, a screen printer, is
in charge of production.
How do all of you visualize Tara?
We see Tara as a space where exceptional writers, artists and
designers can explore their concerns. We collaborate with a range of
talented people from all over the world, with whom we build long-standing
Why did you decide to publish books for children?
It's a long story. As a parent, I had a hard time finding good books,
especially Tamil books for my child. In fact, we all felt the need
for good children's writing.
What is your concept of a good children's book?
A good book is something to which a child should turn with pleasure.
It is something which will stay with the child long after s/he has
grown into adulthood. Reading widens a child's experience in a way
that passive entertainmentlike watching televisioncan never
do. That's because it requires a child to use his or her faculties
of imagination and identification. At one level, this takes place,
with language, in listening and finding pleasure with sound.
a good children's story?
A good story needs to be told from
an appropriate, child-centered point of view. It is not a watered-down
version of adult fiction. As for other elements, a good children's
story needs a strong plot and humour. Detail is very important in
children's writing. Everything must be accurately described. I also
feel that a resolution or happy ending is important. Without it the
child carries an unexplained sense of loss.
Do you feel that children's books in India don't
quite fit the bill?
Traditionally, children's books in India
are very didactic and moral. We at Tara wanted to break away from
this, to focus on the pleasures of books. In a nutshell, we favour
work that is radical, witty and politically rigourous.
How do you go about it?
Since our publishing agenda is daring, we work on creating a constituency
for it, through readings, performances, workshops, and exhibitions.
Ideally, we'd like a place in the mainstream, rather than in an 'alternative'
Any problems that you face?
It is hard to build a market in a country like India. Among our
woes are a very poor infrastructure, high production costs, and no
government support. Add to this highly price conscious book buyers,
and our commitment to quality becomes a heroic struggle. But although
quality production is an enormous problem I strongly feel that it is
not an area to compromise on.
Anything else you would like to add as
As a publisher, I feel that parents should support
and encourage the production of good material. We need to break out
of the vicious cycle of publishers hesitant to experiment with innovative
writing for children and parents who complain that there are no good
Indian books for children.
Let's get back to the subject of books.
Your first book, Mala, A Woman's Folktale explores
the gender issue. Can you tell us something about it?
Mala, I hope,
will be part of a series of book which will explore gender issues.
It is meant for readers of twelve years and above. It has a fairly
demanding text and illustrations.
What is the basic theme of the story?
It is the story of a little girl who wishes she were a boy, so
that she might fight a demon which terrorizes her land.
What is the message or idea that you have tried to portray
in the book?
The idea is not that women should be like
men, but they should value their own skills and use it as source
of strength. It is necessary to attach the traditional devaluing
of women's qualitiesqualities like gentleness, sensitivity, and
the ability to communicate. Today's society tends to reflect the
over-emphasis on so called male qualitiesviolence, aggression
and competitiveness. I feel that a complete human being is necessarily
a mixture of both these traits. Just as girls have to learn to depend
on themselves and take on the outside world boys too need to be gentle
What do you think of folktales? Do you feel
they provide a satisfactory source for children's literature? Or
do you feel something is lacking there?
Folktales are good
but with reservations. They do lack one important element, i.e. modernity.
There are no bicycles, cars, buses or televisions in them, none of
the familiar objects which make up an urban child's world. There
is also another difficulty with folktales. As a genre they tend to
be conservative. And they don't always question the existing norms.
Are your books primarily meant for Indian readers?
Yes, our books are generally created with the Indian reader in mind.
But the India we come from is neither a timeless fount of wisdom, nor
just another struggling, developing country. It is dynamic, frustratingly
contradictory, often bleak and always interesting. This is our location.
Finally, what would you say is the goal of Tara
We'd like to take our place in the publishing
world not as representatives of an exotic niche, but with self assurance,
as a part of world literature.
*Swapna Dutta is a well-known author and critic
in India and is a regular contributor to PaperTigers.
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