Even before going to the Bologna Book Fair I had heard of the book The Night Life of Trees, by Chennai-based Tara Publishing*, and knew that it had won the Bologna Ragazzi “New Horizons” Award (the first title from India to do so). The award spotlights the cultural heritage and innovative drive coming from children’s book publishing in the Arab world, Latin America, Asia and Africa, so I knew the book was bound to be a treat. But nothing could have prepared me for the jolt I experienced when I finally saw it.
When you flip through the book’s pages you understand why it has won a prestigious children’s book award even though it was originally created as an art book. The book rekindles one’s sense of wonder. Everything about it invites closer inspection: the wonderful ink smell; the texture of the handmade paper; the intricacy of the majestic trees inhabited by creatures; the myths and folktales accompanying them…
Tara Publishing’s website states that their books are “largely visual in nature – and radical, witty and informed in spirit.” The Night Life of Trees is, no doubt, one such book. Silk-screened and hand-bound, with its luminous trees jumping out of the pages’ black backdrop, this book offers a glimpse into the world views of three of the finest artists from the Gond tribe of Madhya Pradesh, in Central India, namely, Ram Singh Urveti, Durga Bai and Bhajju Shyam.
The idea for the book, we learned from a presentation given by Tara founder Gita Wolf and editor Sirish Rao on the first day of the book fair, came out of one of Tara’s illustrators’ workshops. Participants from the Gond tribe kept including trees on every single one of their drawings. “When asked to draw a bird, they would draw a bird on a tree; when asked to draw a person, they would draw a person next to a tree; when asked to draw clouds, they would draw clouds over a tree, and so on,” Sirish told an enraptured audience. The reason was simple: because they are traditionally forest dwellers, Gong people believe that “trees stand in the middle of life, and that the spirit of many things live in them.” Tara then decided to put together a book of these trees (traditionally drawn on walls with homemade paints) to capture, in book format, this tribe’s ancient way of relating to nature, and to, as Gita put it, “push tradition forward.”
Included in the publisher’s presentation was a short video about the making of the book, from which we learned very interesting facts: that a 5,000 print run equals half a million pulls of ink over screen; that each page is “lovingly blow-dried” by hand; that the artisans are able to print over 30,000 books a year and are fully-booked to print these magnificent trees until 2009. No small feat for only twelve pairs of hands. But with its special and unique line of handmade books, created in their own workshop by a commune of twelve craftspeople from local villages, using hand processes like silk-screen and letterpress printing, Tara Publishing is no novice at creating books of high visual impact: they’ve been doing it for 11 years.
Gita Wolf and Sirish Rao received the Bologna Ragazzi “New Horizons” Award plaque at a ceremony that took place at the architecturelly stunning Archiginnasio library, at Piazza Galvani, in downtown Bologna. A special exhibit in honor of Tara’s innovative work, titled “A Bus with a Trunk,” was also on display at the Del Monte Foundation, making Tara’s work a real focus point in our Bologna experience. (If you are interested in hosting a “Night Life of Trees” exhibit of original art from the book, contact Tara. They supply the artwork and the exhibitor only needs to bear the freight and insurance costs.)
Gita has said in an interview to PaperTigers, from 2004: “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. (…) 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.” This award, coupled with all the other recognitions Tara Publishing has received through the years, proves they have done just that.
*Tara Publishing offers free worldwide shipping on books bought on their website.