Hands of an artist

Had a rather nice introduction to the science of hand-crafted books by Tara Books, recently. They’ve been conducting exhibitions of their craft, first with the Madras Book Club, then at the Alliance Francaise. Tara’s beautifully finished books are certainly a treat – but I didn’t know that so much work went into it. They called their presentation “Bringing the senses back to the book.” What surprised me was that it actually worked.

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For Tara Publishing, a premier publishing house that has been producing books for twelve years, turning out books with paper made by hand has been an ambitious, and rewarding mission. They delight in producing wonderfully fashioned books for children – all handcrafted by master craftsmen who treat the books as they would their own children. Tara’s books have won over fifteen major international awards, including outstanding Book of the Year at the 2002 US Independent Publisher Awards for Sophocles’ Antigone, winner of the American Association of Museums’ Publications Design Competition for Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, and a New York Book Show Award for Tiger on a Tree (which was the first Tara book I’d read, actually), among many more. A recent title, the Legend of the Fish received Honourable Mention in the Best Book Arts Craftsmanship category of the US Independent Publisher Awards 2006.

Gita Wolf, trained as an academic in English and comparative literature, made a presentation along with Tara Book’s C Arumugam, a screen printer and fine bookmaker with the motto ‘Nothing is Impossible.’ They presented a short film called “Bringing the Senses Back to the Book.”

Gita’s ambitions have always led her along a different path, she says. Traditionally, children’s books in India are “very didactic and moral,” she felt, and wanted to break away from this, to focus on the pleasures of books – with all the other good things they bring in their wake.

The paper used for books by Tara are usually sourced from Pondicherry. Each book, in fact, is bound by hand as well.

“Such handmade books existed before too,” says Gita. “but they were an artist’s limited edition – only hundred or two hundred copies were available, in total. And Tara’s main idea has always been to make these books accessible to everyone. Of course, our books are a little more expensive, considering the enormous work that goes into each book, but every page is an original print. It takes great strength to actually transfer a book from what the artist envisions it as, to mass market. That’s why our motto is: Search in the past, and look into the future.”

Tradition exists, ironically, in the future, in development. To succeed in competition, even in a mass production, every singe piece has to be spotless. One major inspiration to Tara has been Project Gnutenberg, that has brought books online, to the public domain for the use and research of the public.

C Arumugam, the man behind the whole technical process first showed a sort of presentation that explained how books were and are published usually: using wooden or metal blocks in the beginning; later, the advent of machines that could print eight colours in one side. There came a point, he said, when books could literally be printed in one hour. And there was digital printing that combined detail with accuracy to bring about an astonishingly fine quality to books. Now, there are even e-books, which mean that all the reader has to do is to download them all, and read whole works off a computer screen.

But then, as Gita points out, there’s a certain tactile quality, very essential to a good book, that’s missing in mass-production. And the art that Tara introduces into its pages can give a certain lasting quality to the books that glossy prints cannot.

“The Very Hungry Lion” was Tara’s first book, published in 1994, by Gita Wolf and artist Indrasmit Roy. “Technology in India isn’t what it is now,” smiles Gita. “It was a slow process, but a successful one. We sent a few samples of the book to Frankfurt, and that made people call them back for copies.” Back then, some printing presses were in such a condition that workers literally walked all over the pages printed, spread out on the ground to dry!

“That was a sort of eye-opener to how things really were,” muses Gita. “We knew that we couldn’t let such things happen to our books.”

Back at Frankfurt, orders came in for about eight thousand copies. “How on earth were we ever going to accomplish something like this? That was our biggest worry, at that time. How were we going to get so many copies hand-printed within the stipulated time?”

And then began a marvelous adventure that led them through ever single phase of publishing that there was. Such huge amounts of colour were involved that the printing crew spent hours trying to mix paints in large vats, “stirring them with cricket bats,” grins Arumugam, exchanging a reminiscent glance with Gita.

And then there were other issues to be taken care of. For example, the tone of the colours changed after a while or when they dried, so those had to be considered before printing. The experimenting phase alone cost them six months. It typically involved eight hundred thousand pulls to print – for a book of twenty four pages.

One particular project that involved a beautifully printed fold-out book received an order for twenty thousand copies from Holland, which was promptly carried out, the papers gummed with Maida glue. On receipt at the destination, it was discovered that the carefully put together book’s pages had simply stuck to themselves … and had grown fungus, to boot! “Oh, that was quite a disaster,” recalls Gita. Later, they switched the glue – and that was one more valuable lesson learnt. These days, Fevicol or gum is used, chips in Arumugam, to a spectator’s question. Another book, “Tiger on a Tree” won a great deal of acclaim, not to mention international awards.

The short film shows the production another memorable book, “The Night Life of Trees,” starting from scratch, right up to when the book is bound and sent for sale. The short film shows the whole crew making screen prints from the original drawings done by Goan tribals, who have a very distinct way of painting, based on the belief that trees have a distinct life of their known at night. Each tree has a story, its own myth. It was said, among them, that each tree was itself, at night. A biologist even came up with an explanation about transpiration, upon learning these legends. Gita asked the artists to come up with as many trees as they could, done in black and white. Ands later, her crew added colours to them, transferring the prints to papers – each and every single paper of the book, which are then collected in separate bundles. In the end, a craftsmen puts together each paper together, to form a book, sticks the binding covers, and voila! A book is born.

Each of these handmade books have as much life as any book printed in a press, declares Gita. In fact, they have several distinct features, as each paper isn’t the same: thickness varies, and so do the colours differ themselves, subtly. Each book is unique.

One particularly demanding commission was the Paul Getty project, for ten thousand copies of Sophocles’ Antigone, and they imposed more than two hundred different terms and conditions on everything from thickness of paper to how they should be bound and packed. That is why, says Arumugam, they have a completely foolproof quality system that ensures that even the strictest conditions in printing and distribution is obeyed.

The colours, of course, being mixed by hand last long and are generally childproof – “unless you’re going to mash them up and make tea or something, which, naturally, isn’t advisable,” smiles Gita. Of course, they cannot be gnawed and chewed at by very young children; such books aren’t meant for them.

Who is their biggest market?

As of now, that would be India. Is Tara’s answer to a question. Bookstores do very well; the books are irresistible. The fold-out book which initially me with such skepticism from prospective customers eventually went on to sell six thousand copies.

As to whether it’s a very profitable business …?

“That’s a rather difficult question to answer. 60% goes towards discounts, 20% is the actual cost of the book – so 5-10% is all that a publisher actually gets in the way of revenue. Which is a very small margin, you’ll agree.”

Does the Government offer any support towards their ventures?

Gita gives a wry grin. “As to that, we’re very happy that they’ve left us alone.” There are appreciative titters.

Tara Books are also printed outside India – in Thailand actually. Why not in India? “Thailand is as expensive as in India,” Gita says. But though there are press-printed books, there’s nothing quite like a hand-calligraphed book. The look and feel of it is quite something. And ultimately, that is what everyone wants. A book, offering the enriching experience of all the stories within it. Rich, real.

The actual process that leads up to producing anything is what really captivates you. Much like all those “Making of …” shows that are aired about every big feature film. This one was the same way.

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