Recent summer launches remind us of how successfully Tara Books has managed to marry Indian art traditions with the literary. Drawing from the City by Tejubehan, The Great Race by Nathan Kumar Scott and Jagdish Chitara, I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail by Ram Singh Urveti and The Night Life of Trees by Durga Bai, Bhajju Shyam and Urveti, are the latest delicate, genre-bending volumes from the Chennai publishing house and artist-designer collective, headed by Gita Wolf and V Geetha.
The publishers’ commitment to preserving Indian folk art dates back to 1996, when they launched their first handmade book The Very Hungry Lion. The silkscreen volume was based on an Indian fable and illustrated through Warli art. Since then, Tara has gone on to associate with Patua, Madhubani, Mithila and Gond artists, while continuing to produce graphic novels and even political titles such as the Indian edition of Barefoot Gen: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima by Keiji Nakazawa. This zig-zagging is referenced by the editors in the opening note “The Question of Genres”, to their 2010-2011 catalogue. “The fact that children’s books find adult readers is not a new insight, but some of the work we’ve come up with…does defy classification,” they write.
Drawing from the City is a case in point. The book traces the journey of Tejubehan, who belongs to a Rajasthani nomadic tribe that sings bhajans for a living, from the village to the city. The young singer and her late husband Ganesh Jogi, met artist Haku Shah in Ahmedabad. Shah encouraged their interest in making “dot paintings”, which eventually led to this book. Over the years, we’ve come to expect from Tara pictorial narratives in which the illustrations are not subservient to the text. In books like Drawing from the City, the pictures are the text.
The volume is only sparsely punctuated by the written word. Tejubehan’s two-dimensional Rotring pen illustrations are, on the other hand, rich and evocative. Their winsome simplicity belies the painstaking stroke-by-stroke labour that went into each drawing. It is this simplicity, accompanied by unvarnished prose, that could well appeal to children even though they are not the book’s primary audience.
I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail adopts a similar tactic. Its text is a well-known folk poem from seventeenth century England, which seems nonsensical at first but turns coherent when you read it as if the break between the sentences are in the middle of each line. The words may not to be geared towards younger audiences, but the lush illustrations can definitely be enjoyed by them.
The Great Race, however, is aimed squarely at children. So is The Night Life of Trees, which imagines what trees get upto in the dark. For The Great Race, Jagdish Chitara, a Mata Ni Pachedi (literally, “cloth of the mother goddess”) artist from Gujarat, who belongs to the Waghari group of artisans, dips into his folk idiom with stock images and animal motifs. They are always rendered in black, white and blood red, and are used to illustrate an Indonesian folk tale. The lively tale is a cheeky riff on the hare-andtortoise parable, but without any sermonising. The semi-religious images, characterised by dots and lines, are surprisingly at home in a secular story. And while we know fables and folk tales are kids’ stuff, it’s far from embarrassing to be reading these books in public.
By Karanjeet Kaur With Inputs By Zeenat Nagree on July 20 2012 7.06am