Kamalan Conversations: V. Geetha, Editorial Director, Tara Books

In an age inundated with reactions, the rare moments of reflection have gained more importance than ever. The pure dedication with which V.Geetha’s work evokes reflection is what drew us to her initially.

V. Geetha is a scholar and author who works with caste and feminism issues in the country. Having taken a plunge into activism during her college days, she has relentlessly and consistently continued her efforts in this direction over the years. She has produced various works of literature on these subjects, and is currently working on a project related to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, an Indian jurist, politician and social reformer.

The other part of her work life includes being the editorial director of Tara Books, which she officially joined in 1998. Chennai based Tara Books is a fiercely original and globally acclaimed publishing house that creates illustrated books for adults and children. The studio collaborates with artists, writers and designers from across the world, but is most recognised for its collaborations with indigenous folk artists of India. Tara Books works very closely with these artists, giving them a platform to use their skills, imagination and ideas, to craft exquisite and innovative print books for a contemporary audience.

Creating physical books itself is also central to the identity of Tara Books as it seeks to, in its own words, successfully re-imagine the book in an age that’s busy writing its obituary. Along with Gita Wolf, founder of Tara Books, Geetha plays an instrumental role in making this happen.

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For the first in the series of Kamalan Conversations, we have an in-depth talk with Geetha about her work in these different streams, her inspirations, Tara Books, and what travel means to her, among other things. Edited excerpts:

Could you please tell us about your growing up days? What were some of the early creative influences?

I was born in Chennai, and grew up listening to stories from my mother and grandparents. I read a lot as a child and watched popular Tamil and Hindi cinema. I have pursued my education from Madras Christian College (MCC) and University of Iowa.

During my college days, thanks to Professor Rajani, I learned to appreciate art; he taught some of us how to “see” and also to enjoy reading verse aloud. I must also mention Professor Burns who taught me how words work, and why they are important. And then there was Jean Fernandez, a young lecturer who introduced us to different ways of approaching a literary text and taught us about feminism.

Who have been some of your biggest literary influences?

Shakespeare is the biggest literary influence, who I still pick up and read whenever I have a moment. The Mahabharatha is another as it taught me a lot about human frailty, cupidity and our general capacity for being morally complex beings.

I also like a lot of 19th century fiction writers like George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy and Joseph Conrad. In Tamil, I like medieval Vaishnavite bhakti poetry and the modernists including A. Madavaiah and Subramania Bharati. From other languages, I like Italo Calvino, Eduardo Galeano and Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

In African writing, I like Wole Soyinka, Ayi Kwei Armah and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and favourite African-American writers including James Baldwin and the philosopher Cornel West.  I also like poetry from different contexts – most recently from West Asia. And the list also includes several women writers like the verse makers of the Therigatha, the Bangla writer Sabitri Ray, historians Sheila Rowbotham and Uma Chakravarthy, and the fabulist critic Marina Warner. For political prose, it’s Periyar, Ambedkar, Fanon and K.Balagopal. I could just go on listing.

As an activist, you work with issues pertaining to caste and feminism. When and how did this start in your life?

Growing up in the 70s and 80s, feminism was inescapable. I came into public activism around gender from my college days in MCC.

I also grew up in a household with a moderately Gandhian approach to social reform, especially to do with caste. My maternal grandfather had been in the Congress Socialist Party and was against untouchability.  My paternal grandfather was from the oppressive caste-feudal world of east Thanjavur. My father was a warm and compassionate person, and my mother was a quietly determined woman – and it was through their eyes that I came to understand social wrong. However, I seldom saw it as caste oppression at that time, a function of social privilege where we can see wrong everywhere but in our own homes. But once I got into student politics, I learned to name caste injustice for what it was.

Later on, when I was active in the feminist politics in the late 80s and 90s, S V Rajadurai, one of Tamil Nadu’s prominent left intellectuals, taught me a great deal about caste and class, and together we wrote a lot in Tamil including our books on Periyar and many Tamil monographs on western Marxism. Further, the stirring examples set by the women I befriended in the women’s movement in Tamil Nadu and my comrades in the Tamil Nadu Women’s Coordination Committee inspired me. More recently, I have got to know more about Ambedkarite worlds in Tamil Nadu, which has been a great learning experience.

How did you initially get associated with Tara Books?

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Tara Books is an independent publisher supporting artists across the country.

Gita Wolf (founder, Tara Books) and I met, appropriately enough, at the Chennai Bookfair in 1988. We were also together in Snehidi, a women’s group we had set up in the same year. A shared love for books and humour, strong feminist politics, anger at social privilege we had grown up with, determination to fight our own caste contexts, and affection cemented our friendship and publishing partnership.

I supported Gita’s work when she decided to get into publishing in 1994. But at that time I was very busy with my work on Periyar, so could only come in for particular projects. In 1998 though, I decided to join Tara Books full-time.

As the editorial director of Tara Books, how do you approach your work while conceiving and executing titles?

When we review texts at Tara, we keep in mind certain things like if the worldview that a text presents is trapped by its middle class authorship, or does its creative energy enable it to communicate a rich, universal meaning? Is the language honest, and not trammeled by a desire to sound clever or provocative? Is the author amenable to collaborative work with artists and designers?

We also see if the text answers to female experiences as well, and if it is aware of how caste shapes the imagination. These are the values that guide us in choosing texts and in communicating our concerns to the authors.

The books that have their origin in Tara often begin as an idea, or come from an image or a conversation that we’ve had. Sometimes, we have picked up ideas years after we’ve thought of them initially. It could be because we found an artist to work with or we returned to what earlier seemed radical because now we have the experience to approach it with composure.

We also make sure that we contextualize and anchor texts and art in their contexts, and account for the labour of creativity and not merely its beauty.

According to you, how has the role of an editorial director changed in this age of decreasing attention spans and digital consumption habits?

As a historian, I am determined not to be bound only by present taste or by what appears dramatically different, and this helps us to do what we’re doing while learning to assess and use what is most useful from the here and now.

With respect to decreasing attention spans, we seek to create space and time for those who want to find ways of slowing down and take their time with reading and looking. So we don’t necessarily appeal to decreasing attention spans; we rather think of how this might also leave many of us looking for something that goes against the grain. As we have pointed out many times earlier, we have successfully re-imagined the book in an age that’s busy writing its obituary.

Coming back to your work with Tara Books, could you tell us about Tara Books’ association with Indian folk and tribal artists, and how has it evolved over the years?

This started more than a decade ago with Beasts of India, our first project with indigenous artists. Gita has been at the forefront in this regard. In 2000, there was an exhibition of folk and tribal art in Chennai where Gita noticed that much of the art featured animals and wondered if we should do a book that features Indian beasts as they are imagined in different traditions. It was a brilliant idea, and our colleague Kanchana Arni went around the country to meet with artists, and to commission and acquire work we could use.

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Books being screen printed at Tara Books office to maintain the graphic richness of the art.

Gita also decided that we ought to screen-print the book to bring out the graphic power and richness of the art. That became a way of doing at Tara, and we continue to bring together expressive art and skilled book artisanship to recreate the poetry, colour and labour that go into the making of indigenous art.

Could you tell us more about the research that Tara undertakes to look for artists across the country?

We’ve undertaken five major visits so far. The first that I spoke about earlier was in 2000-2001, coordinated by Kanchana Arni for Beasts of India. Then Gita went to Raghurajpur to visit Patachitra artists. Around this time, she also went to Bhubaneshwar to speak with some of the leading scholars of the art form, which turned out to be very important for our own understanding of the artform’s grammar.

After this, Gita and the team went to Bhopal and Patangarh to visit the Gond artists we knew, to understand more about their everyday work contexts. This visit, undertaken with artist Bhajju Shyam’s assistance, enabled us to meet a range of artists and to plan for a book that would incorporate their diverse talents. The book was Signature which features the ways Gond artists inscribe their individual authorship in a work of art through the use of distinctive patterns.

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A visit to Meena village was also undertaken by Gita Wolf.

 

The fourth was a visit to Meena villages in the Sawai Madhopur area in Rajasthan by Gita and her editorial assistants. This was to present Nurturing Walls: Animal Art by Meena Women to the women whose work is featured in that book. The fifth trip was undertaken by me and a few Tara interns to visit Phad painters in Chittor in Rajasthan, to ascertain if we could plan a book project with Phad painters.

What are some of the key things you keep in mind while choosing, and then pairing together of artists, designers and writers for projects?

Keeping in mind what artists like to do, where they see their strengths, and our own experience of working with them, we choose one or the other artist for our projects. For instance, Durga Bai (tribal artist) is a great storyteller and can fearlessly illustrate any tale, whether it’s old or new, so we chose her to work on Rokheya Hossein’s Sultana’s Dream.

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Sultana’s Dream is a book consisting of the work by tribal artist Durga Bai.

The patua artists are great fabulists and have an intuitive sense of how to visually plot a tale, however removed it might be from their contexts. Their stylised art also helps to bring a universal resonance to even particular histories and stories – you can see this in Manu Chitrakar’s (Patua artist) work in I See the Promised Land: A Life of Martin Luther King Jr. Sometimes, it’s the artist’s work that inspires us to look for a tale and so you have Anushka Ravishankar writing for the work of several artists.

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Patua Artist, Manu Chitrakar, inspired I See the Promised Land: A Life of Martin Luther King Jr.

As for the designers, we choose them on the basis of their particular skills and depending on what a particular text-art combination needs.

Are there any aspects of Indian art forms, and various myths and legends associated with them, which have personally intrigued you?

Yes, we never cease to be surprised by the dynamism of these traditions. For many of them, tradition is not the past, but a relationship to the past that they re-imagine through their stories, their lines and choice of motifs amongst other things.

In the context of our work with these artists, conversations and workshops have helped create enabling conditions for artists to re-examine their inheritance and to communicate to us what appears changeable to them and what remains as the deep visual grammar that guides and shapes their imagination.

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Sita’s Ramayana consists of retelling of myths and legends through the ages.

As for legends and myths, creation stories, stories about the birth of art and retellings of well-known stories like Moyna Chitrakar’s re-rendering of the Ramayana as Sita’s story have been truly fascinating.

Do you consider Tara Books’ work craftsmanship instead of publishing?

We believe that the form of the book has always been essential to how it communicates. The form that we take for granted has evolved over centuries to pass on meaning and beauty that cannot be imagined outside of it. Keeping this in mind, we experiment with form, and book craftsmanship is not incidental to our work. It is part of and in some instances, central to how we communicate meaning.

What has been your most memorable project at Tara so far?

There are several depending on the time that we came to these projects. For the early period, The Mahabharatha was a favorite for the sheer joy of working with author and artist Samhita Arni, aged 9-10 at that time. Ideal Boy had me personally accounting for my long-standing interest in the popular art in a more founded sort of way. Then there is Toys and Tales, which I think is one of our most original titles and features Gita Wolf’s writing at its best.

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I See The Promised Land provided unique challenges in terms of cultural and political contexts.

I See the Promised Land for the unusual challenges it posed as we had to work with people from three different cultural and political contexts. And the current favorite is our forthcoming book, Another History of the Children’s Picture Book: from Soviet Lithuania to India, which has been an amazing project – collaborative and global in every sense of the terms.

What are you currently working on, both in terms of personal work and Tara Books?

Personally, I am working on two projects including a collective biography of the generations that grew up during the decade of Indian independence and a book on Dr. Ambedkar. At Tara, we are working on the Another History book that I mentioned earlier, and a possible publishing project to do with Rembrandt and Asia.

Lastly, how does Chennai as a city personally inspire you and your work?

It is home and continues to remain something of a proletarian city, and I like that. It is also a city that leaves you alone.

And how do you draw inspirations while travelling?

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Some of the artists who collaborated on the book receive it after being published.

Travelling to me is being alert to the streets, public spaces, and conversations. I continue to take public transport to work and to most places, since that ‘travel’ keeps me mindful of others who are not like me.

Traveling within India is always a lesson, a form of learning which is humbling since you realize how relative your own sense of anything is, and therefore puts you in dialogue with difference. I don’t travel abroad much, but when I do, I enjoy what the prospect offers – it is nice to abandon oneself to the unknown.


Image Courtesy and Copyright: Tara Books

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