Bhajju Shyam was only 30 when he lost his “guru”—his uncle Jangarh Shyam—to crippling depression in 2001. Then India’s leading tribal artist, Jangarh committed suicide while in Japan on work. He was just 39. This was no ordinary loss. Bhajju had lost the man who had mentored him since he had arrived in Bhopal as a 16-year-old boy in search of work. It was his uncle who had recognised the spark in him which, today, has become a flame. And its glow is palpable from the minute you enter Book Building, which is home to independent publishing house Tara Books in South Chennai.
A small but airy bookshop and an exhibition space occupy the ground floor, showcasing the many-hued heroes of the establishment. Many of these are entirely handcrafted—from the illustrations and printing to the binding. Take a closer look and you could even call them love notes to Indian tribal art.
Beyond the exhibition space is an open courtyard. A large, grey tree with colourful birds perched on its branches is painted across one of its walls.
C Manivannan, the sales manager, calls its creator “one of the best Gond artists alive”.
The mantle seems to have transferred seamlessly from uncle to nephew.
“I made a barren tamarind tree on a wall at Book Building for its inauguration a few years ago,” Shyam, 44, tells ForbesLife India on the phone from Bhopal. “I wanted to say that now it [the building] is new, but little by little, people will come in and fill it up, just like the leaves will sprout on the tree and birds will come and sit on it. Every time I go back, I try to add a little bit more to it.”
It is an uncomplicated philosophy, one which is manifest in some of Tara Books’s best-known works. Take Shyam’s first-ever creation.
Near the staircase to the upper floor, a small sign printed on paper and stuck on the wall tells visitors that entry is restricted. This is where we first meet the original print of The London Jungle Book. The book is a travelogue of Shyam’s first trip to London; it features the illustrative interpretations of his surroundings in his native Gond art tradition, along with an English translation of his experiences.
The illustration of Big Ben imagined as a rooster (as depicted on the cover) is explained as: “I saw Big Ben, and I thought: So this is their temple of time. It’s beautiful, and carefully built because they are very careful about time here. If you are five minutes early for an appointment, they will tell you to wait because you are early. If you are five minutes late, they will tell you that you are late. Everyone checks their watches all the time. I have a watch too, but my symbol of time is still the Gond one—a rooster. It wakes you up at sunrise. Then the day follows its course, and the next event that marks the passage of time is the sun going down.”
Gita Wolf, 58, founder of Tara Books, articulates her original aim for the organisation as “to get stories from people that you never hear from, to hear it from their point of view”. Even in his first effort, Shyam stayed true to the brief.
“Many of the tribal artists that we work with would sell their prints in order to make a living, but we helped them become authors,” says Wolf. They could be the Patuas of Bengal, the Meenas of Rajasthan, the Gonds of Madhya Pradesh or the Mithilas of Bihar among others. This is considered unparalleled in the Indian independent publishing industry. “Tara Books has pioneered the use of tribal art in books to provide a modern relevance to it,” says Anita Roy, director and senior editor at the Delhi-based independent publishing house Zubaan Books. Roy believes that Tara Books has “taken tribal art out of its museum box and given it a contemporary feel and relevance”. “I think their philosophy can be summed up in two of their books: The London Jungle Book and That’s How I See Things, both by Bhajju Shyam,” says Roy. That’s How I See Things is a humorous story of an artist who sees the world differently. “Both these books, especially The London Jungle Book, showed people that western modernism wasn’t the only way to look at the world.”
All this in just over two decades: Tara Books was founded in 1994 by Wolf along with five co-founders—all six are listed as owners though she likes to believe the ownership vests with the larger community of writers, artists and designers. And as the army of collaborators has grown, so has the publishing house’s repertoire: What began with picture books for children has now expanded to include novels such as The To-let House by Daisy Hasan, which was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize. However, it’s the hand-made visual books, with stories told and illustrated by tribal artists, which hold pride of place.
In the bookshop, close to where Manivannan sits, it catches my eye. A large black book, with a kind of deer standing in front of a tree featured on its cover. Titled The Night Life of Trees, it has been illustrated and written on pitch-black pages and it looks to answer one simple question: What happens in the forest after darkness falls? Created by three Gond artists—Ram Singh Urveti, Durga Bai and Bhajju Shyam—the trees featured are considered sacred by the Gonds due to their importance to human sustenance. This collaboration was of Shyam’s making. “They had stories,” he says of his co-creators, “more than even I did.”
Like Shyam, many of the artists stay in Chennai as part of Tara Books’s residency programme. Book Building’s top floor has a two-bedroom apartment that serves as a home for resident writers, artists or designers for varying periods of time. One such collaborator was Jonathan Yamakami, a graphic designer from São Paulo, Brazil, who worked on two books during his time at Tara Books.
I found myself in a staring contest with the peacock on the cover of his I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail. “Ram Singh [Gond artist] had the ingenious idea of alternating black and white backgrounds for the book,” says Yamakami, whose job was to marry the art with the text and visualise the final product. The book is an illustrative interpretation of a 17th century English ‘trick poem’ by Ram Singh Urveti.
The 23 staffers hail from villages surrounding Chennai and live in accommodation provided by Tara Books. “Everyone is trained to do both printing and binding,” says Manikandan. They are currently binding pages of a book titled Creation. It is another Bhajju Shyam collaboration with Tara Books, and dwells on the myths of origin and the ending of the cosmos according to Gond folklore, through exquisite illustrations and an accompanying textual narrative. Creation, which has been translated into four languages, is currently being printed in Japanese.
The simplicity of the screen-printing process belies the expertise required to create these books, particularly with the kind of consistency and speed that Tara Books achieves. By its own estimates, 25,000 copies are published every year. “We work from 9 am to 6 pm,” says Manikandan. It isn’t all work, though. They also spend their downtime together. “In fact, we’re all planning to either go to the beach or watch a movie this weekend,” he grins.
What helps is a real passion for the work they do. Manikandan points to one of his personal favourites, Waterlife, on display at the workshop. It has vibrant illustrations of sea creatures by Rambharos Jha, a Mithila artist from Madhubani in Bihar.
Jha has only seen many of these creatures in pictures, but you couldn’t tell that from the intricacy in his paintings. Bulgarian writer and blogger Maria Popova, in her review of the book on her blog, BrainPickings.org, goes so far as to write, “(Waterlife) is, without a shadow of exaggeration, the most beautiful book I’ve ever laid my eyes on.”
Though most of the artists don’t live in Chennai, they “often visit us at the workshop,” says Manikandan. “Bhajju Shyam’s been coming here for many years now.” What’s odd is that while he speaks Tamil and a little bit of English, Bhajju speaks Hindi. How, then, do they converse? “I try a little Hindi,” he smiles. “But he understands me, yes.”
And he doesn’t need words. The lines speak, and they use a beautiful language, exotic to Indians and foreigners alike.
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(This story appears in the July-Aug 2015 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)