Interview-Tara Books- Mr 'A'- Hand Screen Printed Books
Here at www.yourssustainably.com we are such huge fans of Tara Books; the combination of stunning Indian art, verse and hand screen printing result in books to be enjoyed and treasured.
Tara Books are a worker-owned co-operative based in Chennai, India. Founded by Gita Wolf and V.Geetha almost twenty years ago, they now publish visual titles for both children and adults, and have become particularly well-known for their books made entirely by hand.
In their Book Craft workshop, which is run using fair trade ethics, each and every one of their handmade books is hand silkscreen printed and then hand-bound. Since its foundation Tara Books have produced over 200,000 books, which require 12.5 million impressions, or individual ‘pulls’ in the silkscreen printing process for each colour.
Here the founder of the Book Craft workshop Arumugam, or ‘Mr A’ as he is affectionately known, speaks about artisanship, living as a cooperative and the importance of learning to cook …
How did your Book Craft workshop begin?
I started my own screen-printing work while I was studying, and working in a theatre, as it was very flexible. I kept everything for this printing in a trunk under my bed. It was a way of earning extra money.
In 1994, Gita Wolf got her business cards from us in the very early days of Tara. Soon after, she asked us to screen-print a couple of pages from the book The Very Hungry Lion, so that she could take a proof-copy to the Frankfurt Book Fair. At the fair a Canadian publisher absolutely loved it, and decided that they wanted to publish the book – but entirely handmade! And they wanted 8000 copies! Gita said yes, so we had to make that happen somehow. It was daunting at first but I rented a place, took on more workers, and learnt a lot by trial and error.
So where did you pick up your management skills? Being at the head of a cooperative of people must be tricky at times?
I would say that it was when I was working at a hotel. There was such a mixture of people there – when I was not serving, I worked as the bill-master on the till, so I would see everybody come and go, and some of them would tell me their whole life stories. Here I got life experience, learnt about people, and also how to treat others. Because of this I remember what it was like to be starting from nothing.
This concept of living and working together: what made you set up the workshop like this?
In a way wanted to create a village within the city – the idea of supporting each other and living communally was something I valued from my own childhood.
It must be challenging to work this way – are there any rules that you all have to live by?The most important rule is that everyone must learn how to cook! Often boys don’t learn from their mothers – it’s just not the tradition. It’s also very important that everyone takes a turn and does equal work. With the jobs there mustn’t be a hierarchy, even for the boss.
How long does it take to teach someone to produce a book after they first arrive?
The first thing that we have to teach is quality consciousness. You have to know what clear printing looks like, and care about the result.
The process of teaching the basic practical skills takes at least three months, as the person tries all the different jobs, gets a feel for them, and finds where their talent lies. But no one ever does the same job all the time anyway – everybody swaps around when they get bored or tired.
What is the relationship that the people who work at the workshop have with the books that they produce?
This is a really important question. I think that everyone in the workshop is aware of how important their work is, and we all appreciate seeing the finished results. Some people see the job as a stopgap: they want to go on to study, or do other things. But others have been at the workshop for a long time, as long as 14 years, and have become real artisans.
Most of the books are in English, and a lot of the men do read and understand the language. We’ve been having some classes in the evening, running some language tapes, so that people who want to learn have a chance.
And what about your work – what gives you the most satisfaction? Are there any particular projects that are close to your heart?
The projects that stand out for me are the ones that are challenging, where we solve the problem in our own way. Once the lines in an artwork were so fine that it was extremely difficult to expose them for screen printing. For one book – Antigone – the quantities of paint were so huge that we needed to use cricket bats to do the mixing. Some projects have so many colours that it is difficult to separate them. Other books have an incredible number of colour impressions – the most has been 127! We learn from each experience.
You can see more about the Tara Books printing process in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=om6i3enGZ8c&feature=plcp