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Bear necessities

Shobha Vishwanath | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on December 09, 2016
Homegrown songs: Usha Uthup performing at a Karadi Tales event in Coimbatore in 2013. Uthup is the voice of Karadi Rhymes. Photo: M Periasamy

Homegrown songs: Usha Uthup performing at a Karadi Tales event in Coimbatore in 2013. Uthup is the voice of Karadi Rhymes. Photo: M Periasamy   -  The Hindu

It has been two full decades since Karadi Tales, one of India’s most respected publishers for children, opened for business

I recently met a woman at a clothing store. When we got talking, she asked me what I did. I casually mentioned that I worked in a children’s publishing house called Karadi Tales. She immediately started gushing about how her children had grown up on Karadi Tales, and then began to sing songs from our first books. This happens a lot.

Twenty years ago, if you’d told me this is how it would be, I wouldn’t have believed it. It started out with a germ of an idea. In 1996, when Viswanath Parasuram, Narayan Parasuram and Anooradha Sriram started Sky Music India Private Limited, none of us had any idea what we were getting into. At that time audio books were non-existent in India.

Back when we lived in Michigan, I remember how my son gravitated towards audio books. It was such a nifty way of introducing kids to the pleasures of the written word. Yet, I had a difficult time finding any that came from the pantheon of Indian folk tales and mythology. Even though our country has a great oral tradition, we weren’t using technology to bring those stories to our children.

Inspired by Winnie the Pooh and the idea of a grandfatherly bear recounting stories to children, I rewrote two Panchatantra classics — ‘The Blue Jackal’ and ‘The Foolish Lion’. Next, we needed to think of a way of enhancing the audio experience. Thankfully, Viswanath hails from a family of musicians, which meant that we were musically sorted. We needed a voice for the bear, and what a voice we got! Getting Naseeruddin Shah to narrate the stories was our real casting coup. All it took in those early days of the internet was a handwritten letter.

Our debut package with the two stories had a first print run of 12,500 copies. In retrospect, that seems audacious for a novice enterprise that was just testing the waters in the children’s publishing market. Miraculously, we sold out in six months. In its early days, before we could harness the power of social media, Karadi Tales was primarily a word-of-mouth success. The only way in which we knew we were engaging with people were the hundreds of postcards we received from parents all over the country.

For me, it was important that the stories our children get to read reflect our cultural milieu. One day, I heard kids in a school singing ‘Rain rain go away’. It suddenly dawned on me that our rhymes itself have been transplanted from one cultural context to another and have lost all meaning. In no part of this country do we celebrate the lack of rains. We then came up with Karadi Rhymes. The tunes were sung by the spirited Usha Uthup and the series became one of our top-selling releases.

Another milestone was when we adapted APJ Abdul Kalam’s wonderful biography, Wings of Fire, under the Charkha series. Girish Karnad, who provided the voice of Kalam, came on board, even though he disagreed with Kalam’s missile policies, because he was so moved by the script. Even Kalam told me that the audio book provoked strong emotional reactions in a room full of Russian delegates.

All these validations were important for the company in its initial years. In fact, it was keeping our ear to the ground that allowed us to evolve. It was a visit to Dharavi in the early 2000s that set in motion the formation of Karadi Path. A few NGOs were using our books for language inculcation and we noticed the immense potential in using our books to make English a more accessible language in schools. Today Karadi Path’s language acquisition programme is in over 1,400 schools across the country.

A risk in trying to condense our company’s history is looking at the past 20 years through a purely nostalgic lens. It wasn’t always easy. We had to move away from audio cassettes to CDs, and with the advent of digital platforms, we wondered if we would become obsolete. In 2010, we became a part of ACK Media, a partnership that came with its own set of challenges. But challenges brought with them new opportunities.

We started producing picture books and selling foreign rights in international book fairs. Also, once ACK Media was bought by Future Group, we wrestled our way back to being independent.

That can-do spirit that we started with has remained a part of our company culture, which is why I never feel like we can coast on our success.

After laying low for a couple of years, 2016 almost feels like a year when Karadi has returned from hibernation. It’s important to me that our stories are not only timeless but also progressive. We have stories that challenge gender norms, deal with parental loss and rail against discrimination.

In the future, when a person walks up to me and says that they read Karadi Tales as a child and were introducing them to their children, that’s the day I will feel like we have truly planted ourselves in India’s great tradition of storytelling.

Shobha Viswanath is Publishing Director at Karadi Tales, Chennai

Published on December 09, 2016
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