Twenty years of Karadi Tales
The storytelling bear is out of his teens, but still as popular and as relevant as ever
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A fuzzy brown bear with twinkling eyes and a graying goatee, wearing an olive muffler and jaunty Nehru cap, peeks at me from beneath a bright red fire hydrant mounted on the mottled walls of the landing, and offers me a welcoming smile. Predictably enough, Karadi is everywhere at the quaint, little Karadi Tales Company office in Adyar, Chennai. A large cut-out of the genial story-teller hovers over a child (bear) engrossed in a book in the reception area, shelves of books and CDs of his stories are crammed into the same space, his foot prints are embedded on the glass door and the walls of co-founder and publishing director of Karadi Tales Company, Shobha Viswanath’s room.
It has been 20 years since Karadi—which means bear in Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam—came into being, the brain-child of C.P. Viswanath and his wife, Shobha.
“My son Kaushik was born in the US and he grew up listening to audio books. It was such an independent activity. He would listen to the same story over and over again till he knew the last sentence of every page of the book,” says Shobha Viswanath, who believes that this exposure to audio books was a huge catalyst in making her son a voracious reader.
When the couple returned to India however, they could not find audio books of this sort, with Indian content for children. So they decided to create their own.
“We started off as Sky Music Private Limited—that was the name of our company when we originally registered it,” she laughs. The company had many ambitions; “One of the key things we wanted to do was publish music. Under that we thought we would begin with the audio books as we saw a gap in the market,” she says.
Thus was born Karadi in 1996, a wise, old raconteur who assumed the form of a bear because, “Even though the brown bear is integral to Indian forestry we have very few stories about him in our myths and folk- tales,” smiles Viswanath, adding, “So I decided to make him the story-teller and he is now present in every story.”
They began with retelling of those classic animal fables—the Panchatantra and the Jataka Tales, “We created an audio book that was very different from audio books that existed for children even abroad. The character actors gave voices and there were full blown situational songs in the middle like Bollywood,” she says, recalling how at that point the recording was not digital but analogue. “We had to rehearse the story before going to the studio. There were no auto-corrections, pitch corrections or multiple takes, you had to get it right,” she says.
Which is why, she says, the character actor had to be an immensely talented one. “Naseeruddin Shah or Girish Karnad or Javed Jaffrey,” says Viswanath. “They were theatre actors as well and knew how to act with their voices.”
Sky Music Private Limited soon became Karadi Tales.
“There was such a disconnect between the name and the product at that point so we had to change the name of the company” she says, pointing out, rather elatedly, that Karadi Tales is an anagram of Read as I Talk, “It was as if the universe was pointing me in the right direction,” she grins.
And she hasn’t looked back. In the last twenty years, Karadi’s delightful cache of stories has taken him a long way. The publishing house boasts of over 60 titles today and has experimented with an innovative range of books including biographies for young adults, audio books, finely crafted picture books and tactile books for the visually impaired. It has put together a theatrical production based on these stories in association with Chennai-based theater group Evam and is planning another. There has also been a foray into language learning programs: in 2012, the Karadi Path Education Company was formed which uses Karadi tales content to help non-native speakers of English pick up the language.
“We call it the mother tongue approach,” Viswanath says, adding that the learning which happens through storytelling is much better than most traditional approaches to English learning.
A regular visitor at book fairs both in India and abroad, Viswanath firmly believes that, “People are paying more attention to indigenous children’s books,” adding that there has been an improvement in the quality of Indian writing in English.
“If our literature has to travel to the west, especially English speaking countries, it has to be of a certain quality. We have entire book sections of Indian writing in English today,” she says. Today the Karadi Path Education Company has reached nearly 5,00,000 students through 1500 schools and 6000 teachers.
She agrees that technology has considerably altered the ways books are published and consumed, but Karadi Tales has managed to hold its own in this changed eco-system. “We are in the process of creating an app for Karadi stories that will let us access books and videos,” she says. “We also have e-versions of the books with audio embedded in it.” Despite the pervasiveness of technology, she refuses to believe that a book will ever be a superfluous thing.
“Of course you can download a book on kindle or buy an ebook, these mediums exist parallel to books but it cannot replace it. Within my time as a publisher, we have moved from a cassette to a CD to a USB. But what has remained the same are the books,” she says.
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