Once upon a time, long before the pandemic drove adults up the wall as they tried to keep children occupied, three visionary individuals came together to create a remarkable platform, far ahead of its time, for little Indians. It was 1996 and engineer C.P. Viswanath and his wife Shobha Viswanath had recently returned after a few years in the US to raise their son, Kaushik, in an Indian milieu. “But soon we realised that upper middle-class Indians were mostly devoted to Western materials,” recalls C.P. Viswanath. As a toddler, Kaushik loved the audiobooks by Disney, mostly adapted from its cult movies. So they decided to create a similar product, based on Indian themes.
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Teaming up with Narayan Parasuram, a trained Carnatic musician like C.P. Viswanath, the Viswanaths launched Karadi Tales, based in Chennai, a unique venture in Indian publishing at the time. Instead of the printed book alone, it combined storytelling, visuals, music and song. “We started with retelling tales from Jataka and Panchatantra,” says Shobha, who wrote these early books. The stories were accompanied by a dramatised audio reading by a voice actor. “It was only during the 'Will You Read With Me?' series that we began to look for other writers,” she adds.
As Karadi Tales celebrates its 25th birthday on 27 June, children’s publishing in India is teeming with writers, illustrators and creators of all kinds. “I get some 10 manuscripts in my inbox every day now,” Shobha says. But the cuddly bear Karadi, the company mascot—karadi in Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada means “bear”—has kept generations of Indian children in thrall, long before interactive digital apps and OTT platforms became ubiquitous.
“Karadi Tales was providentially designed for the digital space,” says Parasuram, the musical mind behind the narrations. “The music we create is not meant to be a background score alone,” he adds emphatically. “Rather, it exists symbiotically along with the visuals and the voice.” The first book Karadi Tales published, The Blue Jackal, was an adaptation of a Panchatantra story by Shobha and narrated by actor Naseeruddin Shah. “We didn’t approach him merely because he was a big name but because he’s an excellent voice actor,” Parasuram says. “A child isn’t going to listen to a story simply because a famous person is telling it.”
The three founders, novices at the time, printed a first run of 12,000 copies. Their distributor, while impressed by the product, was hopeful of selling 3,000 at a stretch. “Thankfully, we sold off in about eight months,” says C.P. Viswanath. The novelty of the idea—along with the backing of celebrity actors—won over adults. As for their intended audience, the stories proved to be “sticky”—children listened to them again and again.
Fortuitously, getting to work with the best in the business wasn’t a huge challenge either. Since its inception, Karadi Tales has featured a range of voices—Girish Karnad, Saeed Jaffrey, R. Madhavan, Nandita Das, Vidya Balan, Konkona Sensharma, Soha Ali Khan, Jaaved Jaaferi, Rahul Dravid, the list goes on. A few didn’t work out, like Aamir Khan. “By then my hair had turned grey and I think I had lost a bit of my charm,” Shobha laughs. But jokes apart, even after a quarter of a century, the list remains strikingly robust, with all its titles in print. “In a sense, we don’t really have a ‘backlist’,” Shobha says.
This is a major success story, by any measure, especially when you factor in Karadi Tales licensing some of its titles in territories across the world and, more recently, to OTT platforms. Yet it’s also far from a conventional, or predictable, journey. The cost of producing a Karadi Tales title—which involves live musicians, not canned soundtrack—is high. So are the editorial standards. From the approval of a story to rounds of editing, conceptualisation and production, it takes eight-nine months of continuous work. A lean annual list of six-eight thoughtfully curated titles is the outcome of such rigour.
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Over the years, children’s publishing worldwide has taken ever bolder and deliberate strides to becoming inclusive—not only by working with writers and illustrators from diverse backgrounds but also by engaging with topics like caste, disability, gender and sexuality once deemed fit to be kept out of the purview of young minds. “A few years ago, a journalist had called to ask how many of our writers are Dalit, and I honestly had no clue,” says Shobha. “I look at a manuscript purely to judge if it suits our publishing agenda.”
That said, many of the best-loved stories from Karadi Tales touch on subjects—from the adventures of a farmer to differently abled characters—that may not be obviously familiar to urban middle-class children. “I will look at any well-written, sensitively told story that comes into my inbox,” Shobha says. “Personally, I don’t want writers who are preachy, out there to teach a lesson, or interested in anthropomorphic situations, like pencils and erasers talking to each other!”
Although Karadi Tales set out to impart joy and curiosity to Indian children, a goal it steadfastly holds on to, the bulk of its revenue comes from its educational venture Karadi Path, launched in 2010. “It emerged from the fact that many schools were already using our books and music as pedagogical tools,” says C.P. Viswanath. “So we started creating customised packs for classrooms.” The demand caught up as a cross-section of educators, from teachers at elite schools to those who worked with children in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, began to appreciate the integrative approach.
Instead of teaching English through textbooks, Karadi Path adopts communication cues, tied to everyday realities, as its pedagogical tool. “It looks at the Indian multilingual experience as the basis for learning a language,” says C.P. Viswanath. The idea is to create an ecosystem where a new language can be easily absorbed—the fact that the voice actors speak with a neutral Indian accent, not foreign-sounding British or American ones, about stuff like idli and dhokla, makes the learning process far less intimidating.
An extension of the Karadi Path project is Karadi Rhymes, performed by singer Usha Uthup, which provides a refreshing antidote to the colonial hangover of Twinkle, twinkle little star and Jack and Jill went up the hill by creating quintessentially Indian rhymes, such as Just Like You, which is as good as an anthem for a generation of school children.
With its digital footprint from the start, it was relatively easier for Karadi Tales to pivot to the online space during the rough months of the pandemic. “We started a Katha With Karadi series last year, with writers, musicians and storytellers participating, and drawing huge audiences,” says Shobha. “We also witnessed a boom in sales directly from our website and other online platforms. I, for one, do not miss chasing the distributors for money!”