Frontline Volume 22 - Issue 13, Jun 18 - Jul 01, 2005
India's National Magazine
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SPOTLIGHT

Journals of resurgence

ANNIE ZAIDI
in New Delhi

A deluge of magazines spices up the literary arena in Hindi.


SOMETHING vital could be turning over in the innards of Hindi literary publishing.

It may not be manifested in the form of publishers' queues at writers' doors or millions of editions of literary work, but the significant fact is that there could be anywhere between 500 and 1,000 Hindi journals being published across the country.

The first admission, of course, is that there is little data available. Some place the figure lower, at 400, some estimate that it lies between 600 and 700, while others say it is 1,000. Sudhish Pachauri, Professor of Hindi at Delhi University, who is also an established media critic in the Hindi-speaking world, puts the figure at "anywhere between 700 and 1,000 journals. Each town, even the B centres, has a literary magazine. These are very small-scale, and even national journals cannot boast of a circulation of more than 7,000, on an average. This is not a great number, considering that the Hindi belt's literacy figures have increased."

However, no one denies the fact that new journals have cranked up the writing machinery and set out to fill up a literary-cultural vacuum.

"It is a golden time, in terms of numbers. There is now some surplus money in Hindi- speaking societies and so there is hardly a small town in the Hindi-speaking belt that doesn't have a magazine. Despite this, there is more writing being produced that can't be absorbed," says Ajit Rai, a writer and journalist.

Off the tip of his tongue, he reels off the names of the largest publications: "Institutional ones include the Sahitya Academy's Samkalin Bhartiya Sahitya and Indian Literature in English, Aajkal, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry magazine, and Rang Prasang from the National School of Drama [NSD]. Amongst personal ventures, Hans is the largest. Tadbhav is the most recent commercial success. Vartman Sahitya has a long history of successful editing by Vibhuti Nayaran Rai and then Kunwar Pal Singh. Pahal is the stalwart, from Jabalpur, edited by Gyan Ranjan, who is also the convener of an association of such literary magazines. Vasudha, from Bhopal, is a quarterly with the great legacy of the Progressive Writers Association behind it. There is Sakshatkar too in Bhopal, which had a great legacy, but ran into rough weather when the BJP government came to power in Madhya Pradesh."


Besides these, there are journals such as Aadhi Zameen, Sanchetna, Dharti, Ashay, Alav, Abhivyakti, Sambhav, Sahitya Amrit, Sambodhan, Swadhinta, Samay Majra, Katha Kram, and Golconda Darpan. Some are devoted entirely to short fiction or literary criticism, while some focus on poetry exclusively.

The lines have also been blurring - between literary and civil liberties magazines and leftist literature. Apparently writers, journalists and free-thinkers have collaborated and supported each other.

Many of the publications are struggling financially, and amongst the rare self-reliant ones, Tadbhav is a success story. Published from Lucknow, it is one of the few known to have respectable profit margins despite its small circulation.

Its editor, Akhilesh, says: "I work full-time on this magazine. When I began it in 1999, I had some support; then I just worked very hard. Now, it is a quarterly and sells 3,000 copies."

Tadbhav is also a landmark in the sense that it is one of the most popular e-zines in Hindi. The website hosts most of the content online and it has already gathered more than 36,000 readers.

One reason for the proliferation of journals is the lack of creative democracy. Debate on socio-cultural issues was stifled or ignored over the last decade, and free thinkers began to carve out their own niches, after the closure of several magazines in the 1980s.

There were Dharmyug and Sarika, from The Times of India stable, and saptahik Hindustan, from The Hindustan Times group. These magazines may not have been literary, in a strict sense, but had allowed for new literature and literary debate between their pages.

Akhilesh believes that his magazine is popular in part because it allows a democracy of thought and creation. "The vacuum was created by big newspapers bowing to capital forces. Writing communities rose to the challenge, with small entrepreneurial attempts. This may not be a revolution, but it is a definite protest," he said.

Sudhish Pichauri recalls that until the 1980s, circulation figures were impressive. "Dharmayug sold at least three lakh copies, Hindustan at least 1.5 lakhs and Sarika at least 50,000. But they were all shut down. Today, Katha Desh cannot sell more than 10,000 copies. There is also the distinctly leftist Udbhavna, which may print only 5,000 copies but accepts no advertisements; it has a dedicated clientele," he said.

What is significant is that most journals operate on shoestring budgets. Often, they have zero infrastructure, with the editors doubling up as publishers and with a staff of two or three.

Rang Prasang is one such, despite being government-funded. Editor Prayag Shukla agrees that most ventures are pushed by one-man armies, many of them journalists committed to the cause of literature, like himself. "When Rang Prasang started, we didn't even want pictorials. I think the reader needs to be encouraged to absorb the text, not just look at pictures. Also, since NSD has students from all linguistic backgrounds, we focus on literature from disparate states and not just the Hindi belt. Our canvas remains pan-Indian."

Each issue of Rang Prasang is almost a book, as it carries at least one new play or translation. "We are also trying to create a new body of literature. If we have 18 issues, it means that we have published 18 new dramas," says Shukla.

Rajendra Yadav, well-known writer and editor of Hans, recalls, "Chand was a very popular radical journal in the 1930s. It was associated with names like Mahadevi Verma, Bhagat Singh and Chandra Shekhar Azad. There were numbers (special editions) that were illegal to possess, and led to six months' jail during the British Raj. Chand had a circulation of 18,000 in pre-independence India. There is nothing comparable for any journal now."

Hans was started by Premchand, and Rajendra Yadav re-started it in 1986 as a monthly. It has now touched the 17,000 mark. "Small numbers are not unique to India. Even abroad, literary journals rarely cross the 10,000 mark. For instance, The Paris Review, based in Paris and published by the Aga Khan Trust, after 40 years of publication touched the 11,000 mark: 17,000 would be considered a landmark, even by international standards," said Rajendra Yadav.

He further believes that a popular literary magazine must be known as much for good literature as for controversy. "Some people say that Hans is more political than literary. But it is not. Actually, it is about intellectuals who write about social concerns. We challenge norms about language, sex, politics, fundamentalism and so on. Hans has suffered much abuse. But it is alive and kicking because it has caused so much debate in mainstream media."

The other advantage of the growth of little and literary journals in Hindi is that they act as a bridge between regional literature. Rajendra Yadav says that Hindi journals are like a central bank. "We translate work, and often we find that a Malayalam story we've just published, has been taken up and published in Bangla and Punjabi magazines. They are also picked up by Pakistani magazines, which are very pro-active. Hans has never differentiated between Hindi and Urdu for we believe it is one language with two scripts. But there are magazines, like Shesh, which focus on Pakistani literature. Bridges are being built. So, despite constraints, there are rewards."

About the flood of new journals, Rajendra Yadav says, "I see at least seven different magazines on my desk every day. We don't know how many are out there. Some are institutional. Some emerge from universities, embassies and some are house magazines from corporate bodies. They usually tend to be conservative. But anyway, magazines don't have to be officially `literary' to include literary concerns. Span and Playboy have wonderful writer sections."

Writers believe that there are many more journals than are necessary perhaps, but they agree that since many of them are localised, they remain relevant.

The causes for this proliferation are diverse. Some believe that the localisation of the little magazines is important to decentralise literature.

Pichauri thinks that, apart from the socio-cultural vacuum, the growing unemployment among the educated is another cause. "In small towns, these literary attempts are also providing some sort of work. Most towns have at least a college, a law court, salaried professionals and intellectuals. If they are underemployed, they devote themselves to literary activities," he says.

Others think that the journals are an expression of social dissent. Rajendra Yadav believes that the growing fundamentalism of the last two decades has had an instrumental role. "The term `cultural nationalism' was being thrown at our faces. It was an attempt to Hinduise the nation in beautiful words."

It is significant then that whether or not these new magazines measure up in terms of quality of content, 90 per cent of them are pro-women, pro-Dalit, pro-secularism, pro-Left and progressive, with plenty of space for alternative discourse.

When asked whether there were right-wing literary magazines in the competition, Rajendra Yadav guffaws: "But all right-thinking writers are with the Left, you see! The far-Right wingers don't have any good writers or intellectuals because most creative people are free-thinking and pro-oppressed."

One cause of concern for the industry is that funding sources are not entirely above board. Editors often depend on government and corporate sectors. Media-watchers believe that there is actually a crisis of sorts, with bureaucrats developing literary ambitions and supporting editors directly or indirectly - with subscriptions, or by sponsoring whole editions or pressuring businessmen to advertise, which is why one might find incongruous advertisements from metal works or transport companies.

Ideological hangups about money are a thing of the past. There is money floating around and it is being accepted, regardless of where it comes from.

Rai says, "Earlier everyone was bearing huge losses. Now magazines are breaking even. Funding sources have increased. There is a growing section of writers in the bureaucracy, the police, retired civil servant, teachers and so on. They may not be brilliant authors but they want to support magazines, and write for them."

He adds, laughing, "If only we had more politicians with literary ambitions, we'd never have money problems."

On transparency, Pichauri cites the example of Sabyasachi, who edited Uttarardh until 1985. "When he closed it down, he declared his own bank balance to show that he was in debt already. Now no editor can afford to explain his bank balance or declare his real print orders. There are no registrations with ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulation). There are no internal audits. And there are no qualms."

Qualms or not, the quality of production has definitely got better. With the costs of printing going down, the magazines look glossier. Most have four-colour covers, instead of black and whites, and use art paper. The binding and design are better thanks to new technology and the shelf-life of the final product is longer.

Distribution remains a problem, though. Earlier, fewer copies were printed and then were circulated, hand to hand, amongst writers' communities. They were lost to the public, who could never find them at news-stands. Slowly, distribution channels are being built, but few editors have the skills to market their journals, nor the wherewithal to hire marketing teams.

The same pattern is being repeated, albeit on a smaller canvas, for other Indian languages. India also has a few literary journals in English, such as The Little Magazine, Book Review, Biblio and Sarai, and a few others that straddle art, culture, literature, activism and civil society concerns. Chief among them is The Little Magazine, which sells approximately 5,000 copies and is fairly sustainable. It operates on the same principle of a tiny staff and a wide network of contributors, and suffers from the same limitation of narrow distribution channels.

Pichauri believes there is another crisis in Hindi literature - the crisis of content and communication. "Newspapers, through literature supplements have managed to create `light readers', who may read short stories but nothing that's too long. There's a huge `lowest common denominator' readership, but the Hindi belt cannot yet sustain serious literature, because this `light reader' is not growing."

Part of the reason is, perhaps, that writers themselves have failed to create their readership. The social context has changed, but litterateurs have failed to keep pace with mass needs and aspirations. Pichauri goes as far as to say that new Hindi writers are narcissists. "They write about personal conflict, or about old conflicts that remain unresolved. They write because they want to be writers. They want the glamour, the awards and the `intellectual' stamp."

Despite their swelling ranks, little and literary magazines in India are no match for the thriving literary landscape abroad. Toronto, for instance, boasts close to 3,000 little magazines. If one city, in a country with a much smaller population than India's can support so many, there is clearly scope for more progressive ventures, in Hindi and other languages at home.

So, do the literary magazines have a future?

Pichauri says, "The trend will continue. The numbers will increase. But I cannot see the big idea that could launch them into the big league. Without planning, marketing and distribution networks, they will simply fill a cultural-literary vacuum, on a voluntary and unorganised basis."

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