Little things mean a lot

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  • Published 20.07.08

Little magazines, a forum for experimental and alternative literature in the vernacular that may or may not have much commercial value, prove that popular phrases like “Less is more” and “small is beautiful” do contain a grain of truth. Contemporaneity and creativity are the two salient features of little magazines that were born in the early years of 20th century, and whose glory days were in the years between the two world wars.

They are typical products of an age of innocence that raised the banner of revolt against marketing forces. Ironically, such is the power of little magazines that now, in spite of declining readership and the dearth of good writers, some of the best writing in Bengali sees light of day in these publications.

Poet and novelist Nabarun Bhattacharya says in the late 1960s it was possible for writers to become well known almost overnight but now many of those little magazines have disappeared. Samaresh Basu was discovered in a little magazine. These have short lifespans as editors age with time and give up, and readership shows no sign of increasing.

Bhattacharya is quite brutal in his stock-taking. “It is next to impossible to get hold of quality writing. One actually has to specify one’s requirements. But writing for little magazines does bring great joy. One feels the joy of freedom,” says the author of Herbert and creator of the delightfully subversive Fatarus.

Perhaps to share this liberating feeling and prolong their lifespan, a library meant exclusively for little magazines has been operating since 1978 from the ground floor of an old dwelling house at 18M Tamer Lane off College Street. The library comprises two claustrophobic rooms whose walls are lined with racks chock-a-block with these magazines. The man behind this enterprise is Sandip Dutta.

Dutta had outlined the history of little magazines in an article published some time ago. The first voice of protest was that the young Pramatha Choudhury’s Sabuj Patra that spoke out against conventional thinking and large-format magazines that depended on advertisements. That was in 1914, when a host of little magazines was being brought out from Europe and the USA as well.

Sabuj Patra cleared the path for the appearance of Kallol in 1923 which ushered in a new era of writing in Bengali. Edited by Dineshchandra Das and Gokulchandra Nag outcasts and marginalised people found a place in the pages of Kallol. But this little magazine, too, was lost in the crowd of similar publications like Sanghati (1923), Kalikalam (1926) and Pragati (1927) which were progressive in their thinking and against conservatism, a mentality typical of the post-Rabindranath era.

Kallol wound up in 1930, preparing the ground for the birth of Parichay edited by Sudhindranath Datta the next year. He continued to publish the little magazine for the next 10 years. It had its own stable of writers, and true to its name, introduced Bengali-speaking readers to the latest ideas in currency in the West on philosophy, science, literature and the arts.

Subsequently, the Communist Party’s publication, International, bought it, and it is still published. Its contemporaries were Bangalakshmi, Nabayug, Dhumketu, Nachghar, Jayashree and Bangashree.

Purbasha used to be published from a tea shop located in a town in Tripura 1932 onwards. Ajay Bhattacharjee, Sanjay Bhattacharjee and Satyaprasad Dutta had taken the initiative to publish it. Manik Bandopadhyay had published his Padma Nadir Majhi in this little magazine when it was rejected by others. Literature, music, art, economics, science, religion, history…everything was discussed in this little magazine. Purbasha was an important little magazine of those times and so were Satabdi edited by Biram Mukhopadhyay and Bhabishyat edited by Subho Tagore. Both were of 1934 vintage.

The next year saw the publication of Kabita edited initially by Buddhadeb Basu, Premendra Mitra and Samar Sen, and subsequently only by Basu. Kabita was a new voice as it was exclusively meant for Bengali poetry. The poetry of Jibanananda Das, Sukanta Bhattacharya and Samar Sen added a new dimension to Bengali poetry.

Chaturanga edited by Buddhadeb Basu and Humayun Kabir came out in 1938. The 1940s were the year of World War II when Left-inclined little magazines like Arani, Samasamayik, Galpabharati, Uttarsuri and Bartaman came out. Writers like Premendra Mitra and Gourangaprasad Basu also edited little magazines, and Chatushkon, the brainchild of Shibaprasad Chakrabarty and Sunil Pal Roy, both deceased, is still published.

Many little magazines folded up in the 1950s but Krittibas edited by Ananda Bagchi, Sunil Gangopadhyay and Deepak Majumdar was a significant publication. The 1960s were turbulent times when a spate of little magazines like Uchcharan, Darshak, Anik, Nandimukh and Kabita Parichay saw the light of day. They soon died a natural death, although Kabita Saptahiki edited by poet Shakti Chattopadhyay was alive a little longer.

The 1970s ushered in harder times, and to cut production costs, mini magazines seemed to be the solution.

In 1976, Calcutta Book Fair started and little magazines participated in these. This was the first time that a library of little magazines opened. Thousands of little magazines with innovative and sometimes over-the-top titles to publicise the supposed originality and unconventionality of their contents have been published down the last three decades. In spite of the challenge posed by the media onslaught and dwindling readership they are still going strong.

Anushtup edited by Anil Acharya that can boast essays by likes of Amiya Bagchi, Partha Chatterjee, Ashish Nandy, Shankha Ghosh, Gautam Bhadra, Hemanga Biswas and Ranajit Guha has survived 43 long years. “Anushtup’s circulation may have dropped from 2,500-2,000 to 1,000 but special issues have a greater demand,” says Acharya.

Sandip Dutta says the library opened on June 23, 1978. When he was himself a student he realised that even National Library has no place for little magazines. After it opened, he would persuade readers who browsed at College Street book stalls to visit the library. He has held many exhibitions and organised literary meets to publicise and promote little magazines. He has collected 50,000 magazines, including many rare numbers.

Of late, the library, formally named Little Magazine Library O Gabeshana Kendra, has received a grant of Rs 5 lakh to digitise its collection. Sabuj Patra, Bangadarshan, Chaturanga, Prama, Ekshan and Parichay have already been digitised.

So what is the relevance of little magazines today? Nabarun Bhattacharya sums it up: Slowly literature is becoming part of the entertainment industry. Little magazines have a place in this scenario. They still bring out serious articles researched with rare devotion. Nowhere else can authors write independently. And most important, poets still have a place here.