Tucked away in an unremarkable apartment building in Heidelberg is one of Germany’s most remarkable publishing companies, Draupadi Verlag. Founded in 2003 by Christian Weiss, a man with a passion for India, it has created a place for literatures from the Indian subcontinent to flower on German soil.
Christian Weiss was born in a suburb of Stuttgart in the late 1950s at a time when India was just beginning to appear on the German literary horizon. He was fortunate as a boy to have had a piano teacher, a cultured lady with an interest in Indian philosophy, who had visited India and was a great admirer of Rabindranath Tagore’s. It was her descriptions of her experiences there that first made him aware of a country far beyond the confines of his suburban world.
Yet, India did not assume personal importance for him until he went to Heidelberg as a student of German literature and history. It was there that a series of happy accidents led him on his long road to India and Draupadi Verlag. In 1983 he happened to meet a Bengali gentleman who invited him to join a study group that he was planning to take to Kolkata. To make the most of this journey, he advised the participants to learn some Bengali before their departure.
With three months still to go, Christian Weiss signed up for Bengali classes at the South Asia Institute of Heidelberg University. His teacher there was Alokeranjan Dasgupta, a poet and writer who was also well known in Bengal for his contributions to the magazine Desh.
Armed with some basic Bengali, Weiss arrived in bustling Kolkata in November 1983 for a three-month stay. The student group was introduced to the major religions, to the variety of cultures, to Indian history and to the country’s complex politics. Weiss was impressed by the warmth of the people, especially when he answered their question about where he was from by saying, “Aami Paschim Germany theke eshechi” (“I come from West Germany”).
On that momentous trip, Christian also visited Santiniketan and Darjeeling and even spent some time at Dakshineshwar, a religious complex on the bank of the Hooghly, to get a feeling for the spirituality that pulsed through the country. “Those three months in India were a real turning point in my life,” he said.
On his return, he immediately signed up for further Bengali classes at Heidelberg University. Although he did his Master’s in history and German, he was fascinated by Bengali literature, which was now becoming accessible to him. When his studies came to an end, he started working for Springer Verlag, a publishing company based in Heidelberg.
At the same time, he began translating Bengali literature into German. Looking for a publisher for his translations, he was disappointed by the works published by the two small companies active in this field at the time.
So, in 2003, twenty years after his first visit to India, Christian decided he needed to remedy the fact that India’s rich literatures had found so little resonance in Germany. Aside from Tagore and some novelists who wrote in English, such as Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth and Arundhati Roy, few authors from the subcontinent had ever been translated into German. Those who wrote in major regional languages, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Urdu, Malayalam etc, were regrettably totally unknown in the German-speaking world.
Aiming to correct this imbalance, he decided to launch his own publishing company. His small apartment in Heidelberg became the headquarters of this unique new venture and has remained so ever since.
In searching for an appropriate name for his company, Christian thought of Draupadi, a woman whose importance in the cultural imagination of Indians has survived through the ages. Aside from reading the Mahabharata and watching Peter Brook’s film on the epic, he had also read a very moving short story by Mahasweta Devi about Draupadi, a tribal woman who stands up for human dignity in the face of injustice.
“Draupadi appealed to me more than any other figure,” Weisss said. “She is a symbol of the women’s movement, of rebellion, of courage in the face of adversity and of character.”
Initially, Draupadi Verlag only published books by well-known Indian authors: poetry, fiction and non-fiction written in the major Indian languages. The focus, however, has now expanded to include authors of lesser renown. On his bookshelf, he proudly displays translations of works by literary greats such as Tagore, Mahasweta Devi and Nirmal Verma rubbing shoulders with more modern Hindi authors such as Sara Rai and Geetanjali Shree, Tamil writers Thoppil Mohammed Meeran and Perumal Murugan, and the Malayalam poet K Satchidanandan.
In his selection of books, Christian Weiss is also guided by his commitment to social justice and his desire to give a voice to disadvantaged authors generally ignored by publishers and society alike. Tulsi Ram who wrote about his childhood as an untouchable in his autobiographical work Murdahiya, most likely would not have found a publisher in Europe had Draupadi Verlag not decided to publish him.
The same is true of the stories by Nepali women authors in Auf der Suche nach dem eignen Sein (The Search for One’s Own Being). Also among Draupadi Verlag’s recent, most successful publications is the German translation of the autobiography of Baby Halder, who detailed her life as a domestic worker in the English version called A Life Less Ordinary. The German version, titled Kein gewöhnliches Leben has sold 2500 copies.
Over the years, the books he has published have found readers all over the German-speaking world and have been praised for the quality of the translations. “The secret of my success in finding top quality translators is my connection with the South Asia Institute of Heidelberg University,” he says. It is there that he finds experts in the important Indian languages who not only recommend new authors and works, but can either translate the works themselves or have excellent contacts with other talents in the field. On his numerous trips to India, he has been able to establish personal contact with authors and publishers and deepen his knowledge about current literary trends and works in India.
In 2015, Weiss began to diversify to include the works of local Heidelberg authors as well. However, these represent only a small percentage of Draupadi Verlag’s publications, with the major focus continuing to be on the Indian subcontinent. Along with Indian authors, the company has also published works by Sri Lankan, Pakistani and Bangladeshi authors.
Although Draupadi Verlag has not been in existence for very long and serves a niche market, it has begun to receive official recognition and has won some important awards. In 2007, Christian Weiss was awarded the Gisela Bonn Prize of the Deutsch-Indische Gesellschaft. This prize, awarded in collaboration with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, included a trip to India.
This was followed in 2016 by the Bundesverdienstkreuz, an award similar to India’s Padma Shri, which is given by the German government to those who have made an important contribution to the country. And most recently, in 2020 Draupadi Verlag was among the small publishing companies to win the German Publishers’ Prize. This recognition has led to an uptick in recognition and sales, and has cemented its place in the German publishing world.
While finances have generally been a major hurdle, Weiss has been learning to tap institutional funding. “As you know, Germany is a rich country”, he says. “There are funds available. One just needs patience and persistence and the willingness to write lots of applications for financial support.” This is how he has occasionally been able to find the funds needed to invite Indian authors to book fairs and to reading tours. Baby Halder, for example, was invited to do a book tour in Germany, and all costs were covered by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung.
In recent times, with the ever-growing popularity of e-books, the renowned Swiss publishing company Union Verlag has shown an interest in working with Draupadi Verlag. They have included German translations of some Hindi, Tamil and Urdu works in their e-book portfolio, the first time that a major German-language publisher has been involved in offering Indian literatures to a European audience.
Asked what other challenges he currently faces, he looked around his living room and gestured towards the walls. “Storage space,” he said with a rueful smile. The walls are lined with shelves that groan under the weight of the books he has published. H nowe has books piled knee-deep along the walls of his office and the corridor as well.
Although the road to his success has been as steep as the stairs leading up to his third floor office, Weiss said he has derived great satisfaction from the journey. “What I really enjoy is working with people. I like bringing them together – authors with translators – collaborating with them on a publishing project and helping it to succeed.”