Background casually, please. Or in another manner of asking, what’s a good middle-class boy doing in theatre? And why lighting?
I can tell you about my beginnings in theatre and how I came to design lighting or design sets happily enough but not sure the “middlle-class” bit has any bearing on either being in theatre or not! I mean just look around you at the time I was “growing” into theatre design and you will have a who’s who of middle-class young men and women doing precisely this.
In a culture where there is still only one drama school in our country, the NSD, all of us who did theatre did it out of the desire to do so. Our productions were desperate in their excellence or what you may call “professionalism”. As in high standards of excellence, aesthetics, values, performance quality, acting abilities, the layers of complex interpretation from Ionesco’s Chairs to The Cherry Orchard or Lear or Hamlet.
The “amateur” tag that we bore with comfort, I may add, simply meant that all of those from Alyque Padamsee to Naveen Kishore had to do this after five because livelihood came from other jobs, be it advertising or selling carbon paper for a living like I did. So. We learnt on the job.
Everyone does drama in school concerts. I used to play women. Because all the other friends found the teasing that came later unbearable. For some reason no one teased me. I suspect it was because I was mildly reclusive in an affectionate helpful kind of manner. Friendly but a bit aloof. My nose in books inside the school library. So, teachers who directed found it easy to cast me as Raat Ki Raani or Fairy-god mother to a frog!
It was in college while auditioning for a Red Curtain (local English language drama group!) play that I would finally be told that “hey you have a north Indian accent you should stay backstage!” This after the burning sensation on my neck receded turned out to be a blessing.
I turned to theatre lighting. And slowly discovered that I was good at it. And more importantly was able to make a living out of it. I had a family to support from the day I stepped into college. People were willing to pay me for my designing skills.
I taught myself the art of lighting the air around actors. The atmosphere made palpable and the actors making their way in and out of light. I would sit on the old rheostat dimmers without a cue sheet because I knew every bit of the play by heart through countless rehearsals. I leant to play accompanist in musical terms to the intensity of the actors. Subtle. Imperceptible light that refused to intrude or become an overbearing presence.
Later, much later, I would go on to use this “the palpable made imperceptible” in all my other lives!
You also take lots of photographs. (I am pleased to say I have some NK works.) Is this an offshoot of the work with lighting?
Not offshoot. Everything grows from one into another and is fluid as in no one thing is responsible for another and yet all is connected. I was talking photographs while doing theatre. One more hobby. Black and white images. I soon discovered that the darkness I created on stage was “freezable” for eternity through film. Such a delicious entrapment of time.
My photos were able to halt the dark in its tracks and make it pliable. Light sires dark and in turn is offered as a sacrifice to it. So yes, the photo-practice was a parallel embrace. A gift to self. What the privilege of being a designer would soon teach me is that after I had set the lights for say a Yamini (Krishnamurthy) or a Sanjukta (Panigrahi) or Kelu babu (Kelucharan Mahapatra) I had free reign of vantage points on the side and behind the dancers and on top from the flies and lighting bridges and A-ladders. No angle of vision was denied to me.
This made for some amazing photos which a straight forward sitting-in-the-audience photographer could not access. Backstage. The process is the thing. Performance images warts and all. Exposed lighting grids and spotlights as an aspect of the design itself. Pity then that I was to lose all of the early years in a fire. This is what happens when you attempt to turn the ‘ephemeral’ of the magic of theatre and trap it in time!! The Greeks knew this better!
How did Seagull Books happen? I seem to remember a beautifully idiosyncratic collection of titles: filmscripts, plays in translation, Interfacing with Chittrovanu and Anjum…
Like everything else in my life things happen. Nothing is static. Nothing is known as “certain”. The imagined can be made “logistics”. This is a theatre-lesson. That and the fact that each part of your doing unveils as you do. Like riyaaz. The practice is the thing.
You don’t set out to be a publisher. But you take the desire to document all of the arts activity I had made into my life – drama, music, film, fine art – and turn it into books. Specific moment in time. June. Middle 1982. In the midst of watching, with uncontrolled excitement, I might add, a performance of what would later come to reveal itself as “street theatre” in a grassroots (Shikarh) theatre festival I had organised, where I saw a young man feverishly sketching the body movements of a performing set of actors.
I turned to friend and mentor and drama scholar and critic Samik Banerjee, then the editor at Oxford University Press, Calcutta, and said what a pity this will disappear. The moment will pass. I wish there was a way of documenting it! Samik, who later became for a brief while the founding editor of Seagull Books, said yes, there is a way. Start a niche publishing house that focusses on drama and film and art.
Not having ever had a sense of scale I said yes, why not. We already have a name and somehow we will find the money! Seagull already existed in the imagination of a certain cultural life of Calcutta! So Seagull Books. That was forty years ago. Samik would move on. I would staye. I always do.
Nothing idiosyncratic about the list as we began to publish it. Unless you mean there was nothing quite like it at the time. There still isn’t. Playscripts from different Indian languages – after all there are so many Indias, yes? The idioscyncracy, remember, comes from the surprise that within a not so quality conscious book market at the time Seagull appeared to use the very same resources that other publishers did – paper, printing, binding and turned each book into a thing of beauty. The ephemeral had transformed into the tangible.
My life’s work would slowly change its focus from a theatre-based aesthetic to one in books. Each would continue to feed the other. The reason for doing playscripts in translation as Samik had envisioned was to use the link language, English, to inform educate share one another’s writing, and then instead of trying to perform in English just go to the language of origin and translate into the language of performance you were comfortable in. So a Marathi play into Bengali via an understanding of it in English.
It would take 30 years for Ghasiram Kotwal and Charandas Chor and Rudali to become text books. Also remember this was a wonderful time with Mrinal Sen Satyajit Ray Shyam Benegal Adoor Gopalakrishnana and many others making films of immense significance and a new Indian cinema aesthetic was coming into being. Samik was clear about wanting to do filmscripts in an almost-pre-video era. As documents of the time.
But he was also clear that not everyone is true to their original inspiration. A Ray would make meticulous storyboards and transform them with extreme fidelity on the floor while shooting. A Mrinal Sen on the other hand would turn his initial concept into magic by changing evolving being inspirational on the floor. So we did what we called post-production scripts, that involved hiring old fashioned editing consoles called moviolas and sitting with an editor while you sat viewing the finished final film frame by frame and described each camera move even as you translated from Bangla and Marathi and Malayalam!
Heady this, but planned. I formally dismiss idiosyncratic!
I often wonder how the early Seagull sustained itself. Were you sustaining it?
Like all niche publishers, Seagull learned two things early in life. One: you need to build a list. Or what in publishing parlance is called a backlist. This is the spine that will eventually sustain you. You don’t sell vast numbers of each book, but you recover the money. Plunge it back into the business. You slowly build a backlist of stature and substance that sells in small numbers across the growing list. And across the lifetime of the publishing house.
Old fashioned, this, in the current scenario where a lot of big publishing is all about “frontlists” – celebrity books that sell 50,000 copies on the trot, but would you take your grandchildren to a store and ask for one such title? Will it even survive? The second thing is content. Most people get mixed up with sustainability as a purely economic activity. No.
If we have survived over fifty years in the arts and forty in publishing, it is firstly because the content we publish, exhibit, perform, is what is sustained. So content as sustenance – and therefore your first point of sustainability that needs to work in tandem with economic well-being. And relationships. Seagull then and now thrives on relationships. With authors and translators and other publishers. This builds a circle of affection that also sustains.
The early Seagull lessons were all about cash flow. A Ray filmscript would sell 1,500 copies versus a playscript by a relatively lesser now – but brilliant in our opinion – playwright only 300 copies. But they both needed to be published. So one sustained the other. Today each book is a profit and loss sheet.
One other lesson we learnt was that independents always live on the edge of survival. It took us fifteen years of list-building before we would break even. And if I haven’t misunderstood your question about my sustaining it, the answer is yes, I was. But not from some private wealth. Remember my father had lost his job when I was 17. In the early days we borrowed from banks; from individuals; we reached out for sponsors – the focus was that you cannot stop building the list no matter what.
There is obviously something you share with powerful female figures: Mahasweta Devi, Gayatri Chakravarti-Spivak, Romila Thapar, even one might say Pam Crain. I wonder if you might explain the beginnings of these friendships?
I wouldn’t put it quite like that even though you say it in extreme affection. I am a publisher. One who sees my “practice” as “midwifery”. Or a word I often use to describe what publishers do, conduit. Someone’s creativity finds a way into the world through you. You are a conduit at a particular moment in time. And place. You cannot take credit for anything more than that. If not you someone else would have done it because the creative will find a way of coming into being, of existing of becoming visible. Being “told”. Like a story.
So yes, I have relationships that go beyond just the formal-informal ones that publishers have with their authors. And why just “powerful” female figures as you put it? Nothing to do with men or women – it’s our way of being, everything to do with relating talking being hospitable to ideas and nurturing other people’s thought between the covers of a bound object.
My literary life is full of friendships across the world, from Ngugi and Carlo Ginzburg and Giorgio Agamben to Alexander Kluge and Hans Magnus Enzensberger and William Kentridge and Yves Bonnefoy. Not just “names” but wonderful humans who write paint talk about life and the times we live in. There is a borderlessnesss to relationships. Not merely geographically.
I remember a moment of immense affection when at the end of a screening of Pushan Kripalani’s documentary on Mahasweta, Talking Writing, at the Habitat Centre in Delhi to a 200-strong raptness, a voice belonging to the historian-author Nayanjot Lahiri spoke out in what can only be described as a spoken aloud sigh: “how come you to talk to him [meaning me!] so openly”! Silence. Then Mahasweta: “he talks to me so I talk to him. You talk with me and I will happily talk to you!”
And then there was the long and loving association with KG Subramanyan.
Ah KGS. Mani da. Again you ask me to speak about the many lives that inhabit me. Even in death. Here is something that says it better than any recap of a relationship would. From a tribute I did for South magazine that Documenta brings out. It may give you the “palpable” and the “imperceptible” of friendships that unfold over long years.
like warm breath
on a cold mirror
or a whisper
on bare feet
wearing only white
he slipped away
unable to resist
a last glance
How many shawls from Kashmir can you give a man who never visits the mountains for his birthday? Who prefers to stay in warm climates. Year after year. Or in daring a variation by buying him fabric for kurtas, is it possible to match his sense of khadi aesthetics? I confess I did both with some degree of success, but soon found myself offering slices of my “inner self” instead, gifts that were perhaps of little material value or shape or form or weight or volume but that gestured toward personal creativity over everything else.
The first attempts didn’t make much of an impression: the gifting of silver prints. Black-and-white photographs that made me proud. Met with polite acceptance. The odd smile and the comment of, “Where will I put these up?” Not as complaint but just as rueful admission from a man whose interiors were full of shelves holding books in four or five languages. The books were a failed enterprise because, after a while, between the ones I published and the ones I admired, the shelves had begun to sag. Besides, that was a gifting that took place almost daily over the years. The birthday had to be a special thing.
I began to give him pages. And pages. Of short and long poetic texts. Hesitating to use the term poetry. Or poems. This started on his eightieth birthday. His body language, on receiving these neatly printed sheaves of different kinds of paper in large coloured envelopes, was welcoming. As was the quiet smile. The twinkle in the eyes would make me feel that I was on the right track. But who knows if they were read. Or liked. It wasn’t until much later, last year in fact, after twelve years of poetry, that I received comment. It came in one of his regular phone calls. Achha tum abh poet ban gaye ho (You have become a fine poet). That was it. End of praise. But not before he had rattled off the two he liked:
Soft like an angel’s wing
your breath upon my eyelids
as I dream shyly
of yet another autumn.
the falling leaves.
of how long it had been running
racing against its own shadow.
Then he moved on immediately: “so where does the circus go next?” A playful reference to the Sketches Scribbles Drawings exhibition that I had been traveling around the country for more than a year and a half, and which showed no signs of stopping.
He was never at a loss for words to say behind your back. Kind words. Words of affection. Words that would have made you blush with pride were they uttered in earshot. But you got tempered versions of them anyway. Through a loyal grapevine.
I would often hear, for example, “Only my dear friend Naveen is mad enough to carry large quantities of my paintings in trucks around the country. Lucknow, Bhubaneshwar, Chandigarh, Patna, Bhopal…otherwise I wouldn’t get shown all over to younger people. Mostly the paintings get shown and sold in the metro cities.”
How did you become the messiah of high modernist poetry from Europe in English translation?
I didn’t. I just published what I liked. Remember that masterclass on list building? Well, mine is a wishlist of authors I chose to publish. Poetry prose whatever rings those church bells in my head. Poetry as you, dear poet, yourself know, speaks to our senses across languages. It just is one more thing I do along with many other world independents who do it as well. If not better!
And the Seagull Publishing School?
One tries to be ahead of the game. Often at the risk of being out of step with the times. How else do you create? How else do you share the life you have experienced? Like clothes you have worn with the utmost of pleasure. Your favourites. The ones that were “handed-down” by wiser older relatives. For that was the tradition. Now being handed over to siblings. The world as family. Gift. Of wisdom. Gathered over the years. What we inherit must be passed on.
It was in this spirit that we conceived what has now become The Seagull School of Publishing. The urge to respond to the times. The lacuna. The vacuum. Introspection. Look inwards. Seek solutions to the restlessness. The dissatisfaction with the way things were in the world we inhabited. The world of publishing. The fact that at one level we had more and more books being published but no real infrastructure for training or research or hands-on teaching.
And then it all happened. By accident. And chance. Like so many publishing stories. We met some people. From a land called Norway. Like-minded. Minds that think alike. Like each other. And, like each other. Are mindful and courteous, even generous of the needs of the other. Likely to agree. A meeting of minds, philosophies, ideologies. Similar in intent for a larger good. Mutual benefit. Sharing this liking. Sometimes nurturing it well beyond the call of duty. Yes. The Norwegians had entered our lives. First as tentative visitors. Then as welcome guests. Individuals we got on with. Later as a nation. Now as family. Generous and supportive and willing to understand that in a diverse country like ours there are no easy solutions. Every little bit helps.
It took time. And patience. And paperwork. But you have before you the fruits of a chance encounter that led to not just a relationship and a bond that is both formal and familial but it resulted in our setting up The Seagull School of Publishing in Calcutta.
A “school” for publishing, editing, marketing and distribution that teaches through actual hands on doing; advises and assists potential graduates of the school in the possibilities of setting up independent publishing houses, bookstores, distribution networks, and marketing and publicity agencies devoted specifically to the book trade acts as an incubator for young people with ideas that have to do with books; a space for existing publishers to source potential editors and designers.
What we are offering here is an institution that nurtures the potential student through the academic, the practical and the entrepreneurial discipline stages of becoming a publisher, an editor, a distributor – anything that forms a vital part of the publishing industry.
Where the academy differs or if you like goes beyond the brief of “a training institute” is that not only does it offer training for the publishing industry, therefore providing a career choice for its students, but actually encourages the students to set up their own publishing houses.
Now in its 10th year, it has gone online thanks to the vast fracturing of all our lives. In some strange way this has resulted in empowering a lot of aspiring students who would normally not make their way to Calcutta to join the course from Palestine to Cambodia to Kenya.
What was your first encounter with poetry, the one that set you thinking: I might want to do this?
I don’t think any of us as writers poets image makers publishers designers have that one moment or encounter that can be frozen into that turning point or turning towards something. More so the poetry. I write every day as you know. Regardless of the time. And circumstance. Write as you would practice your music. We are familiar with this term I often use, riyaz. So, it is more for oneself in the first instance and later one shares it with all those relationships across cultures. Not like a mailer! Just as a simple sharing with writers and other friends.
Mahasweta in her film says to me, “you must write. I insist.” This practice is complete in itself. It has no desire to be published. But of course it is much joy when it does. Get. Published. I guess I am trying to say that the goal is the process not the eventual book. I am happy that after decades a book has finally happened. Also in a way that was organic and the opposite of what this “businesss” of books sometimes makes us do. Push. And more interesting to me is that it is happening in many Indian languages.
You have shared poems in other registers. None of these find their way into Knotted Grief. Was this a studied decision, something to do with the knots of the title?
No. I have over 8,000 poems. Gazebo, an Australian publisher, encountered a few from my Kashmir and Grief Cycles and reached out. So, it became a book about Kashmir and grief both intimate and national. Later Ravi Singh would say yes from Speaking Tiger and want to add thirty more pages above the Australian selection. A natural process. Even an accidental one. Where the work seeks across borders and things happen.
So many organisations in India have no long-term plan. I remember you telling me, en passant, that Sunandini Banerjee is to take over. Can you tell us about how she came into the life of Seagull?
Ah this pre-occupation in so many friends about “legacy”. Legacies are stifling. There is a natural order of things if you can recognise it. One that springs from the “nature” of things. Sunandini and now Bishan [Samaddar] are a part of Seagull. They didn’t just come into a Seagull life; they created it. And its supposed continuity. Its daily practice. They have shown intent. Stayed on. How much can you pay colleagues who do so much?
We are what we are because of others. Nobody takes over. The ones that stay on even after I “move” will make it their life and shape it in the way they already have. It is after all a collective vision. I have a function for the moment as publisher but that doesn’t take away from the fact that my colleagues are the driving force.
Sunandini joined some 22 years ago as an assistant editor. Straight from University. Literally. She went on to be both Editor in Chief and the amazing designer-artist she is. She translates from the Bengali. And is equally at ease with hanging 400 KGS paintings in found spaces and formal galleries.
Here are a few concluding thoughts that may be of help in understanding my ramblings. An extract from the Goethe Medal acceptance speech in 2013 which still hold true:
I am often asked about “sustainability” and about “structure” or about “vision” and the “ability to reinvent”. I never have convincing answers. I have no scientific or rational methods of arriving at “things”; I live hand in hand or better still hand in glove, therefore, complicitly, with “uncertainty” and the “intangible”. The opposites of structure. I am aware that I also live in a time that does not lend credence to that feeling at the pit of your tummy often referred to as the “gut feeling”. Particularly not in business or politics. In fact it is fast fading even in the arts.
Each variant or engagement brings a fresh insight with it both in the execution of an idea and the response to it. Over the years this style of working has developed into a strategy that
a) responds with a certain flexible immediacy to a perceived need, be it that of an individual artist or a social or human rights issue;
b) cuts through the bureaucracy of thought that usually strangles such need and acts quickly and decisively to meet it; and more importantly
c) refuses to get jaded – nothing is static. Everything has a dynamic plasticity about it.
What you see around you is our life’s work. I would go so far as to say that it is our life. And like life it is ever evolving, changing, coping, dying, renewing, responding, sustaining, nurturing...everything good or bad happens right here – nothing is static. You will find a lot that you like. You will even find a fair amount that you may not like. But all of it will have a dynamic plasticity about it.
The closest parallel I can draw with what constitutes the Seagull vision is – animation: it is not a frozen piece of text nor is it a well articulated, expertly crafted, neatly phrased and all encompassing legend that can be engraved on a brass plaque. What it is is a mercurial, flexible, broad-minded, tolerant and philosophical Practice...that’s it! Practice! We Respond, therefore we Practice.
The urge to keep doing, keep working away at something that enhances things cultural in some form or the other; that benefits those that practice “things cultural” in a way that shifts them from point A to D, even H on occasion – making possible that Leap. What arts support is all about. “Facilitating”, personified as Resource.
Having said that let me add that it is and will always remain vulnerable. Not in a weak kind of way but in the manner of that which is receptive. Our vulnerability to ideas makes us open to reception of all that is new and untried where structure and regulation would simply strangulate. At the risk of sounding repetitive let me say once again that these are dark times and Culture is slowly but surely being hijacked by forces that are anything but benign. Or to put it less dramatically, the space for things cultural is slowly being squeezed.