The counterculture of Bengali little magazines is alive and doing well, believes Susnato Chowdhury, editor of Bodhshabdo, a literary magazine he has been publishing since 1999. Chowdhury, who started printing and publishing his own little magazine, Shabdo, while still in school, makes a strong case for the movement that took its first flight in Bengal in 1920s, with Kallol.
It was a modernist movement magazine group led by the doyens of Bengali literary universe, including Kazi Nazrul Islam and Premendra Mitra. The movement picked up momentum in the 1960s with the Hungry Generation, a cultural, political and literary movement spearheaded by the strongest anti establishment voices of the time – Shakti Chattopadhyay, Malay Roy Choudhury, Samir Roychoudhury and Debi Roy.
Chowdhury’s own Bodhshabdo is considered an important publication that belongs to what is referred to as the “New Age of the Little Magazine movement” (2001 onwards), featuring contemporary poets, artists and commentators.
He spoke to Scroll.in during an exhibition held at Boi Chitra gallery in College Street, which showcased the works produced during a two-phase little magazine workshop held in Uttarpara, Hooghly in West Bengal in October 2017. Organised by Chowdhury with the aid of India Foundation of the Arts, the 12-day workshop was aimed at introducing little magazine editors to the latest printing and publishing technology available in the country today, while honing their aesthetics at the same time.
The exhibition – which may travel to other districts in Bengal, and even to other cities outside the state – also included a special section dedicated to Darjeeling’s neglected magazines, published in Nepalese, and their untold histories. A book based on the workshop, titled Mudran Karmashala: Little Magazine: File Copy, was released in the format of a pop up scrapbook, featuring the original covers and illustrations produced during the sessions.
“I do not for a moment subscribe to the view that the readership for little magazines has declined in the digital age,” Chowdhury said after the exhibition closed. “For the past few years, especially, the movement has gained fresh momentum, and I see many young editors, poets and illustrators using the digital medium and social media to broadcast their work. What is missing however, is a certain finesse in production, the overall aesthetics. Content is as powerful as ever. The presentation needs to step up.”
The workshop saw several applicants from around the country, though logistical constraints limited the actual number of participants to eight, with six of them completing the workshop. The modules covered everything from page layout to design and typography, the use of handmade paper and binding.
Mentors travelled from Mumbai and Chittagong to speak to the participants, and guide them further. In the second phase, the well-known illustrator Krishnendu Chaki was present. Participants came in from the towns of Durgapur, Bolpur, Howrah, Tarakeshwar and Uttarpara, among others.
Comparing the current crop of little magazines published from Bengal – which number almost 1,000, by Chowdhury’s estimates – to those of Bangladesh, Chowdhury said that the magazines published in the neighbouring country can boast of superior production and aesthetics. “Possibly because Bengali is the national language there,” he said. “In Bengal, the little magazines may have more critical, radical content, but are lagging behind in production and aesthetics.”
It is important for editors and independent publishers of little magazines to embrace new technology, said Chowdhury, talking about how the transition from letter press to digital printing has not been an easy one for the movement. “Yes, there are budgetary concerns,” he acknowledged. “Little magazines cannot hire the best illustrators and designers that a mainstream publishing house can afford to. But they can easily access the technology that all the big publishing houses have been using.”
For little magazines to not only survive but to flourish in the digital age, it is important for editors and indie publishers to look ahead as much as they should know their past, he added, in order to stand up against “big media aesthetics”.
As an independent journalist and editor, Chowdhury believes passionately in the cause of little magazines. “There are so many young kids who are passing out of school and college kids who are bringing out their own little magazines,” he said. “There will always be a loyal readership for the kind of radical, independent thinking that the movement espouses. Poetry, prose, art. They may not have a readership of 50,000 like the commercial publications, but they are still going strong.”
The Bengali diaspora, he pointed out, has also been playing an important role in keeping the passion alive. “Even in Bangladesh, I see so many bloggers who are using the digital platform to reach a worldwide audience. Bengal was late adapting to the digital era, perhaps because of the policies of the previous (Left Front) government. And that is where Bangladesh has an edge over us. But now things are changing, and one is confident about the future of the movement in Bengal and beyond.”