‘Quality of reviews in Kannada is very ordinary’

The political goings-on may have taken the sheen and shine off the grand plan to celebrate Suvarna Karnataka. And the big media may only marginally be interested in the language that is the State’s raison d’etre.

Not so “little magazines”. For decades, they have been the cradle of Kannada thoughts and ideas.

In an interview with India Foundation for the Arts, writer and editor of the literary journal Desha Kaala, VIVEK SHANBAG, talks about how little magazines have contributed to Kannada literature and how his own journal is attempting to carve a unique space for itself.

***

Could you give us a broad overview of the Kannada cultural/literary magazine scene?

VIVEK SHANBAG: There is a long tradition of literary journals in Kannada. Many of our important writers—Masti Venkatesh Iyengar, Shivaram Karanth, Gopalakrishna Adiga, U.R. Anantha Murthy and many others—have edited and published literary journals. Though many have had a short lifespan, they have served their purpose of inspiring new writing in Kannada. Most of our literary movements were nurtured in this space.

There are many literary journals active in Kannada today, e.g. Sanchaya, Sankalana, Abhinava, Sankramana, Samvaada, Desha Kaala, Gandhi Bazaar and many others. This is the only space available for any serious discussion on literature. For example, popular commercial magazines and Sunday editions of newspapers give only a few inches of space for book reviews. Also, the quality of reviews here is very ordinary. Hence literary criticism and full length book reviews can appear only in literary journals. So is the case with long interviews and poems.

I must also say here that there are a large number of weekly and monthly commercial magazines in Kannada. These generate a lot of demand for fiction writing of all kinds. Hence there is little difference between fiction published in commercial magazines and literary journals. But the serious readership that literary journals provide cannot be matched by commercial magazines.

I believe that Kannada writers and readers understand the difference between what gets published in a literary journal and a popular magazine. This awareness is very important for any literary environment because this is what supports the distinct space marked out for a literary journal. For its experiments and open discussions.

In the case of Tamil Nadu, publisher S Ramakrishnan has recently drawn attention to how the institution of the ‘little magazine’ – in the sense of a publication that nurtures independent opinion and new writing, and which is not run for purely commercial considerations – has now all but disappeared. What is the case like in Karnataka?

VS: Sankramana, a little magazine in Kannada, has been published for the past 40 years. Similarly Samvaada, Gandhi Bazaar and Sanchaya are active for more than two decades. And none of these magazines are driven by commercial considerations. And there are many new ones as well. I see no reason to believe that the institution of ‘little magazines’ has all but disappeared in Kannada. The success of a literary magazine is measured by its sphere of influence and not by its circulation numbers. Hence commercial considerations were never important for such publications.

What is your vision for Desha Kaala and in what way is the journal different from other cultural magazines?

VS: Desha Kaala is centred around literature. This is what drives the journal. Whether we like it or not, today’s Kannada sensibility is being shaped by many aspects that are beyond the influence of the Kannada world. We must recognise this and respond to it. Whether it is literature available in English, globalisation or post-modern perspectives—we have no choice but to deal with these. And there are new experiments in the world of art and cinema. All this will certainly generate new ideas and new writing in Kannada.

In every issue of Desha Kaala we have introduced a writer from another Indian language through direct translations. Such interactions are very important to understand how writers in other languages think and respond to contemporary situations. Now, more than any time in the past, writers of different Indian languages share common concerns and issues. This could be due to globalisation or the internet.

Desha Kaala does not carry translation of any essay that is already published in English. The only exception was made for Ziauddin Sardar’s essay on post-modernism. This does not mean we have no translations.

Unlike other Kannada journals we have writers like Shiv Vishvanathan, Jeremy Seabrook, Daniel Amit, Sundar Sarukkai, Roddam Narasimha, Fritz Stall, John Perry and others writing for us exclusively and their articles were first published in Desha Kaala, in Kannada translation.

We have a symposium in every issue that focuses on certain themes. For example, in the last issue we carried an in-depth discussion on book publishing policy in Karnataka.

Desha Kaala is designed by Channakeshava, a professional designer. And till now, every issue is published on time. I am emphasizing this point because little magazines have a reputation of not following any periodicity.

Have little magazines in Karnataka built up networks to aid each other in areas like marketing and distribution? Are there ways in which outside support—financial or otherwise—would benefit such magazines?

VS: There is no network of little magazines in Karnataka. But they work with the knowledge that they must complement and not compete with each other. A co-operative network for book marketing and distribution will not only help little magazines but also the Kannada book publishing industry.

Since most of the little magazines are sold through annual subscriptions, any help in creating a viable infrastructure for collection of subscriptions will help immensely. For example, a website shared by all little magazines where one can renew subscription.

I believe that, even with a limited circulation, it is possible to run a little magazine in Kannada without incurring financial losses. However, running a magazine needs high commitment which means a lot of personal time to be spent by the editor and the team. This is difficult to sustain over a period of time.

***

This interview originally appeared in the July-September 2007 quarterly newsletter of India Foundation for the Arts.