The pillars of publication

The pillars of publication

Manohara Granthamala

One expects the history of publication to be dry and business-like, with statistics of books written and sold, royalties paid or unsettled, and the reception by readers.

But the history of publication in 20th-century Karnataka is strewn with tales of sacrifice and hardship, friendships and loyalties that lasted over a lifetime, and of self-effacing individuals of talent who gave everything to the creation of book culture in Kannada society.

Yes, one cannot look back without nostalgia at a lost world in which it was a blasphemy to consider publishing as business. It was a time when books were the precious bricks with which the Kannada culture had to be built.

Interestingly, the renaissance great publishers were in Girish Karnad’s words “eccentric impractical geniuses” unfit to make business out of book- publishing.

Karnad uses the phrase to describe the maverick writer-publisher G B Joshi, who founded Manohara Grantha Mala (MGM), a legendary Dharwad-based publication, in 1933.

Himself a fine writer and a member of the Geleyara Gumpu (Friend’s Group) of D R Bendre, G B Joshi never reprinted a book he published but went after young, talented writers relentlessly.

As Karnad recollected, the atta (attic) of MGM was the site of some of the greatest discussions on literature and the Mecca for young writers.

First under Bendre’s guidance and later under that of Kirtinath Kurtakoti, G B Joshi published some of the classics of modern Kannada literature such as Gramayana, Samskara, Sarasammana Samadhi, Marali Mannige, Bettada Jeeva, Gangavva Gangamayi, Yugadharma Haagu Sahitya Darshana, Kattale Belaku and Abolina.

This characterises the great Kannada publishers. Against all odds, they have created the modern Kannada Literary tradition and its canon. If MGM strengthened the Navya (modernist) movement in Kannada, K V Subbanna, a Magsaysay awardee and great writer, through his Akshara Prakashana, published many more classics of this tradition.

In addition, Akshara Prakashana also published Saakshi, the little journal edited by Gopalakrishnan Adiga and a platform for the Navya Movement.

It occupies the same place as F R Leavis’ Scrutiny and what it did to literacy modernism in English. The leading publications in Kannada have thus sustained literary movements, acted as creators and arbiters of the taste of the reading public, and invisible objective judges of authentic original writing.

They have performed tasks in which the government-supported academics and parishaths have failed.

For the early publishers like Samaja Pustakalaya (Dharwad), Minchina Balli (Dharwad), Sahitya Bhandara, D V K Murthy, the context was a different one. As another stalwart Kudali Chidambaram of Kavyalaya Prakashana wrote, many of the founders of these publications were active participants in the freedom struggle and deeply influenced by its idealism.

They were also witnesses to the Kannada Navodaya, a renaissance which converged with the Karnataka unification movement. They were also imbued with the idealistic enthusiasm of constructing Kannada consciousness and culture, and saw themselves as ‘Kannada paricharakaru’, propagandists and facilitators.

In idealism

As idealism comes at a cost, there were financial bottlenecks, unpaid loans, severe stress on families etc.

On their side, writers also co-operated accepting meager royalties, at times only author’s copies. What is extraordinary is the deep friendship and loyalty between most writers and publishers.

All the novels of S L Bhyrappa have been published by M Govindrao of Sahitya Bhandara, and Bhyrappa’s essay on his publisher is probably one of the most moving tributes by a writer to his publisher.

A N Murthy Rao has written a similar piece on his publisher Kudali Chidambaram. It is this loyalty and bonding that have been productive of great writing in Kannada.

Kudali Chidambaram published 52 books by Kuvempu; Manohara Granthamala published all the books by Karnad. There are also unwritten stories about how Kirtinath Kurtakoti practically rewrote Karnad’s Yayati and Rao Bahadur’s Gramayana.

This was possible because many of the publishers were themselves sensitive writers. These tales are also a history of the complexities of Kannada culture.

Vishnu Naik, born into a “low” caste and who faced severe poverty and humiliation, founded Raghavendra Prakashana and through it nurtured hundreds of talented writers.

Many such priceless stories and anecdotes are central to the books written on publishers by Abhinava Prakashana.

Top-notch quality

The Kannada Sangha of Christ College has such a reputation that getting published by it is considered a reward in itself. Similarly, the Kannada Sanghas of the two colleges in Putturu enjoy this status.

Behind such high standards and commitment to good literature are the many ‘secular saints’ who have guided and helped establish the publications.

The late Srinivasa Raju is an indelible part of Kannada book culture.

Like the first popular novelists Galaganatha (Venkatesh Trivikrambhat Kulkarni) and G B Joshi, Srinivasa Raju also carried books from town to town and home to home. Fine critics like Kirtinath Kurtakoti and H S Raghavendrarao have silently guided many publications.

What is remarkable is the endurance of the publications which began in the pre-independence period. Most of them published 500 to 1,000 titles and completed 50 years in the field.

There are other dimensions to the heroic story of book publication. The publishers were forced to be very eclectic in the choice of books. Most of them admitted that the bestselling books were self-help books on health, hygiene, astrology and sex (excluding pornography).

The great books of Kannada literature had a small readership. The other hurdle was the slow development of printing technology. Ever since the Christian missionaries established the Kannada press (circa 1826), availability of suitable fonts always remained a problem.

The fact that despite the hurdles, some great Kannada publishers were able to produce aesthetically attractive books was no mean achievement.

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