Little Magazines In Bengal

The Voices of Creative Independence

Abu Mounir

From the 20th century, little magazines in the United States, England, and India, among other countries, have played a vital role in the cultivation of literary and artistic taste as well as being the stage for significant literary and social movements. A little magazine is a periodical run with little capital and resources, driven by artistic expression rather than commercial gain. Although the Dial (1840) is recognised as the first little magazine, the trend became popular in the beginning of the 20th century with little magazines such as Poetry: A Maga- zine of Verse (1912), Little Review (1914), and the Egoist (1914). Two factors set little magazines apart from other literary publications. First, they are not driven by commercial interest. Second, little magazines symbolise protest and change. How- ever, lacking financial resources, little magazines run perennially short of funds, are often irregular, and most do not survive long. Their circulation rarely exceeds 1,000 copies. Historically, little magazine editors have been less bothered by concern for profits and have prioritised editorial independence. This independence enabled them to highlight issues and concerns generally not addressed by the mainstream media and, in the process, challenge the dominant narratives. In his article “The Little Magazines” (1942), Alan Swallow, who accomplished one of the earliest scholarly works on little magazines, mentions three fundamental functions of these magazines: “to provide a market for the ‘great’ writing of our time; to sponsor experiments, controversy, and new movements; and to give a hearing to unpopular ideas.” Little magazines also provided a much-needed platform for talented, budding writers, and poets, many of whom later became acclaimed literary personalities. American little magazines like the Double Dealer (1921–26) and the Fugitive (1922–25) printed some of the early work of famous writers such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, poets like Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, apart from producing brilliant editors and literary figures. Renowned Malayalam poet K Satchidanandan, who was associated with a number of little magazines, states that the tendency to move ahead from contemporary ideas, to question conventions, and to develop alternative ideas are the striking characteristics of a typical little magazine. In India, little magazines gave expression to the Dalit struggle in Maharashtra, while in West Bengal, they were associated with a series of noteworthy literary and radical political movements. Several little magazines in West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu expressed Marxist political and cultural ideas. In her article “Revisiting the Bengal Renaissance: Literary Bengali and Low-Life Point in Colonial Calcutta” (2002), Anindita Ghosh reminds us that print media was “not used and engineered by dominant power groups alone ... Dominant ideas on literary tastes and styles also did not go unchallenged.” Editors and publishers of little magazines generated active reader–writer groups that contributed to emerging countercultures even as they attempted to introduce new literary styles and writers. Little magazines thus have often been identified as the voice of the marginalised; although a more comprehensive manner to describe them would be to generally categorise them as anti-establishment. As Avijit Majumdar, a regular contributor to Bengali little magazines, explains, the idea that goes behind the making of a little magazine is driven by a sense of creative independence. The biggest challenge faced by little magazines is the access to the market since avenues of circulation are lacking, they are unable to reach potential readers. Historically, street newspaper, bookstalls, and subscription agents were the means by which little magazines were mainly circulated. Consequently, the dwindling number of street book stalls in recent times has aggravated this problem. As Sandip Dutta, proprietor of Kolkata’s famous Little Magazine Library and Research Centre points out, the challenges for a little magazine publisher are manifold—limited market, limited access, and the persistent fund crunch. Indeed, Majumdar adds, the journey of little magazines constitutes a challenge of the market, and to overturn the dominant public elite culture, which is perceived as the norm. No wonder then that it is a story of relentless struggle. Nevertheless, little magazines in West Bengal contributed to significant literary movements from the time of Sabujpatra, considered the first Bengali little magazine, mentored by Rabindranath Tagore. Sabujpatra (1914–27) was followed by Kallol (1923–35), a magazine which threw a challenge to conventional literary forms and social convictions. Porichoy, perhaps the longest-surviving Bengali little magazine, was established in 1932 by poet Sudhindranath Dutta—a close associate of Tagore. Dutta’s intention was to introduce modernist trends in poetry and literature to the literary circle in Bengal. Both Kallol and Porichoy made an indispensable contribution to Bengali literature by introducing several unknown writers and poets who went on to become stalwarts of Bengali literature and culture. Together, they published some of the early works of Kazi Nazrul Islam, Jibanananda Das, Premendra Mitra, Buddhadeb Basu and Samaresh Basu among others. Porichoy published the early works of popular Bengali writers Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay and Samaresh Basu. Their novels explored the themes of social evils, oppression, and injustice in contemporary Indian society in a marked departure from grand narratives of love and valour. Bandyopadhyay’s novel Abhijan and Basu’s short story Paari, which were first published in Porichoy, were later made into highly acclaimed films. Another literary giant of Bengal, the rebel poet Kazi Nazrul Islam also began his career writing for little magazines. He was an integral part of the Kallol movement. Nazrul went on to become a great poet, musician, and revolutionary, and is the national poet of Bangladesh. Nazrul wrote and composed around 4,000 songs that became a genre of its own—Nazrulgeeti—in West Bengal and Bangladesh. This genre comprised spirited songs of freedom, love, and social progress. Das, a contemporary of Nazrul, is considered one of the greatest Bengali poets. Though the poet died a premature death at the age of 55, his poems continue to resonate with all sections of society and have been translated into English by the likes of Clinton Seely and Joe Winter. His most famous poetry collections are Banalata Sen and Ruposhi Bangla. Das’s early work too found a home in little magazines. His 1932 poem “Campe” (In Camp), about a deer hunt in moon-light, published by Porichoy created quite a stir and recognised the poet as much ahead of his time:

“Forest wonder everywhere, An April breeze, Like the taste of moonlight. A doe in heat calls all night long. Somewhere deep in the forest—beyond the reach of moonbeams—All stags hear her sounds. They sense her presence, Come toward her ...” (Translated from the Bengali by Clinton B Seely) The idea of a doe in heat calling out and the suggested sexual advances of the stags was enough to offend the conservative literary crowd of Kolkata during that time, who accused the poet of obscenity. However, the poem also announced the arrival of the poet Das, and his unparalleled lyricism and sensuality. Similarly, eminent Bengali writer and poet Buddhadeb Basu too was nurtured by little magazines. He began by working as an editor for a little magazine named Pragati and later founded his own poetry magazine named Kavita. Basu intro- duced modernist trends in Bengali poetry, and was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Aaward in 1967. Today, little magazines continue to attract serious readers as they are published in good numbers even in this digital age. Besides the long-surviving Bengali little magazines such as Aneek and Anushtup, other notable Bengali little magazines published today are Ekak Matra (edited by Anindya Bhattacharya) and Bodhshabdo (edited by Susnato Chowdhury). Frontier, a rare little magazine in English, which began in 1968, continues to be published even today. Whether to address the concerns of marginalised groups, or publish great literature, or as a platform for budding writers, little magazines have managed to sustain their relevance even in the digital age. In fact, the internet has allowed little magazine editors greater access to potential readers. As one editor of a Kolkata-based little magazine told this writer, the internet allows him to connect with his readers, share feedback, and increase his subscription base. There are more than 100 Bengali little magazines being published now and there is no sign that the trend is going to end.

[Courtesy: EPW]
[Abu Mounir ( heads the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, Siliguri College, Siliguri. His areas of interest include media theories, alternative media, and digital media studies.]

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Vol 54, No. 40, April 3 - 9, 2022