In the Diwali check-list of a Marathi household, the Diwali ank is as important as new clothes, delicacies like chiwada and chakli, sweets like karanji and anarse, and the utane — a fragrant mixture of ground herbs used for special baths on Diwali mornings.
A Diwali ank is a special festival issue of a magazine. The tradition is said to have started in 1909 by Kashinath Ajgaonkar, who edited Manoranjan and later took on the surname Mitra because of his love for the Bengali language. That special had a focus on literature and culture, though the later issues did cover other topics.
Today, over 800 anks are published every year with a focus on literature — both original Marathi writing or translations from other Indian languages — as well as children’s literature, essays on art and culture, social and political writings, humour and satire, travel and astrology. “The Diwali anks have evolved over the years. New themes, new subjects kept getting added and by the 1950s, these issues became a rich expression of Marathi literature and culture. Different ideologies, social and political themes got their space and built a steady readership,” says publisher Arun Jakhade, who is also an office bearer of Marathi Prakashak Parishad, an organisation of Marathi publishers.
The readership too has expanded and moved beyond the big cities of Pune, Mumbai, Nashik and Nagpur. “These days, they are reaching not just the small towns in the state but also Marathi-speaking population outside Maharashtra and India,” says Jakhade.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Diwali issues of magazines such as Hans, Mohini, Navyug, Mauj and Satyakatha provided a platform for both budding and established writers. Though some of them stopped publication in the years to come, the likes of Mauj and Hans still continue to charm the Marathi readers. Celebrated writers and poets — from Ram Ganesh Gadkari and Trimbak Bapuji Thombre ( better known as Balkavi) to Vishnu Vaman Shirwadkar, from Vinda Karandikar, Shanta Shelke and PL Deshpande to BB Borkar, Mangesh Padgaonkar, Gauri Deshpande and Saniya — began to keep their best work for the Diwali anks.
The short story as a form in Marathi literature came into its own in these Diwali issues as many of them had katha as their theme. Lalit lekh or short non-fiction articles, serialised novels, poetry and plays too found their niche. Writers and social commentators like Vijay Tendulkar, Durga Bhagwat, Milind Bokil, Anil Awachat and Vidya Bal, theatre and film personalities like Girish Karnad and Dr Shreeram Lagoo reached readers through discourses, articles and interviews.
Well-known Marathi writer Aruna Dhere, who has edited and written for several Diwali anks in the past, says, “The very process of bringing out a Diwali ank used to be resemble an intellectual churning. Writers, artists, thinkers used to come together and discussions used to take place. It was like a mehfil of artistic expression. That rarely takes place these days. Increasingly, the Diwali anks are being commercialised, as if the writings are being used to fill the space left after inserting advertisements. But still there are publications that have kept the rich tradition alive. The unique feature of Diwali issues is its value as a collector’s magazine. The Diwali celebration is for four days, but the issues extend it to the next four months. The treat of reading them continues for that long.”
Even today, the Diwali issues of monthly magazines such as Anubhav, Antarnad, Miloon Saryajani and Sadhana, edited by stalwarts like GP Pradhan and slain anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar in the past, continue to come up with rich content and experiment with subjects and forms.
According to estimates of publishers and shopkeepers, the Diwali anks annually make about Rs 10 to 12 crore, and the readership is expected to grow. The internet has added yet another dimension. Since the last five to six years, several groups of like-minded people, many of whom belong to the Marathi diaspora, are coming up with online Diwali issues. The significant names include Aisi Akshare, Mayboli, Digital Katta and Digital Diwali. Some of them even have short stories and recordings of poems.
Writer and film critic Abhijit Ranadive, who has been associated with Aisi Akshare, for the last four years, says, “The online Diwali anks in their present form are free from the limits that come into play in the print version because of advertisements and space constraint. This platform has also given us an opportunity to handle subjects which may otherwise remain untapped.”
Days ahead of Diwali, at a roadside magazine stall, an elderly man and his grandson are shopping. They choose at least three Diwali anks each from an array of over 400 issues. They remind me of my own stack of Uttam Anuvaad, Mauj and Anubhav, which opened my eyes to literature across India and the world. Diwali may be two days away but as I gingerly turn the pages of these precious journals, pages that have now turned yellow, the sparkle in my eyes is unmistakable.