The steady drone of the workmen’s tools is the only noise puncturing the ennui of the sweltering afternoon. Naveen Kishore, proprietor of the Kolkata-based Seagull Books, is overseeing the work being done in a house in Delhi’s Maharani Bagh that will serve as the base of his new venture, “Seagull Space”. The teasers have been appearing on Twitter for a while, but, instead of the bookstore that everyone has been expecting, Kishore’s plan for Delhi offers a twist in the tale. The space, spread over two floors, will serve as what he calls “a place for the mind, the ears and the eyes, a space for discussion and debate.”
“The Seagull Foundation for the Arts is setting up a space in Delhi for various kinds of non-commercial activities in the arts and for our History for Peace projects. It’s just a quiet place for addas or baithaks, across areas of concern — low-key, unsung, intimate, questioning — definitely a space for the alternative, a place that is not just for our use but for our community of publishers too,” says Kishore, 65. The first set of baithaks will see musical performances by Kishore’s son, Varun; a rudraveena recital by Bahauddin Dagar; a discussion among historians Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib and Audrey Truschke; talks by filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan, journalist Ravish Kumar, and writer Richa Kaul Padte, among others. The bookstore will come later, possibly in Shahpur Jat, in the spring of 2019.
It’s been 36 years since Kishore first set up Seagull Books in Kolkata. It had been a gamble then, to plunge into publishing almost overnight from a career in theatre lighting, and, what was still the early days of event management. As a student at St Xavier’s College, Kolkata, he had been drawn to theatre, but his acting skills, or the lack thereof, had landed him backstage, where he learnt about stage lighting. Afterwards, he worked with The Red Curtain, one of Kolkata’s oldest experiential theatre groups. His father was in and out of jobs, owing to ill-health, and Kishore grasped at everything that offered an opportunity to make money.
If that involved organising events for corporates or advertising agencies, he was up for it. “Seagull in those days was an impresario in the old-fashioned meaning of the term. We started in music and organised jazz and rock concerts and dance performances by Birju Maharaj, Yamini Krishnamurthy and Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. One such event triggered off the plunging into publishing books overnight. We had organised a theatre festival…in which young people with a strong sense of concern for the human condition performed, using only their bodies. The desire to document this particular form of theatre into books is what led to setting up Seagull Books on June 20, 1982,” says Kishore.
It wasn’t Anton Chekhov or even Richard Bach that led to the name of his company. On March 5, 1972, Kishore was on stage working for a friend, Sumit Roy, who was organising a rock concert for the local band Great Bear. One of their most successful singles was a song called Seagull Empire. “Seagull was the American slang for cocaine. So, the beginnings were ‘shifty’. Then, Sumit moved on and became an advertising professional and I inherited the name two years later, when I did another rock concert with a group called High. Ten years later, when the book happened, Seagull was far too well known to change,” he says.
Those early days were heady. “We had no experience but our instinct was to build a wishlist within the contemporary fine arts — theatre, culture, films, anthropology,” says Kishore. His theatre days had introduced him to the city’s, and, slowly, to the country’s luminaries and he built on these relationships. He published in translation the screenplays of filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy and Mrinal Sen’s Akaler Sandhane (In Search of Famine). “I had no knowledge of how books were made, and, therefore, no fear. One did what we are all adept at doing in our wonderful country: learn on the job. We were using the same resources, the same technology, but we invested in the best quality — the best paper, the best covers, the best letter presses. We would go to book fairs and film festivals, set up small book ‘kiosks’ inside the foyer of the President Hotel in Bombay and show our work to international filmmakers to try and catch their attention,” says Kishore. When Sen sent a copy of the translation of Akaler Sandhane to American avant-garde film historian Jay Leyda as a gift, it began a relationship between Kishore and Leyda, who had been a student of Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein. “(It) eventually led to him giving us his autobiography to publish. This has just been reissued in paperback,” he says.
Eisenstein, of course, is just one of Seagull’s heavyweight comrades; its backlist is a roll call of honour — from Mahasweta Devi and her son Nabarun Bhattacharya to Roland Barthes, Jorge Luis Borges, KG Subramanyan, Yves Bonnefoy, Benedict Anderson, László Krasznahorkai, and, more recently, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Thapar. Often, the relationship between the publisher and the author have blurred to form bonds of life-affirming friendships. Artist KG Subramanyan, for instance, first came into Kishore’s life as a writer and an art historian. He would later grow into his art, organising exhibitions and publishing his work. Even after the artist’s death in 2016, Kishore continues exhibiting his work, across India, outside what he calls “the traditional commercial gallery system”, in tier-II cities such as Bhubaneshwar, Bhopal and Patna. “There’s very little to distinguish my love letters from my business letters. I almost always invariably go by instinct. When you deal with a literature of the mind and heart, you cannot keep some kind of a ‘distanced’ relationship. There is love, affection, concern, and, more importantly, a dailyness of exchange that is vital and instinctive. We don’t publish a book like a product. We publish authors,” he says.
It’s easy to get swept away by the romanticism of his words but Kishore is equally quick to admit that publishing, like any industry, also needs a businessman’s acumen. Money is always tight and the returns often slow. “It’s never easy, but you have to make it look easy. At some point, you have to make peace with a life of commerce with a ceiling where things get done rather than worry too much about number-crunching. At the same time, it’s not a desperately romantic thing. If you have to survive, you have to make things work, so the mental math is happening all the time,” he says. Seagull Books had started with the initial support and loans from friends, and “later, from sponsorships and a very nurturing partnership with no strings attached from ITC.” “In any serious publishing, you need to build what we call a strong backlist year after year. It is only decades of building such a list that it begins to pay dividends. It took us 14 years to get out of debt and erase the ‘red’ in the balance sheet,” he says.
When Seagull Books was born in 1982, it was still the era of letterpress publishing. Penguin, and, after it, other multinationals, were still to enter India; the major players in India, included Oxford University Press, Orient Longman, Cambridge and Rupa. Indie publishers such as Kali for Women and Sage were yet to start up. “It was mostly a combination of academic books, textbooks, popular literature from abroad in rights arrangements and so on,” says Kishore. In April 2005, however, with the launch of Seagull London, Kishore upended what had been the traditional relationship with the English-speaking West. “As Indian publishers, we would always be expected to buy rights from them to print, publish and sell only in India. We felt that in a globalised world, if our money was as good as theirs, our ability to produce well-designed books often better, all we needed was reasonably courteous distribution. And then, why wouldn’t we be able to compete for world content and buy world rights just like other publishers in the UK and US?” he says. Seagull’s books are distributed by the University of Chicago Press and he now buys only world rights. “We publish across borders and territories. It was a political choice to be publishers without being labelled Indian or American or French, just publishers of quality,” he says.
To publish what he wants still remains his single-most political act. Seagull was among the first to look into translations, driven by Kishore’s personal interest in European literature. Now, he is looking to build a contemporary non-fiction list, with the essay as a form that captures the spirit of these turbulent times. “I feel that this moment deserves something immediate. If the vulnerable story of something happening now has to be told, books have to come out quickly. In these difficult times, it is an act of resistance. Just the fact of publishing what needs to be shared with an increasingly despair-filled world when the pressure to conform and subdue your voice is a given, is an act of independence,” he says.