How Kalachuvadu Kannan changed the face of Tamil book publishing

‘Tamil has a rich and hoary literary tradition spanning over two thousand years. The earliest literature in Tamil can be traced back to Sangam poetry, circa 2nd century BCE, which comprises anthologies of short lyrics compiled as Ettuthokai (eight anthologies) and longer poems collected under the name of Pathuppaattu (ten idylls), both of which deal in depth and detail with several aspects of life such as love, war and social values…’

This pithy introduction to Tamil literary history forms part of a five-paragraph short note about Tamil, prominently published in the translation rights catalogue of the popular and respected Kanyakumari-based Tamil publishing house, Kalachuvadu Publications.

Kannan Sundaram, publisher and managing director, Kalachuvadu, explained that this introduction to the Tamil language is meant for international publications, to draw their attention towards Tamil published works and interest them enough to translate the books in their languages.

A familiar face in Tamil publishing circles, Kannan was recently conferred with the Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite, the Knight of the Order of the Merit, by the French government for his contribution to the publishing collaboration between India and France.

“Only we keep bragging about Tamil — like it is the world’s first language or a language spoken by many. But, when I visit international book fairs, many western publications do not even recognise our language. They are clueless about the existence of such a language. So, to introduce the language to the world audience, we prepared A note on Tamil, which provides just facts sans any exaggeration,” said Kannan.

Kannan, who is popularly known as ‘Kalachuvadu’ Kannan in both Tamil literary circles and the publishing industry, also runs a literary and cultural monthly magazine, Kalachuvadu. Started by renowned writer Sundara Ramasamy (fondly known as SuRa) in 1988 as a quarterly magazine, it was discontinued after nine issues in 1992. In 1994, the magazine was resurrected by his son Kannan. It became a bi-monthly in 2000 and monthly in 2003. In 2020, the magazine celebrated its silver jubilee.

In a free-wheeling, exclusive chat with The Federal, Kannan, who has also won the ‘Publishing Next’ Publisher of the Year Award 2018, shared how Kalachuvadu has been a game-changer in the Tamil publishing industry. Edited excerpts:

How did Kalachuvadu evolve from a literary magazine into a book publishing house?

The magazine was started by my father SuRa. He always respected and gave space to different ideas and ideologies. In turn, he also wanted his ideas to be taken to the masses widely. Unfortunately, in the 1990s, most of his books were either out of print or few in number. So, I started a book publishing house under the same name as the magazine in 1995.

Earlier, you were in the garment business, so how did you gain confidence to start and run a publishing house from the deep south?

The decade we started the publishing house was also the time the new economic policies began to shape our country. It opened up new opportunities in the publishing industry, too. Firstly, DTP (desktop publishing) had arrived in Nagercoil (located in Kanyakumari district) and we were able to design and print the books in the town itself. We didn’t have to travel to Chennai for this. 

Secondly, the telecom revolution kicked off. After STD booths came the mobile phones and the internet, making it easier to reach out to people. That encouraged us to organise ‘Tamil Ini 2000’, a Tamil conference to bring together speakers from across the globe.

These developments made our physical presence redundant in the city. However, we had an office in Chennai just to sell our books but that too shut down during the pandemic. We could have gotten more traction if we had moved to the state capital but I personally felt it would have disturbed our focus. We would have been expected to conduct many meetings, media discussions, etc. We were able to escape all this by working from Nagercoil.

What was the business model you had in mind when you stepped into the industry?

We decided not to depend on government library orders. We selected, published and sold the books to our readers —  the public. At that time, many publishers pretended to view publishing as a kind of service to society and literature. Publishing the work of an author was itself seen as a great service. Paying royalty to the author was uncommon at that time.

We wanted to be professional. So, we entered into a contract with writers to acquire publishing and translation rights and paid a fair sum of amount as royalty. This earned us goodwill in the literary circle. We also vigorously marketed our books, despite receiving adverse criticisms from various quarters as being very ‘business minded’.

What is the thumb rule you follow while selecting a book?

SuRa in one of his letters worried that the hunger for ‘rich content’ is lacking in the Tamil publishing industry. Though Kalachuvadu was initially started as a sirupathirikai (‘mini-magazine’), we wanted to move beyond that term. So, when we started it again in 1994, we provided space not just for literature but also for books on politics, social issues, environment, etc.

We follow the concept of ‘biblio diversity’. So, we have a wide range of titles from various fields like economics, science, etc., and we do not reject any new subjects. The only thing we look for is that the content should be readable. We are surrounded by intellectuals from different fields and we send the content for peer reviews before we publish a book. That way, we have earned the readers’ trust.

Before us, there were just a handful of publications concerned about the book content and in the execution. For instance, we won’t publish any kind of a PhD thesis. Instead, we sit with the author and work together to convert the thesis into a readable text. 

One of our earliest publications was the book Kirithavamum Saadhiyum, which was basically a history of caste conflict in one church. But we discussed with the author, A Sivasubramanian, a renowned historian, and he repackaged the thesis as a history of caste among Christians in Tamil Nadu. We put in the same kind of effort for each and every book that we publish.

Diversity apart, Kalachuvadu is also at the receiving end at certain times…

I think you are referring to the Perumal Murugan incident. But that is more recent. We faced such threats way back in 1995 itself for publishing a short story in our magazine. Even then, we stood by the writer. Similarly, we received brickbats when we published some books on the Sri Lankan Tamils issue, Periyar, Marx, etc.

Kalachuvadu believes in the freedom of expression. We see the criticisms against us as a stepping stone for growth. ‘Literature is nothing but life’, is the philosophy from the times of Manikodi (one of the earliest literary magazines in Tamil). If the people who criticise have that understanding, there will be no attack on writers.

Besides publishing, you are also organising writer’s workshops, sending writers for cultural exchange programmes abroad and conducting writers in residence programmes, taking part in international level book fairs, etc. How do these activities help you as a publisher?

I believe, pushing ourselves like this beyond just publishing books, is very much required. It is necessary to develop a vibrant book culture in the Tamil language. Unfortunately, we are not getting any kind of support to grow the book culture in the state, either from the state or the Central government or any major private institutions. The reason is that people do not perceive the publishing industry as an intellectual activity and just consider it as a business. That is why no award has been constituted by the government at the national or state level to recognise the work of publishers.

But now, in Tamil Nadu, the current disposition organises book fairs in every district and  requested political functionaries to present books instead of shawls, etc. Having a government that supports reading is welcome. I hope this will play a greater role in developing a distinct book culture in Tamil.

What is the one lesson that Tamil publishers should learn from publishing houses abroad?

Firstly, they should stop repeating the rhetoric that books are not selling. If a book has not been sold it is partially the publisher’s failure and the blame should not all fall on the writer. 

Also I don’t believe in the oft-quoted claim that readership for books is dropping. Even we publish our books both as printed books and Kindle editions. But, a large section of our readers still prefer printed books. Today, spending ₹100 or 200 for a book is not a big issue. The literacy rate is growing. Then who is buying these printed books? People in death beds or retired employees? No, it is the youngsters.

Secondly, we have a very small number of publishing houses that bring out titles exclusively in specialised areas like science, environment, films, etc. The Tamil publishing industry should have more niche publishers.

Since you have been awarded the Chevalier, what is your view on French translations of Indian books?

The market for translations is steadily growing in France and has reached about 20 per cent now. Also, the state supports publishers with grants for publishing translations in French. French publishers are now looking to diversify their list beyond French, Francophone and Western books and have opened a window of opportunity for books from India to be translated into French. Unfortunately, not many Indian publishers are pursuing this opportunity and the Indian state offers no translation grants to publishers to encourage the spread of Indian literature.

Note: This news piece was originally published in and used purely for non-profit/non-commercial purposes exclusively for Human Rights.

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