Manohara Grantha Mala: Kannada’s foremost publishing house

Manohara Grantha Mala, the Dharwad-based publishing house which turns 88 this year, has played an important role in the tumultuous history of Kannada literature.

Published : May 27, 2021 06:00 IST

Ramakant Joshi  and his son Sameer Joshi at the MGM office in Dharwad.

Ramakant Joshi and his son Sameer Joshi at the MGM office in Dharwad.

The renowned writer, actor and playwright Girish Karnad would have turned 82 on May 19 this year. While Karnad himself would have been indifferent to his birthday because of his personal philosophy (“Birth and death are personal events; what matters is what one does in between”), his birthday provides us with a pretext to trace the trajectory of Manohara Grantha Mala (MGM), which published all his books in Kannada. Established a few years before Karnad’s birth, this Kannada publishing house has had a parallel trajectory of growth alongside Karnad’s life and will complete 88 years on August 15, 2021.

MGM is a Dharwad-based publishing house that launched Karnad as a playwright, as well as the writing careers of Kannada’s best-known literary figures. Karnad acknowledged MGM in a collection of articles titled Meluku ( Reminiscences ). He said that it was owing to MGM, which published his first play Yayati , that readers accepted him as a Kannada writer. This also influenced his decision to make Dharwad his home. The publisher played an even more fundamental role in Karnad’s future career because Keerthinatha Kurtakoti, a literary critic and adviser to MGM, practically rewrote and polished the draft of Yayati .

In his memoir, Aadaadata Ayushya ( Life spent as we play ), published by MGM, Karnad recounts how Dharwad played a central role in his life, first as home to the university where he graduated from and, second, as the city that housed MGM. Karnad’s relationship with the publishing house is his relationship with Kannada. MGM published all his Kannada plays, including his last play, Rakshasa Tangadi , which was published about a year before his death in 2019. Karnad, in turn, demonstrated his loyalty to MGM by never looking for another publisher for his Kannada works even after he had reached the height of his fame.

Karnad’s association with MGM attracted others to write about the publishing house. The noted historian and public intellectual Ramachandra Guha took part in its annual literary festival, “Dharwad Sahitya Sambhrama”, in 2019, where he was the only invitee in the festival’s history to address the gathering in English. Writing about the event after Karnad’s death, Guha recalled how the playwright had taken him to visit the office housed on the second floor of an old building on Subhas Road in Dharwad where he had first gone 50 years or so ago with the script of Yayati . The publisher’s office was more or less as it was when Karnad had first visited it—the same large room; the same tables with piles of manuscripts; the same shelves displaying the rich horde of in-house publications; the open terrace adjoining the hall; the dozen chairs on which sat local poets, novelists and critics whom Karnad knew and kept in touch with.

Uncompromising role

Along with providing an impetus to Karnad’s literary career, MGM has had an important role to play in the tumultuous history of Kannada literature. It has taken uncompromising positions on the question of literary values and supported bold and experimental literary work. To date, it has published over 500 titles, spanning a wide genre of literature that includes novels, short story collections, plays, biographies, memoirs, poetry and criticism. MGM’s logo adorns the titles of more than 300 authors, each of whom is a well-known name in the Kannada world of letters. The books published by MGM provided a crucial direction for the growth of Kannada thought and literature.

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A perusal of some of the early publications of MGM gives one a sense of its salience in the Kannada publishing world: Ram Shri Mugali traced the development of Kannada literary culture through history; Keerthinatha Kurtakoti explored the critical frameworks that provided the context for Kannada literature; A.K. Ramanujan looked at the sources of inspiration of Kannada folk culture; Shankara Mokashi Punekar offered vivid descriptions of a past that was more liberal and inclusive than the present. Through its publications, MGM must be credited with fostering a broad liberal outlook towards life and good literary taste in its readership. The Federation of Indian Publishers recognised MGM’s contribution with the Distinguished Publisher’s Award in 1993.

MGM’s founding must be located in the context of the pre-Independence era as the publishing house was borne into being on the winds of “nationalism” (not to be mistaken with the much-abused term in contemporary India). Those were the days when Kannada writing was insightful, piercing and had a mandate to locate the Kannada world in the broader space of the nation.

Early years

A collective of like-minded friends, known as Geleyara Gumpu (“Friends’ Collective”), founded MGM in Dharwad in the 1930s. This collective comprised enthusiasts of literature, such as Betageri Krishnasharma, V.K. Gokak, R.S. Mugali, S.G. Kulkarni, Prahlad Naregal, G.B. Joshi and Narayana Sangam, all of whom believed in a new India and a new unified political and geographical identity for Kannadigas. The first work that they published was Sudarshana , a collection of the writings of Krishnasharma.

Things were not easy during MGM’s founding year: the Geleyara Gumpu managed to print six books on paper that had to be purchased on credit from Jayantilal Gandhi and Co., a Bombay-based firm and printed by Mohan Press in Dharwad owned by K.G. Rayadurga who had agreed to defer payment. Soon, Geleyara Gumpu disbanded, but its creation, Manohara Grantha Mala, stayed on. It was in 1933 that G.B. Joshi took over MGM.

Joshi’s commitment

MGM has not been commercially successful through its more than eight decades of existence but owing to the commitment shown by G.B. Joshi, it became, and remains, the foremost Kannada publishing house. Joshi managed the publishing house through growing a subscriber base large enough to sustain it. He preferred to bring out original publications rather than reprinting successful works which might have been far more lucrative.

Times were hard in the 1930s and 1940s. A linguistically defined province of Kannada-speaking people did not exist. Kannada-speaking regions were dispersed among the British territories of Bombay and Madras presidencies and the princely state of Hyderabad. The princely state of Mysore alone formed the core of Kannada territory at the time. Ruled by the Wodeyar dynasty, Mysore was relatively more prosperous with its own publishing houses, some of which were patronised by the royal family.

In such a situation, Joshi had his work cut out for him. He lugged bundles of books on his shoulders, undertaking long journeys to wherever Kannada readers could be found. His was a mobile bookshop, and many book lovers remember him with the same fondness as they did the Kannada classics he delivered at their doorsteps. Joshi was publisher, salesman and courier, all rolled into one.

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Some of the titles and authors that Joshi purveyed in those early, difficult years include some of Kannada’s greatest novels such as Shriranga’s Vishwamitrana Srishti , Shivaram Karanth’s Marali Mannige , V.K. Gokak’s Samarasave Jeevana and Mirji Annaraya’s Nisarga . A.N. Krishnarao’s novels Sandhya Raga and Mangalasutra became bestsellers; Shankara Mokashi Punekar’s Gangawwa Gangamai and Rao Bahadur’s Gramayana were landmarks, while U.R. Ananthamurthy’s Samskara broke new ground and marked the beginning of an entirely new critical trend.

MGM supported the translations of celebrated works from other languages into Kannada as well, with publications such as Kurihindu (a collection of short stories from Bengali) translated by Jaladhara (pen name of Babu Rao Halappa). N. Kasturi initiated a new genre in serious, thoughtful humour with his Chakradrushti and Gruhadaranyaka . D.R. Bendre, known mainly for his poetry, wrote Hosasamsara , a play that MGM published. This trend of publishing plays continued with Kurtakoti’s Aa Mani , G.B. Joshi’s Mooka Bali , Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq and Hayavadana and Chandrashekhara Kambara’s Rushyashringa . Apart from this, MGM published works in literary history and criticism authored by Kurtakoti, Gokak, Mugali, V. Seetharamaiah and Sadananda Naik, that were well received.

There are many interesting literary anecdotes associated with MGM. One of these has to do with U.R. Ananthamurthy’s Samskara . Ananthamurthy sent in his manuscript to MGM, which was given to Kurtakoti for vetting. Karnad was visiting at the time and Kurtakoti passed it on to him for his opinion. Karnad is said to have finished reading the manuscript overnight, and the questions raised in the novel agitated him so much that he could not sleep thereafter. Karnad said that Samskara gave him deep insight into the Kannada ethos, and that its characters appeared to him like “pieces of coloured glass in a kaleidoscope”. It was an idea that he somehow wanted to be part of, and he went on to put together the team that created the film version of Samskara .

There is a similar anecdote about Kaadu , another film Karnad directed based on another manuscript he had been privy to read, titled Krourya by Srikrishna Alanahalli. Publisher G.B. Joshi took a keen interest in Karnad’s cinematic ventures and wrote dialogues for Karnad’s Ondanondu Kaaladalli and made a short film Aa Mani , based on the play by Kurtakoti.

In its 25th year, MGM brought out three volumes of Nadedu Banda Dari ( Path traversed ), marking the path Kannada literature had taken, with prefatory essays that provided a background for the selected author’s extract. With contributions from more than 135 writers, the compilation was immensely popular and constituted an important milestone in the history of Kannada literature.

To mark its golden jubilee in 1983, MGM published a five-volume set of literary works from its shelves titled Puta Bangara ( Gilded pages ). This collection featured articles that showcased the best of Kannada literature, with the curation reflecting the changing trends in writing over the decades and highlighting the continual attempts at experimentation with new forms and themes.

Another noteworthy venture of MGM is the publication of the half-yearly literary journal Manvantara , of which ten issues have been published so far. The journal is devoted exclusively to a critical reassessment of prominent Kannada works. One issue of Manvantara even provided the platform for a quirky literary experiment. Eleven writers were corralled into the project. One of them contributed the first chapter of a prospective novel: the gambit. The others took the cue and wrote, in turn, a chapter each that would take the narrative forward. In this manner, the 11 authors created a single coherent novel titled Kho (cue).

Under the rubric of Ashu Natakas , MGM published transcripts of plays improvised on stage by actors who were only provided a broad theme. The plays themselves were initiated and supported by the institution. MGM also organises seasonal literary festivals, such as Sharadotsava (Winter) and Vasantotsava (Spring), as well as a lecture series called Jnanaprasara (Propagation of knowledge).

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In Karnad’s passing, the MGM lost another literary adviser after prominent Kannada writers such as Kurtakoti, Yashwant Chittal and Giraddi Govindaraj. In its early decades, stalwarts such as Bendre, Mugali and Gokak had provided literary guidance.

The road ahead

It has been a difficult road for MGM since its founding. Both G.B. Joshi and his son Ramakant Joshi struggled to overcome financial difficulties and keep the institution running. Sameer Joshi, Ramakant Joshi’s son, is the third generation of the family to continue the publishing house. Sameer, who has done a course in printing technology to keep up with the times, said that e-books and electronic publishing have changed the face of publishing. He said: “The advent of digital printing allows anyone to write and publish. E-books have changed people’s reading habits but people above 50 continue to prefer printed books.”

What worries Sameer Joshi is the emergence of “fake” publishers who take advantage of the bulk purchase system introduced by the government. He said: “The challenge for the genuine publisher is to reach the reader whose priorities have changed. In the earlier days, fiction was in demand. Now there is great demand for works on history and non-fiction. Readers have become more inquisitive.” MGM is now looking to encourage a new generation of writers who will find a welcome home in MGM’s atta (attic) where there is always mirchi, churmuri and tea waiting before the start of an animated discussion on Kannada literature.

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