A movement in Marathi publishing

Print edition : April 28, 2001

Granthali, a Marathi publishing house, has made a name for itself by making literature accessible to the public. Its critics, however, say that of late it has become increasingly commercial.

AS many as 250 publications in 25 years, 130 of which have been honoured; a reputation for encouraging new authors; remarkable success in encouraging the reading habit among the people. Granthali has influenced the Marathi reader in a significant way.

The publishing house was launched in 1974 by a group of people from different professions, who formed themselves into an informal organisation. "Granthali is a word coined by Ashok Jain, who was the Executive Editor of The Maharashtra Times and was part of our group," said Dinkar Gangal, one of the founders of Granthali.

Dinkar Gangal, on the Granthali premises.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Gangal told Frontline that what inspired the founders was the desire to bring out good books at affordable prices. He said that these persons attended the Marathi Sahitya Sammelan at Ichalkaranji in 1973. During a group discussion two readers, from Nipani and Belgium, said that they had not read certain important Marathi works because they could not procure them. "That touched a chord in us," Gangal said, and added: "That was a time of great social and political awareness. Most of us were involved in social activism. Literature of the period reflected the mood of the people and yet it did not reach vast sections of the readers." Although Maharashtra at that time had a population of five crores, the number of the reading public hardly exceeded 50,000. That was a time when it took about 10 years to sell a thousand copies of a book, Gangal said.

The founders were also fired by the desire to bring books that contained progressive thoughts on socio-political issues within the reach of the Marathi reader. They initiated steps to ensure that the reading habit went beyond the privileged urban middle class. After the Sammelan, 14 enthusiastic proponents of this idea met in a Mumbai restaurant and decided on a simple plan to inform people of the formation of Granthali. Each one wrote 10 postcards, introducing Granthali and requesting the addressees to convey the message to more people.

Granthali's initial corpus was built on the Rs. 25 paid by each founder. "With this we decided to become publishers," recalls Gangal, proud of their boldness, which could only be inspired by idealism. Money came in a trickle from people who wanted to encourage the movement. Granthali promised that it would soon offer readers four books for Rs.25. The effect of this on the reading public, who would normally have had to pay at least Rs.60 for four books, is easy to imagine. The group's first publication was Doob, a collection of literary essays written by Durga Bhagwat. This was followed by a collection of essays on atrocities against women, a book on Raj Kapoor's films, and another titled Robot, on military discipline, written by an Army deserter.

After this there was no looking back for Granthali. The financial position remained uncertain since the books were sold at cost price and the founders relied entirely on volunteers. However, new authors were discovered, explosive topics were written about and this enabled their being discussed all over the State. Dalit writing, especially, blossomed under Granthali's editorial guidance. Daya Pawar, a little known writer until then, shook Marathi society with his book Baluta, an autobiographical account of life as a Dalit. The widespread response to the book encouraged Pawar to write another book wherein he explained how his life was altered by Dalits' negative response to Baluta.

Granthali was frequently asked about the low prices of its books. Unlike most other publishing houses that woo libraries and reserve their best deals for bulk buyers, Granthali decided to attract individual readers by offering discounts. "It was, after all, our aim to promote the reading habit in individuals," said Gangal. The Marathi book trade used to charge the reader three times the actual cost of production. Granthali, on the other hand, sold its books at cost price.

Granthali soon grew into a mass movement. "Readers saw this as a social movement and realised that their role was to support it by buying books. We sold books everywhere. We saw it as a social activity," said Gangal recalling the days when he and other volunteers would carry books to the hinterland for sale. After the first eight years Granthali organised a Granth Yatra - an 18-day mobile exhibition and sale of books that covered 35 towns in Maharashtra. It was a success. Gangal said that Granthali's success was largely because of its ability to change with the times. It promoted sales by organising mobile exhibitions combined with cultural shows and group discussions that attracted large number of people. Granthali's latest showpiece is a voluminous work, Gnaynayadnya - a series of books exploring the Marathi psyche.

The movement continued to forge ahead. However, recently discord began to appear among the founders and some of them dropped out. Some people said that Granthali had drifted from the objective of providing books at affordable prices, while some others protested that the quality of the publications had fallen. A section of old-time readers complained of a drop in the editorial quality of the publications.

Today, 25 years after it was founded, Granthali is still a respected name in the Marathi publishing trade. But now questions are raised about its functioning and changing objectives. Pradip Karnik, librarian at D.G. Ruparel College in Mumbai who has long been associated with the publishing house, said that "after the first seven years of its existence Granthali ceased to keep its promises."

Even as he praised Granthali for its work in its early years, Karnik criticised it for what he saw as significant changes in its approach to two questions: the subjects of the books published and their cost. The watershed was the Grantha yatra, according to him. "In 1982 Granthali received a grant from the Ford Foundation and that changed them. I don't know what it was, but after the Grantha Yatra they refused to provide any financial account of the grant. Some founding members even resigned over this," said Karnik. Aroon Tikekar, Editor of the Marathi daily Loksatta, was one of those who resigned thus. He had two objections to the grant - one, that it had been applied for without the consent of several members and two, that the accounts had not been submitted to the members.

As for editorial content, he said about Granthali's magazine Ruchi: "This used to publish serious articles, many of which were connected with the book trade and its functioning. Now it is like any general magazine, with no particular focus and no great editorial input." Karnik also objected to what he saw as a betrayal of Granthali's pricing principles. Citing Granthali's latest showcase, the Gnaynayadnya series, he said: "The cost price of each book of this series comes to about Rs.16, but they charge Rs.32." Gangal, however, said the cost price was Rs.25 and the sale price Rs.30. Again, Karnik said that the subject that Gnaynayadnya dealt with was a far cry from exploring "the Marathi psyche and ethos." "They said that they would publish 1,000 books in 1,000 days. I wrote to them that this was a gimmick and was impossible. Then they altered this to 1,000 books in five years," Karnik claimed. His forthcoming book carries these allegations against Granthali.

Perhaps the final judges of Granthali's future will be its customers, with whom the publishing house has shared a symbiotic relationship. Gangal observed: "Someone once described Granthali as a cultural vapour. Just as vapour needs cold air to make it visible, we need goodwill to keep us going."

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