Cre-A Ramakrishnan

Cre-A Ramakrishnan: A complete aesthete

Print edition : December 18, 2020

S. Ramakrishnan Photo: By Special Arrangement

Ramakrishnan was a remarkable short story writer and editor and a visionary publisher whose interests extended much beyond literature. He made fundamental contributions to the establishment of institutions such as Koothu-P-Pattarai, Sampradaya, Mozhi and the Roja Muthiah Research Library.

I first met Ram—this is how friends and admirers fondly addressed Cre-A Ramakrishnan (S. Ramakrishnan)—in 1974 during one of my visits to Chennai where my maternal grandparents had settled. I was at that time working in Coimbatore as a textile shop salesman.

A school dropout with very little knowledge of Tamil (my mother tongue is Gujarati), I was a fumbling, ill-equipped and unreasonably daring young man trying to write stories in Tamil. Earlier, I had taught myself Tamil and English through books I bought from Coimbatore’s old market. I was able to buy these books by saving the daily tea money I got at the textile store. Like most readers of modern Tamil literature, I too had stumbled upon/into contemporary Tamil by sheer accident or perhaps by some divine intervention. (Even now, some 50 years later, there is still no sustainable system in Indian educational institutions to introduce contemporary Tamil literature to a keen student.) With a lot of effort, I managed to acquaint myself with the best contemporary Tamil writers and their works.

My interest in Ashokamitran’s stories made me go to his house in T. Nagar (in Chennai) to buy two of his wonderful collections (Vaazhvile ore murai and Innum sila naatkal), which he had self-published. On my way back, I was sitting in an empty bus that was yet to start its trip, engrossed in reading the stories. Ram, who was on his way to Mount Road (now Anna Salai), came and sat next to me. I later came to know that Ram was a close friend of Ashokamitran and they were a part of the little magazine Ka Sa Da Tha Pa Ra where I had read about the above two collections. Excited to see me with those Ashokamitran books, Ram started a conversation. We had an animated, though brief, chat until he got down at Mount Road. (We somehow did not share our contact information. We both perhaps knew that it was a small world, and if the need arose, we could always find each other.) Exactly three years later, I met Ram again, in a hotel in T. Nagar, and I was again reading a little magazine. This was not just a coincidence; it was Destiny, for neither of us could have imagined that these two brief meetings would blossom into a friendship and association of almost five decades. We reconnected in 1979 when Ram set up Cre-A in an office-cum-showroom on Royapettah High Road next to Pilot cinema theatre. Although I started to work for Cre-A, Ram never ever made me feel I was his employee.

Ram and his partner Jayalakshmi established Cre-A in 1974. Jayalakshmi, who was the senior partner, was equally instrumental in conceptualising Cre-A as a venture and its objectives. It would not be an exaggeration to say that when Ram and Jayalakshmi decided to give up their lucrative careers to establish Cre-A, it was truly a defining moment in Tamil publishing.

Ram, a postgraduate in sociology who had a brief stint in advertising, was essentially a remarkable short story writer and editor. His persona was an encompassing amalgamation of all these traits. In whatever he did, Ram invested the perceptions of a student of sociology, the meticulousness of a communicator and the sensitivity of a writer and editor. Later, as Ram turned publisher, the visionary in him too woke up.

When Cre-A’s uniquely produced first three books came out (Existentialism ore Arimugam (Existentialism: An Introduction) by S.V. Rajadurai; Naarkaalikkarar, a collection of plays, by Na. Muthuswamy; and Thakkaiyin Meethu Naangu Kangal, a short story anthology, by Sa. Kandasamy), it created a wave of excitement as they provided readers with an utterly new Tamil–book reading experience.

When Cre-A arrived on the scene, modern Tamil literature was gearing itself up to articulate newer concerns and experiences that required different and inspiring formats of presentation. Cre-A filled this need most effectively. Some of the best examples reflective of this percept are S.V Rajadurai’s Anniyamaadhal, Sundara Ramaswamy’s J.J. Sila Kurippugal and Theodore Baskaran’s The Message Bearers. Later, Cre-A also went on to publish important works by Na. Pichamoorthy, Mouni, C. Mani, Ashokamitran, G. Nagarajan, S. Sampath, Poomani, Rajendrachozhan, Imayam, Asaithambi and Sankararama Subramaniam. Ram wanted Tamil readers to be informed of all that was happening in literature, the arts and in the world of ideas. However, he conveyed this without sounding pompous or haughty by providing an inspiring atmosphere at Cre-A that silently exuded his spectrum of intentions. Modest but aesthetically designed, the Cre-A office soon became a regular meeting point for artists, writers and readers.

With his erudition and ever-friendly demeanour, Ram attracted the best minds of the city. Most of the evenings were stimulating as artists, writers, theatre personalities, professors and researchers would keep coming and going. The atmosphere was that of a collective pondering and exploration of finer aspects that helped enrich and sustain one’s inner life: poetry, painting, philosophy, music education; it could be anything depending on the visiting person’s field of interest.

Besides Cre-A’s own publications, we collected and put on display all the important works of modern Tamil literature that other publishers brought out, which included translations, non-fiction books and little magazines. At Cre-A, we also provided an outlet for authors and small publishers, which created a deep sense of belonging amongst writers and readers. We happened to be a single source from where one could access all the serious efforts that were being made in modern Tamil literature. For Ram, creating a community of serious readers was as important as publishing books.

Apart from being a bookshop, Cre-A also doubled as a mini art gallery. Ram’s association with artists such as K.M. Adimoolam, R.B. Bhaskaran, Achuthan Kudallur, S.N. Venkatraman, P. Krishnamoorthy and K. Damodaran from his Ka Sa Da Tha Pa Ra days made it possible for this dimension to become a part of Cre-A. Cre-A hosted Trotsky Marudu’s first one-man show.

Translations

Cre-A also had got a formidable reputation for its direct translations of serious literary works in Hindi (Surendra Varma), Kannada (Girish Karnad), French (Albert Camus) and German (Franz Kafka). Translations have always played a major part in sustaining and enhancing the modern literary consciousness in Tamil. Ram painstakingly oversaw each of these translations to make them unforgettable literary experiences. As one who never missed the larger picture, Ram unhesitatingly went beyond the literature with which Cre-A was identified in its formative years. He also brought out Tamil translations of some very relevant books that were pioneering efforts in terms of subject and production: Indhiyavin Sutruchoozhal (India’s State of the Environment), Doctor Illatha Idathil (Where there is no doctor”) and Thondu Kinarugalum avatrin Amaippum (Hand-dug wells and their construction).

Ram was deeply committed to his responsibilities as a publisher, and as Cre-A progressed he kept enlarging his vision and focus. Even a cursory glance at the subject list of Cre-A’s publications (and their elegant production quality) would be enough to give one an idea of his achievements as a publisher. Taking on more complex and huge publication projects, he completed them with flawless precision. It must be mentioned here that Pavoorchatram Rajagopal Subramanian was the person who first helped Ram realise his dream project: the Cre-A: Dictionary of Contemporary Tamil.

Although landmark publications such as Cre-A: Tharkala Tamizh Agarathi (the dictionary) and its Braille version; Early Tamil Epigraphy by Iravatham Mahadevan; Social Dimensions of Modern Tamil by E. Annamalai and Colporul: A History of Tamil Dictionaries by Gregory James brought wide acclaim and added stature to Cre-A, Ram never allowed the spirit in him of a small and a serious publisher fade away. He was always happy to get back to this core role of a literary publisher who fervently believed that good books happened only when you had an intelligent editor. And Ram was an amazing editor. And he could teach one how to tame the beast called language. In many ways, Ram was a complete aesthete. His interests extended much beyond literature. He was quite passionate about modern art, Hindustani and Western classical music, theatre history, philosophy, the environment, wildlife, and so on. He made fundamental contributions to the establishment of institutions such as Koothu-P-Pattarai, Sampradaya, Mozhi and the Roja Muthiah Research Library.

Hence, it is difficult to sum him up in a brief write-up. Every time he raised the bar (which he did quite frequently) for himself as a publisher and as a sensitive human being, he became even more unreachable. His sudden demise, on November 17 at the age of 75, is a devastating blow to all who knew him well. To me, he was like a gentle breeze that kept blowing through a particular window of contemporary Tamil literature. Now as the window is shut, remembering that breeze will be painful and forgetting it difficult.

Dilip Kumar is an award-winning Tamil short story writer and editor. He has authored three collections of short stories and edited two anthologies of Tamil short stories translated into English. Northwestern University recently published a translation of his book Cat in the Agraharam and Other Stories.

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