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August 30, 2018

A Midwife’s Tale

Text by Sholeen Damarwala

Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books has been cajoling readers to explore new kinds of writing without allowing “safe reader-led choices” to dictate his book lists

Naveen Kishore is a charming raconteur intrinsically gifted with the makings of a beautiful storyteller, although his day job is publisher and steadfast warrior of one of the last few bastions of world literature. Kishore wasn’t always involved in the business of books. Before founding Seagull Books in 1982, Kishore was part of Calcutta’s vibrant theatre scene, making the transition to publisher in a quest to document the arts. “Both as theatre practitioners and as publishers we serve as ‘midwives’. We make possible. We are conduits through which things ‘happen’,” says Kishore. Currently, in its 36th year, both Kishore and Seagull Books have reached an elevated state of being; one where numbers — be it readers or sales — can do little to deter their fervour. “Patterns of readership are always changing. Different technologies offering varied ways of imbibing literature will always be there for the printed book to cope with,” says Kishore. “But the trick is not to fight technology. The idea is to continue to make beautiful books and let the work you publish speak for itself.”

Seagull Books are revered for their beautifully designed covers by in-house senior editor and graphic designer, Sunandini Banerjee, while the books itself, most often translated works by European and regional Indian writers, cover a range of sublime topics such as fine art, theatre and cinema that many conventional bookstore shy away from stocking. But for Kishore the market has never been a responsible judge of the value of an original idea. “To ‘cajole’ readers to explore, even investigate, new writing has always been difficult. But what is the choice?” says Kishore. His “patience” at nurturing and building a devoted readership without allowing “safe reader-led choices” to dictate his book lists has resulted in many prestigious wins for the publishing house. For starters some of the play scripts from the ‘80s that Seagull translated to English are now part of college texts and many of the writers they work with have been finalists for the Nobel Prize in Literature award, with one of their authors, Mo Yan, even winning the prestigious award in 2012 and Sahitya Akademi Award winner, Mahasweta Devi has a reserved section with many of her works on the digital bookstore. But for Kishore going about building his list of authors over the years has never been strategic, rather a lesson in trust, instinct and what he likes to call “risk taking”. Besides relying on his own voracious reading, he also relies on recommendations given by translators he regularly works with, fellow publishers, authors and their recommendations as well as book fairs and his various travels across the globe. Hence, Seagulls inventory of books never follow an inveterate pattern. “I am disturbed by talk of ‘signature’ styles,” he says, “an enchanting and comfortable entrapment indeed!” Adding, “but therein lies the rub. Why would a creative being wish to be bound by a style that arrives with much excitement, even fanfare and then becomes static? Where is the plasticity of evolution? The ever-changing and therefore ever-surprising inspiration that attracts and twists the viewer’s attention? I want to be shocked disturbed surprised each time I see a new body of work by an artist.”

In pursuit of constant reinvention, Seagull Books persistently pushes boundaries. Besides building a wide and varied bibliography of books and authors, Kishore also setup the Seagull Foundation for the Arts; The Seagull School of Publishing, funded by the Royal Norwegian Embassy, which is in its seventh year; and PeaceWorks, founded in 2002 as a quiet act of resistance in direct response to the Gujarat riots, which collaborates with schools across the subcontinent to talk about living with difference. Seagull occasionally also publishes artists’ books for children, some of which include works by sculptor and writer, Meera Mukherjee, artist G Subramanyan and playwright, poet and novelist, Thomas Bernhard to name a few.

Currently, Kishore is busy working on releasing 40- 45 books for 2018. When probed on sharing details on the titles, he’s mildly surprised that readers would be interested, eventually offering a 25% discount for anyone, “who can prove they read this article.” Instances such as this punctuate Kishore’s optimistic stance, offering a peek into his apprehension for the future of literary works that exist to celebrate the arts, a threatened entity in current times. “I am an ageing beauty at almost 66, so another 30 years is not of any concern,” he says. “What is of deep concern is that may the desire — to publish, to resist, to exhibit, to engage, to converse across borders, across cultures — stay alive.”

To discover authors and books head to: www.seagullbooks.org

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