meet Rajendra Prakash Jain of Motilal Banarsidass on the challenges of getting Gen X to read works on Indology

In 1903, Motilal Banarsidass (MLBD) began as a tiny store of spiritual books, built on a capital of Rs. 27. Over the next century, it developed into one of the world's foremost publishers of scholarly works on Indology, with a formidable catalogue of priceless works — 100 volumes of the Mahapuranas, 50 volumes of the ‘Sacred Books of the East' edited by Max Mueller...

Today, the 107-year-old Delhi-based publishing company, still run by the descendants of Motilal Jain, its founder, retains its focus on Indian culture and spiritual heritage, but is evolving to meet the changing needs of the 21st Century.

Speaking to Rajendra Prakash Jain, one of the five brothers who currently run MLBD, what emerges is the picture of a company that straddles the old world and the new, combining tradition with modernity.

“Our thrust is on bringing ancient wisdom to modern times, in a way that makes it accessible to the younger generation,” says Jain, who was in the city recently, visiting the MLBD store here which is in the process of being renovated.

Their efforts have taken a number of forms, from a sister publishing house, ‘New Age Books' for lighter, easier-to-understand works, to their music label ‘New Age Music', which brings out CDs for relaxation, meditation and yoga, produced primarily abroad.

Now, they're going all out with events across the country to promote various aspects of Indian culture. “We're talking to various organisations to do workshops, seminars and lectures featuring our authors, to spread awareness,” he says. “We've already done about 250 free workshops on Vedic maths (one of our most popular areas) all over India.”

Jain is himself a Gandhian scholar, and has been invited to give lectures at universities, seminars and conferences across the world to talk on Gandhian philosophy. “I've also been trying to promote young scholars and speakers in the area of Indology and Indian arts, but none of this is easy — it takes time and a lot of funding,” he says.

The digital age

Naturally, their other big focus is the Internet, the digital frontier. “Our full catalogue is already available on our portal,; now, we're planning to get into e-books,” he says. They're also looking into ‘Print-On-Demand' (PoD), a new form of publishing that's gaining popularity worldwide, and which has entered India now. “This allows you to print only the number of copies that have been ordered as opposed to having to print a minimum of, say, 1,000 copies, bringing down storage costs considerably,” he says.

It's all quite cutting-edge, but that's what it takes to survive in the current economic climate. “The publishing industry is undergoing a lot of changes the world over and has been hard-hit by the recession,” he says, adding that nearly 60 to 70 per cent of their sales comes from exports.

And, this is a family that knows a thing or two about survival — after all, they lost everything during the riots following Partition when the store was burnt down, and began again from scratch. With the fifth generation — Jain's son and nephew — having entered the business as well, the MLBD brand is all set to keep evolving.

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