Kannan Sundaram's Kalachuvadu, the magazine and the publishing house, gives space to creativity, translation, debate, dissent and a variety of ideas and issues.
“We believe in complete freedom of expression,” says Kannan Sundaram, publisher of the alternative magazine Kalachuvadu and also of the Kalachuvadu Publications. While the magazine brings out articles on a number of literary, social and political issues, the publishing house brings out books in the Tamil original as well as those translated from Indian and foreign languages. Fiction, non fiction and poetry that deal with a variety of issues such as politics, and discrimination on the basis of caste, gender and community- the literature of protest, empathy and dissent in various corners of the world.
“You expect trouble when you work in a controversial area of social and political debate,” says Kannan. The Nagercoil based editor-publisher was in Chennai some time ago in connection with the release of seven books, many in translation. These included Arundhathi Roy's ‘The Broken Republic,' a collection of essays on Maoists, poems by Cheran, Gordon Weiss' book on Sri Lanka, Basharat Peer's on Kashmir, Stalin Rajangam's on Dalit politics and Ko. Raghupathy's on Dalits and the politics of water. Midway through the event a group of protestors broke into the hall accusing the publishers of being ‘anti' a number of things such as anti-Elam, anti-Dalit, anti-Kashmir and anti-Muslim.
The magazine Kalachuvadu had its origins in the cultural and literary journal of the same name founded by Kannan's father, eminent writer late Sundara Ramaswamy. ‘SuRa' as he was popularly known, in 1988 in The Little Magazine tradition. “He provided a platform for writers such as Pavannan, J. Mohanan and M. Yuvan,” says Kannan.
“I always wanted to be in the media,” says the publisher whose interest in literature owed to the fact that writers and journalists would visit their home to meet his father.
When he revived the magazine in 1994, he turned it into a general magazine. From a quarterly, it became a bi- monthly and now it is a monthly.
“We print 10,000 copies a month while Kalachuvadu Publications has published 500 books. We focus on younger writers. We don't go by names,” states Kannan. “And we stand firmly by our convictions. For instance, when women write about the body, we have readers objecting to it but we stand by our authors.”
The readership for the magazine is wide - “a lakh of readers and 78,000 online hits”. It includes the working class in the cities and the rural areas. “They belong to all walks of life: carpenters, tailors and those working in factories read our magazine and give us feedback.
“In fact our letters are mostly from the rural areas. We get feedback about short stories, poems and literary articles. They start as readers and then often start writing themselves.”
Government and public libraries stock Kalachuvadu's books, says the publisher.
“The office is in Triplicane, Chennai, and it works with a staff of seven to eight people. Devi Bharati is the editor-in-charge. Advertisements help fund the magazine,” says Kannan. “Royalty is not a norm in the Tamil publishing industry but Kalachuvadu has built a reputation for itself by drawing up proper contracts and giving royalty to writers. We maintain a good balance between Tamil writing and translations. We have 10 designers and artists internationally.”
He considers it a major achievement that Kalachuvadu has published the unpublished and uncollected manuscripts of Puthumai Pithan, Bharati, G. Nagarajan and Mu. Thalaisingam.
One of the most successful books was the complete collections of G. Nagarajan, he mentions. “We have translated books from Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, Bengali, English, French and also via English - Turkish, Norwegian, Sinhalese. As for Eelam writers, the poetry of Cheran, Anar and the works of M.A. Nuhman and A. Muthulingam are among those published. We have seen three literary movements in Tamil,” he adds, “the Dalit movement in the 1990s, women's writing in the late 1990s and now the third movement - writing by young Muslim men and women in Sri Lanka.”
When books by celebrities are published, do sales get a boost? “We published Asokamitran's ‘Eighteenth Parallel,' a Tamil modern classic series, and it is doing as well as the ‘Broken Republic' by Roy,” he says. “We will be publishing ‘The God of Small Things' in Tamil this year.” So late?
“It was only in 2011 that the book was published in Malayalam,” he replies. “The author is very particular about the quality of translation.”
The Tamil publishing industry is perhaps the fastest growing among the Indian languages today, says Kannan. “The growth of the Tamil media, the liberalisation of the economy and the fact that internet has brought Tamil people across the world together are contributing factors.”
What is the peak period of writing in Tamil?
“Right now,” is the prompt reply. “All spheres of Tamils – the minorities, the rural and the urban areas and the diaspora are represented now as never before.”