A discussion on literary magazines highlighted three recent publications, and threw up ideas on nostalgia, kitsch and the nature of literature

Three different forms of the literary magazine were up for discussion at a recent event organised by Toto Funds the Arts. Writer Arul Mani, who moderated the discussion, noted in his introductory remarks that the literary magazine is shaped by curatorship, and usually in the absence of a periodic deadline.

The evening then featured researcher-writer Achal Prabhala reading from Civil Lines 6, which he co-edited with Mukul Kesavan and Kai Friese. Binyavanga Wainaina’s ‘The Adventures of Idi Amin Dada’, the piece being read out, imagined Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in an Indian setting.

Prabhala later told the audience that it was this story that led to his eventual association with Civil Lines, which famously took a decade to publish its latest instalment. After repeated enquiries about why the story was not published, Prabhala was told that the group needed an editor, and so he got on board with the team.

Next was a reading from Chennai-based publishing house Blaft’s The Obliterary Journal. The book is in graphic form, so only reading aloud did not perhaps do the visuals justice. Nevertheless, Rashmi Ruth Devadasan read out a riddle from Bhaskaracharya’s 12-century mathematics text Lilavati. The book also has “found” items, such as signs and hand lettering.

Cyclostyle was the third magazine up for discussion. The magazine started out initially as a pamphlet, and so was handed out for free. Its inaugural issue, ‘Out of Date’ was themed around the outdated, said journalist Raghu Karnad, who contributed to its production. “It’s a series of reflections, in different forms, on techniques, and technologies that are all out of date,” he said. Srinath Perur’s ‘Quick Guide To Kick-Starting a Bajaj Chetak’, a rib-tickling set of directions to tame the mysterious scooter, partly emblematised this ethos of the ‘old’.

Samyuktha Varma, one of the editors of the magazine, pointed out that it was literally cyclostyled – with a Gestetner cyclostyle, and set using a Remington Portable typewriter. “It still ends up being sumptuous on the eye,” noted Mani, despite the otherwise unexciting appearances of cyclostyled text – such as examination sheets or leave forms.

The magazine has a website, but remains insistently ‘physical’ in its primary form; the text will not go online. “The agitation about the Web guided us negatively,” said Karnad. “We wanted palpably to make something physical.”

The passage of time is a recurring presence across the three magazines. Civil Lines “went to bed in 2001 and rose nearly a decade later in an unrecognizable world,” reads the publisher’s note for the book. The Obliterary Journal devotes much of its space to preserving perhaps-dying art forms. And Cyclostyle gains much of its novelty from its form, which is suggestive of another era.

Karnad acknowledged that there was an incongruity in consuming something as ‘kitsch’ while those traditions are still alive (such as cyclostyle technology, or hand-lettered typography). “So these forms might not necessarily be ‘out of date’, in that they’re still in use, abundantly,” he said. The cultural signs and processes celebrated here for their nostalgic value were all very real parts of everyday life. This was attributed to the “great severance” brought on by the Internet – so the separation here was not in terms of time alone, but in terms of technology.

A member of the audience wondered why the so-called ‘literary’ magazines relied on form to such a great extent, and criticised a consequent lack of seriousness and rigour. Weren’t magazines supposed to be the custodians of literature? “What happened to the power of words? What about pure literature?” he asked. Prabhala responded, “The rut of seriousness and respectability is a dangerous one,” adding that literature need not mean only one specific idea of literature.

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