Celebration time at Seminar

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Fifty years of eclecticism: (From left) Harsh Sethi, consulting editor; Malvika Singh, publisher; and Tejbir Singh, editor.
Fifty years of eclecticism: (From left) Harsh Sethi, consulting editor; Malvika Singh, publisher; and Tejbir Singh, editor.

Steering clear of personal attacks, Seminar has provided a platform for non-partisan polemics. A conversation with the journal’s publisher and editors on the occasion of its completion of 50 years in print. ZIYA US SALAM

It is all about dialogue, debate, dissent. No specific ideology, just widening the ambit of opinions.

“We might be polemical, we are not partisan.” Succinct. Precise. These words of Harsh Sethi sum up the ideology of Seminar, now completing 50 years of frank debate. Ideology and Seminar? Well, yes. It is a journal where “freedom of thought” is the working mantra, the abiding principle, as Malvika Singh, the publisher puts it.

“We set out to provide the reader well-articulated opinions under one cover in a journal of record. We provide a platform, give the writer freedom of thought, expression, length and space. All that helps in getting well-informed and well-read people to write for us though we try not to repeat names. It also gives the journal a certain shelf life,” says Tejbir Singh, the editor of the journal, sitting in Seminar’s simply-done office with lots of books and the general air of old, faded, yellowed pages.

Understated celebration

This is supposed to be celebration time for the journal which is completing 50 years this month of print circulation and a decade of being on the Web! Yet, everything is so understated, so low profile that you might think it is just another day in the journal’s life! Of course, next month, the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla is hosting a seminar to celebrate Seminar! The likes of Kapil Sibal, Nayantara Sahgal, Ramachandra Guha and Ashish Nandy will participate. Then Roli Books is coming up with a book containing the best of Seminar writing later this month. There are plans to come up with a disc containing the archives too. But there will not be those high-profile parties, or any media blitzkrieg. Appropriate too, considering Seminar has always been about well-informed debate and no frills. It has always been a journal that allowed journalists to be themselves, free from the shackles of editorial propriety back in their media houses. “They quite enjoy the freedom to write for us. It is possible because back on the op-ed pages, space is a constraint. And often there are policy matters of the papers. Also, since we are a niche product, a non-commercial venture, the media houses do not necessarily look at us as competition,” reasons Sethi, consulting editor.

That is fine, but considering no writer is told to articulate his views to suit the requirements of the journal, haven’t there been cases of one person swinging his arm even when the nose of the other person begins?

“There is a certain degree of free-play. Every article is solicited. People episodically comment on it but we permit no personal attacks. For instance, after Gujarat you could be virulently anti-BJP but you still have to operate within the medium of propriety. Even when we criticise people, they still participate in our debates because it is an argument of the mind. No personal animosity at all,” says Malvika, adding the journal in all these five decades has been “structured like a platform for reasoned debate.”

In fact, the trio argues that such has been the open space here that barring the Emergency period there has never been a problem. “We have not had any Government interference. We live in an age when censorship operates through non-official channels too. But even there we have not been questioned for speaking out,” says Sethi.

Lots of good writers, well-established academics, even activists and research scholars writing. And limited finances with only niche advertisement support. So, what is the secret of healthy state of the journal? “We have dedicated advertisers. People envy us for our ad rates. But, seriously, since the time the Seminar was started, it was called the third child of the family and treated like a baby,” informs Tejbir, even as his colleague Sethi adds that some of the well-heeled people today wrote their first pieces for Seminar. Count among them Pavan Varma, never short of a word or opinion on anything under the sky. And Arun Jaitley, not always given credit for well-articulated arguments often buried under the Right-wing hues. He wrote for Seminar when in Delhi University. That was so long ago as to allow memory to act as a sieve.

Reaching new audiences

But then there is an abiding effort to get across to the new generations, get youngsters to write. “We make a constant effort to rope in youngsters. There is constant transiting into new names and generation. We don’t stick to merely academic or policy matters when we highlight one subject in an issue. From elections and Gujarat to secret societies and RSS to jewellery, food, social customs, theatre, cinema, music, we have covered them all. We are not obsessed with policy-makers,” states Malvika. Interestingly, in an age when speed is everything, every issue of Seminar is still planned so meticulously that Sethi takes pride in informing that “there have been times when we have wrapped up an issue in six weeks only”! Then there have been cases as in the case of the edition on higher education which took one-and-a-half years to put together! “We are constantly working on three-four different issues at the same time. We have to have back-up because we have no staff writers. Some people who are invited to write may not be able to deliver. Then we don’t pay foreign writers at all. Yet everybody remembers their pieces in Seminar. They have the desire to write and at times it gets even well-known writers and journalists more response for their pieces here than back in their newspapers or magazines.”

Quiet journey

Yet, it is not a journal that has changed with the times. In the age of visual journalism where a picture is always said to speak a thousand words, Seminar encourages writers to pen a thousand words. Maybe more. Nobody would have probably done a special photo shoot in five-stars hotels and glitzy malls for the journal. It is a special world of Seminar, an illustrious, understated journal that swears by the word “niche publication”, and is quietly, unobtrusively completing 50 years of eventful existence. Never quite high on finances, its periodicity has been non-negotiable. As has been the space for frank dialogue, an exchange of views, and a tolerance for different, even divergent voices. No frills. No laminates. Like a river in the plains, it goes on. Imperceptibly but surely. It is all about dialogue, debate, dissent. No specific ideology, just widening the ambit of opinions. Little wonder the greatest thing on the mind of the trio to celebrate the journal’s golden jubilee is a proposed exhibition of Seminar’s covers of the last 50 years. “It would be a typographical exhibition of our covers. All the covers all these years have been done using typology. We were probably the first in the country to do so.” All that started on the sidelines, the fringes of evolving society. Now it is centre-stage time!