The first Malayalam online magazine, puzha.com, turns 10 this year. A take on this pioneering effort
Necessity is the mother of invention, there is no other explanation for the genesis of puzha.com, the first online Malayalam magazine. That was almost 10 years back.
Living in Mumbai, with an insatiable appetite for literature, Thomas Kurian Theakanath found nothing on the Net to satisfy the ‘craving'. “I have been using Internet regularly from 1995, and I noticed that the few Malayalam websites that were started by the late 90's concentrated only on distributing news.” The M. Tech in Mechanical Engineering, IIT Mumbai, who used to write poetry and fiction wanted to read Malayalam literature online but he could not find anything on the Net.
“At that time very few people, especially writers from Kerala, had real access to web and tools to publish online, and Puzha was started off as a means to fill that gap.” Thomas moved to Silicon Valley and soon after got down to working on it. The other ‘promoters' are Harish Pillai, Shaji Thomas and Joe Kurian. Harish Pillai is no longer actively involved with the online magazine. The efforts of the four friends culminated in puzha.com. Come December and puzha.com turns 10.
And what an eventful 10 years it has been. What started out as an online magazine has grown to include what is probably the largest online Malayalam bookstore and organises a short story competition annually. In 2010, when blogs and web magazines abound an endeavour such as puzha.com seems easy aim to achieve, but we are talking of a world and a time before wordpress.com, eblogger and blogspot.com. This was time when people spelt out ‘@' (‘at the rate') and ‘.com' (‘dot com'). Folks were just getting used to the idea of the Internet.
puzha.com offered (and still does) a self publishing platform long before blogging caught the fancy of every wannabe writer-in-waiting. Elaborates Thomas, “Authors could directly publish on ‘puzha', like in blogger.com or wordpress.com these days, and those articles would be displayed under the ‘Your Articles' section. Those articles never used to go through any editorial review, and will not be part of the magazine section.”
The site thrives on voluntary literary contributions; they could be any accepted literary forms - columns, short stories, novels, poems and even cartoons. The columns, generally, are regular with the occasional exceptions. Since the site is contribution driven the regularity of columns is subject to availability, says M. K. Chandrashekaran, the editor.
‘Motham Vakeel Kathakal', ‘Adukala Kathaparayumbol', ‘Kandethum Kettathum', ‘Singapore Visheshangal' etc. are some of the popular columns. Some columns are sourced and “the credits are duly acknowledged,” assures Chandrashekaran. The magazine also had a printed version which folded up. Of the popularity of some of the columns, Chandrashekharan says, “Our columnist Bahuleya Puzhavelil's ‘Singapore Visheshangal' is popular among Malayalis living there. People wrote in saying that through the column they got to know hitherto unknown facts about a place they thought they knew well.”
The office of the web magazine is located in Aluva, through which flows the Periyar. And of course the name, “certainly the name is inspired by the Periyar. Also we wanted to have a simple, easy to remember, and a hardcore Malayalam name, and ‘puzha' seemed to meet those requirements. Another influence was Amazon.com which was our model for starting the first and possibly the largest online Malayalam book store,” says Thomas. Taking the literature link a step further, puzha.com has a tie-up with several publishers such as H&C, Mathrubhumi, Green Books, National Book Stall and some smaller publishers for an online book store.
The loyal readership comprises non resident Malayalis, “lots of Malayalis from Mumbai, the US and West Asia comprise the majority of the readership of which one-third are women,” clarifies Chandrashekaran. He goes on to say that it is not just about contributions and readership, feedback even. “In fact, there are some regulars in the feedback ‘department',” he says, after all if a literary venture thrives, credit goes to what constitutes the content. puzha.com magazine has thrived because of the quality of the content and the profusion of contributors, says Chandrashekaran.
Each article is on the site for two weeks before it is changed because the non-resident Malayali may or may not have the time to go through the content everyday. “There is some article or the other which has to be changed daily anyway,” he says. According to him, the website has a devoted following that takes what appears in the magazine very seriously, “they respond to what appears on the site in earnest. There are some people who respond regularly and then there are the sporadic ones too.”
Besides Chandrashekharan there are seven others who help him with the work. One person types in the matter to be uploaded and there are others who help in the uploading etc. Some of the matter comes in via email, Malayalam written in the English font. “We have a person to type in the matter in the Chowara font that has been developed for the site,” says Chandrasekharan.
There was a need which Thomas fulfilled. He says developing the font was no big deal and that it hardly qualifies to be considered an invention, “There was no Malayalam text editor available at that time and for the ‘puzha' site we had to develop something for the typist. So I designed a font that is compatible for Malayalam; no such font was available then or we didn't know about it.” The contributions, generally, come in via email but there are folks who still send in contributions the old fashioned way too. Those are then typed using the Chowara font and uploaded.
The magazine is almost a decade old, a long time in Net years. So is he happy with the way the magazine has shaped up?
“No. Given more resources and time, ‘puzha' could easily be grown into a sizable media company by now. For example, ‘puzha' offered a self-publishing platform many years before ‘blogging' became popular. If we had pushed such things early on, we would have had better traction in the Malayalam online media market. However, I am very happy that with limited resources ‘puzha' has grown into a reputed online platform for Malayalam content though it remains small.”
puzha.com has, so far, conducted four short story competitions. The entries for the competition are short listed by a judging panel; the short listed entries are then uploaded for the readers to judge the stories. Five stories are short listed, based on voting by readers, of which the final one is selected by the judging committee. The award is a cash prize of Rs. 10, 001.SHILPA NAIR ANAND