Why isn’t the room piled high with books? It’s almost half the size of the bookstore but is empty, except for a few plastic chairs. On first sight, the room beyond the rows and rows of books at Panuval Bookstore in Thiruvanmiyur, makes one wonder why three IT professionals in their 30s, who’ve started the venture, have left an empty space in their bookshop. But this is Panuval’s USP — a space that “connects readers with writers”.
Started in 2013 by friends P. Amutharasan, S. Saravanan, and K. Mugunthan, Panuval, meaning ‘book’ in Tamil, hopes to transform the concept of bookstores from shops to merely pick up books, to a place to meet authors, discuss, read, and celebrate the arts.
Books on environment and society rule the shelves of Panuval. “We want to promote socio-economic literature,” says Amutharasan. It’s with this aim that the three of them started Thadagam Publications. “In 2011, we launched a website where people can order our books and those by other Tamil publications online,” explains Saravanan. “While there are many options for English books, there were very few for Tamil,” he adds.
But the Web world had its limitations — they could hardly interact with readers. Soon, a search was on to rent a space that would nurture good books and a community for readers. The creation of Panuval was an experience for its founders. They put it together in one month — Amutharasan says they were involved in every step of the process since it was the best way to learn about what went into such an initiative. Writer Prapanchan, artist Trotsky Marudhu and actor Rohini inaugurated the bookstore.
“A book bears a life inside it,” says Amutharasan. “It has to convey something to society. These are the kind of books that we want to provide. A reader with such tastes will not need to learn self-help and spirituality from books, which is why you won’t find them at our bookstore,” he adds. In the three years of its existence, Panuval has held various literary events at its premises — ‘Bharathi 93’ in association with Kalachuvadu magazine, in which they observed the poet’s 93rd death anniversary with readings and discussions on his poems on topics such as women’s empowerment and society; film screenings, including that of Balu Mahendra’s magnum opus Veedu in the presence of the director; author interactions, book launches… they’ve even had a play staged amidst their books. Panuval has turned a platform for other film and book clubs to hold events as well. “There will be some event or the other on the weekends every week,” says Saravanan.
During the December music season, they provided a stage for genres that don’t make it to the sabhas. “We had performances of Islamic music and gaana; a team sang the ‘Thirumurai’ and ‘Thiruvarutpa’,” explains Amutharasan. Around the time, they also screened the Laya Project , a world music documentary and held a photo exhibition of classical musicians at the store. Cartoonist R.K. Laxman’s cartoons decorated their walls when he passed away… team Panuval is constantly on its feet to promote “people’s art”. They’ve recently set up a rack for organic food. Then there are the field trips that they organise. “We took readers on a trip to Mahabalipuram along with an archaeology professor and Trotsky Marudhu,” explains Amutharasan. The team also publishes a bi-monthly wildlife magazine Kaadu — all this while each of them works full-time.
How do they manage it? “I’ve stopped reading entirely,” laughs Saravanan. “When we’re not at our respective workplaces, we are here,” adds Mugunthan. It’s not easy, but the three of them nurture Panuval by giving up their weekends. “We’ve divided responsibilities amongst us,” says Saravanan. He, for instance, takes care of administration. Techies that they are, work is on to digitise all the books so that readers can access them on e-reading devices such as Kindle. Saravanan explains that they are also working on a digital platform that links readers to publishers. The Panuval trio says that their space is open for anyone struggling for a platform to showcase all things literary. “Have a poem or a story? Use us to read it out to people,” says Mugunthan. He adds that they are proud of where they stand now. “We came to Chennai from different villages to make a living. And now we’ve established a brand,” he smiles. Amutharasan adds that they wish to bring out good titles and organise events that familiarise books with readers. Most importantly, “reduce the gap between people and bookshelves.”