From Selfie to Shelfie

by Madhu Jain 0

The inception, rather raison d’etre, of The Indian Quarterly wasn’t exactly a happy one. It came into being because of the traumatic events of 26/11 in 2008, when the city of Mumbai was under siege for a few days. Verve magazine decided to bring out a special issue about what had happened. However, the intention was to go beyond reportage and commentary–to examine the acts of terrorism, the nature of violence and resilience through the prism of culture. Through art, poetry, photography, cinema–the word and image.

I happened to be in Mumbai at the time. And, as a consultant with Verve, inadvertently became part of the team which produced this issue. On seeing the final product, the magazine’s publisher and editor, Anuradha Mahindra decided to bring out a literary and cultural magazine. Not about lifestyle and leisure and much else (including the arts and fashion) as Verve is. But one which would take a more leisurely look at society and the world–the way we are, and the way we were. Going beyond and sometimes even bypassing the headlines, we thought a quarterly was the appropriate vehicle.

Slow journalism seemed the best way forward. Like slow food it is something you can savour, linger over and think about. It might take much longer to put together. However, the aftertaste enriches and endures. Both on the tongue and in the mind. It demands not trailing the news and events. Nor taking cues from what anchors and commentators on the small screen noisily gab about, losing much spit over it in the process. Running frantically like headless chickens, just to keep in the same place, and out shout their fellow panelists.

Journalism students and fresh entrants in media have long been told to focus on the five Ws: what, who, where, when, why. Many forget the last–why–chasing as they do after the first four. Following dictates from their bosses and briefs, they can’t stop long enough to ask why. And it is not just the case with newspapers and newsmagazines, or indeed television and cable TV. It is an everywhere situation: even books are becoming itsy-bitsy, predigested feeds, or online serial feeds which enable them to remain current.

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In our age of the selfie and instant gratification, the shelfie has become all the more essential – a magazine or publication with staying power unlike those which transit momentarily in our homes before going to the kabadiwala. With the deluge of 24/7 information, infotainment, cultural sound bites, proclamations of pop-up pundits and gurus, in addition to the blitzkrieg emanating from the multiplying digital platforms and Apps, the need for a calm zone has never been as great.

The small magazine has long provided a more intimate space for reflection. Several continue to do so. Publications with no sell-by dates and, even more importantly, those free from the tyranny of advertising, the tyranny of political predispositions and of number crunchers and bottom lines, can provide a space for discourse and reflection, not to speak of a bit of intellectual kite-flying and creative indulgences. Away also from the me-too kind of journalism. A few also included political commentary and opinion pieces.

And of course, a little whimsy. We have tried to do this with The Indian Quarterly, but more of that later.

The last century witnessed major upheavals shifts and devastation on a grand scale: the rise of fascism, two world wars, what they set in motion and much else. Several small magazines and journals also came into being in Europe and elsewhere to address what was happening in a rapidly changing world.

So, it is no wonder that Jean-Paul Sartre (unequivocally on the left) founded Les Temps Modernes in 1945 with his partner Simone de Beauvoir, philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and sociologist, journalist and philosopher Raymond Aron. Interestingly, all of them associated with this influential journal of ideas were also involved with the philosophical movement of existentialism.

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World War II, the occupation of France and the resistance movement had convinced Sartre and his colleagues about the need for committed literature. Writers, he thought, could no longer ignore political issues; doing so would be ‘to support status quo’. (A bit of personal and irrelevant trivia: my supervisor for a project I was working on, Rene Etiemble at the Sorbonne, had been the literary critic for the long defunct Les Temps Modernes).

Across the pond, 1945 also saw the birth of another magazine: Commentary. But this one was on the other side of the political spectrum. Started by the American Jewish Committee, the influential monthly magazine of opinion gradually became increasingly conservative. The neoconservative Commentary, unlike Les Temps Modernes, is still in existence and engages with religion, social and cultural issues as well as politics.

The Cold War also engendered several publications in the 1950s in Western Europe which were part of a covert programme of cultural propaganda. Professional intellectuals were needed because they evoked respect, and also had reach. The CIA and its conduits funded several magazines in Western Europe which had an anti- Stalinism stance, including the Partisan Review, Preuves (France), and Tempo Presente (Italy).

The well respected literary magazine, Encounter, founded by the British poet Stephen Spender in 1953 was backed by the CIA. It is said that a shocked Spender resigned after he discovered who was behind the publication. Several of the magazine’s editors were literary scholars, like Frank Kermode and DJ Enright. It finally folded up in 1967; Melvin Lasky was its last editor.

On a personal note (a private encounter with the journal), we have carefully preserved dozens of issues of Encounter, into which I have often dipped in search of inspiration and to savour good writing. Quite unaware for long, I must add, about its history, I could unabashedly enjoy the literary essays. The issues of the magazine belonged to my late father-in-law, Professor MP Jain, who used to teach English literature.

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One of the pleasures of visiting our daughter and her family in Washington DC is spending mornings lingering over books, ‘modern magazines’ and not-so-great coffee in Barnes and Noble, one of the few surviving bookstores of the chain in the United States. Fortunately, it is a ten minute walk from where we live. Book sales may have slackened; the space for books shrunk to accommodate Godiva chocolates, moleskins, kindles, fancy school bags and cards for all occasions and days: fathers, mothers, grandparents, friends…

Happily, the magazine section continues to be lively and well populated by many literary and cultural journals, even though this space is also shrinking. The Paris Review is still going strong, as are a few publications from Europe, as is Lapham’s Quarterly. Of course, it would be unwarranted to expect the presence of European literary and art magazines. France has some exquisitely designed journals, including art magazines like Connaisance and Beaux-Arts.

A welcome surprise in Barnes and Nobles: the plethora of literary magazines published by various universities, and not just the Ivy League ones. Most of these have their own identity and boast delectable covers–like The Missouri Review, a quarterly which publishes poetry, fiction and ‘creative’ non-fiction, and has an open submission policy.

Moreover, the range of the cultural and literary magazines is quite astounding, from the more scholarly and niche to the esoteric, cool and ultra-hip. Robb Orchard and Marcus Webb’s Delayed Gratification, The Atavist MagazineNarratively Longform and many others. The Baffler, now on a quarterly cycle, with the tag line, ‘The journal that blunts the cutting edge’ is, well, quite edgy, with in-your-face writing and illustrations. It has, similar to other publications of its kind, a carefully curated quality of casualness and coolness. And here the ‘cool’ quotient is used towards a delightful subversive end.

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India has a long history of small magazines, what used to be referred to, often misleadingly, as general interest publications–in many Indian languages in addition to English. Many of them are cultural and literary magazines (Culture with a capital C). The quality of the art magazines is also commendable. The Lalit Kala Akademi used to publish a Lalit Kala Contemporary journal. Marg, a quarterly magazine founded by late novelist Mulk Raj Anand in 1946, is still going strong.

Unfortunately, many of these no longer exist: Quest, The India Magazine, New Delhi, The Little Magazine, Thought, Civil Lines and several others. A few of these independent print magazines, for example The Little Magazine also published criticism, and even included film and drama scripts and novellas. Fortunately, Seminar, an in-depth monthly which focuses on just one issue each month and includes diverse views, is still alive, well, and kicking.

Interestingly, earlier issues of some publications have become artefacts, collectables: the first 64 issues of Marg brought down the anvil for over Rs 19 lakh on an online platform (StoryLTD) of the Saffronart auction house early September last year.

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After its inception in the winter of 2011, The Indian Quarterly took its time in making its debut. The inaugural issue came out in October 2012. During those years there were countless discussions between Anuradha Mahindra, Jonathan Foreman (the other founder editor) and I to discuss the thrust and template of the new publication. We wanted the magazine to provide an intimate space for reflection–not a flip-through, quick read and disposable magazine.

There is, as we all know, nothing new under the sun. Somebody, somewhere has got there earlier. However, we were, in a way, going back to the future. Away from the frenzy, itsy-bitsy pieces, and hollering headlines. And most importantly, the clutter. In many of the publications that I had worked for (news magazines with significant back of the book features like India Today in the ’80s and ’90s) blank spaces were a complete no-no. They were considered a waste–a loss of revenue. Advertisements had to be used to fill, in what the art designer may have left virgin, the blanks. White space was dead space. Hence, myriad images in a single page – and text which went almost all the way up or down. Nothing Zen about it.

We wanted to go tilt at the windmills if you like: create an area of calm in an age of frenzy and hyper activity, when the distance between au courant and passé was shortening by the day. On IQ’s wish list: long form journalism, good fiction, a rolodex of writers who were not the usual suspects, narrative storytelling, including graphic stories, radio and short film scripts, poetry, essays and photo essays.

The key word was cosmopolitan: we wanted the magazine to be out of India, Mumbai in fact, but to address the rest of the world with stories from India and the subcontinent. Our inspiration at the outset came from magazines like Intelligent Life, originally an ideas, culture and lifestyle quarterly from The Economist’s stable, refashioned recently as The Economist 1843. The New Yorker was also an aspiration, as indeed were many other publications.

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So, this is how it began. But after a few issues I began to realize that the now-extinct magazines like New Delhi (which I worked for from the first issue on)–started by MJ Akbar, with Khushwant Singh taking over the reins from him for the Ananda Bazar Patrika Group–and The India Magazine had much the same idea. These were magazines which you could linger over; and they provided an immersive experience.

With IQ we wanted to take a long view, move back and see the larger picture – what news magazines and newspapers could not afford to do in their hurry to pin down a story and move on to the next. Seldom do they return to see what transpired later, whether it is an earthquake, communal riot or a cultural milestone event. Small and independent magazines can do just that. They also have the ability to put an ear to the derangement simmering below the surface.

While time is a little less of the essence for a quarterly, thereby diluting a bit of our currency, having time on our minds also gives us the freedom to drop the more ephemeral: so, no book, art, performing arts or reviews of any kind. The bonus: we have the time and mind space to write about what mainstream publishing is not doing.

The many Cassandras warning us about imminent death told us that long features, long form journalism would attract only the older generation. Long stories on art would also, they predicted, fail to bring in the eyeballs. The young, they warned, would stay away, nurtured as they are by the internet and what comes to the palms of their hands through smartphones. Ironically, most of our readers appear to be under 35, and not always from the metropolitan cities.

Since we are not a commercial magazine we can afford to indulge ourselves. There’s room for non-topical and long essays and photo features, more individual takes on the arts–and lots of whimsy. Each issue has a theme, with a cluster of about eight stories, including photo essays and graphic stories. The stretchable themes have been varied, beginning with the first – ‘Memory and Desire’, through ‘Night’, ‘The Sea’, ‘Writing’, ‘Portraiture’, ‘Feasting’, ‘The Body’– to the 19th ‘Family’.

Over the years we have expanded our fiction and poetry sections and are increasingly focusing on translations from Indian languages and international ones, including but also going beyond the subcontinent.

You shouldn’t judge a book or magazine by its cover. But covers are important for us, starting with the first which had a painting by Mumbai artist Sudhir Patwardhan. Other covers have included paintings by Ranbir Kaleka, architect-artist Gautam Bhatia and Manjunath Kamath. We are now over four years old, still evolving, and still trying to walk the line between too precious and too prosaic.


This article was published in the April 2017 issue of Seminar magazine.


 

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