Monday, July 22, 2013

The ideas man of Chennai who made a difference to his generation

Outside the rarefied world of books, K.S. Padmanabhan was in all likelihood an unknown quantity. He was never flamboyant, he never projected himself, he claimed nothing. He was, as the poet said, in his simplicity sublime. But his vision made him, unheralded, a part of contemporary India's cultural history. He belonged to the class of P. Lal of Writer's Workshop and Shanbaug of Strand Bookstall -- men of imagination who made a difference to their generation.

Publishing is a star-studded, glamorous enterprise in today's India. All the famous publishing houses of the West, facing problems in their home bases, have opened shop in India. Their author-lists jingle with the sound of million-rupee advances.

For those who see only this glittering face of publishing, it will be difficult to understand the dismal conditions that prevailed in the first half-century of independence. P. Lal was a one-man show struggling to bring out the manuscripts he accepted. He persisted and among the unknown writers he brought into print for the first time were Vikram Seth and A.K. Ramanujan and Kamala Das. Shanbaug could afford to rent only a wall in the foyer of Bombay's Strand cinema. But his knowledge of the books he put up there for sale attracted regulars like Mulk Raj Anand and editor Sham Lal.

Padmanabhan put his stamp on Chennai. There he flowered into an ideas man, publishing books, organising a distribution network and mobilising book lovers. A quiet passion drove him. It was passion that made him start the Indian Review of Books in 1991, with S. Muthiah as founding editor. The Padmanabhan-Muthiah partnership worked like a sunburst over the south. Muthiah's enviable reputation as an antiquarian and chronicler was built by the books Padmanabhan published. The Indian Review became a lively forum, featuring bylines that were to become famous in due course. It worked alongside another Padmanabhan-Muthiah initiative, The Madras Book Club.

Their ideological independence and scholarly approach sometimes produced unexpected results. A Muthiah study of the San Thome church, a Madras landmark, reflected the approach of a historian and archivist. This provoked an angry reaction from a writer in the Bombay-based Hindu Voice. Condemning the study for omitting the violent role of Portuguese missionaries, the writer described The Hindu newspaper in which the study had appeared as "an obloquial Communist rag" and Muthiah as a "notorious columnist" associated with "another Communist rag, the Indian Review of Books".

Despite such compliments, The Indian Review did not last. Like Biblio and Quest did not. For magazines, it's a harsh world out there. Readership is counted in quantity, not quality. That one reader of a weighty literary magazine is worth a hundred readers of a glossy, one-dimensional newspaper does not impress advertisers. And without advertising support, how long could a publishing house subsidise a magazine.

Padmanabhan's other dreams gathered strength until East-West Books, Westlands and the iconic Landmark bookstore chain with which he had a partnership, all became part of the Tata group in 2006. He continued as the new entity's mentor, but retired in 2011. He was only 75 then, too young for an ideas man to retire. Did retirement adversely affect his health? Exactly two years after he called it a day, he passed away.

Unpretentious, informal and genuine as he was, Padmanabhan would be happy to be quietly forgotten. But his associates have a duty, the kind of duty that J.R.D. Tata performed when Mulk Raj Anand returned home to Bombay after his prolonged stay in England. The novelist was fired by the ambition to start a magazine that would be a "loose encyclopaedia of the arts of India and related civilisations". It was an expensive concept, but it became a reality because J.R.D. gave him a start-up fund along with "seven advertisements [per issue] and two rooms" in the historic Army & Navy Building. Thus was born the quarterly Marg.

Tata's successors would honour the spirit of J.R.D if they were to help revive their business partner K.S.Padmanabhan's labour of love, the Indian Review of Books. Seven advertisements and two rooms can work magic even today.