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Naveen Kishore: Surviving the arts

The Seagull Books publisher on being a gambler, the romance of after-5 projects, and publishing as an act of resistance

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

When the publisher of Seagull Books, Naveen Kishore, and I decide to meet one morning at the India Habitat Centre (IHC) in New Delhi, we fail to anticipate just how busy its restaurants can be at the start of the day. It’s mid-July, and Kishore has spent the previous day at the IHC organizing, as part of the ILF Samanvay Translations Series, on 13 July, a tribute to the late Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi. This included a dramatized reading from her work Behind The Bodice: Choli Ke Pichchey by the versatile actor Mita Vashisht, followed by a screening of Talking Writing: Four Conversations With Mahasweta Devi, a documentary film directed by Pushan Kripalani that shows the author in candid conversation with her publisher and friend—Kishore, then 13 years younger.

Stein Auditorium, where the well-attended session took place, has been booked this evening too: Kishore is returning to his first love, theatre; he’s the light designer for a performance—by actor Tanaji Dasgupta and musician Varun Kishore (Kishore’s son)—of Austrian playwright Peter Handke’s Storm Still. The Kolkata-based Seagull Books’ exemplary world list, over 400 books strong now, of course includes Handke too, besides Jean-Paul Sartre, Mo Yan, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Roland Barthes, among many many others.

We forego the pleasure of coffee and retreat to the relatively quieter foyer of the auditorium for our conversation. The security guard, by now familiar with Kishore, lets me in at his nod.

How silly, Kishore comments as we return to the previous day’s film, of Mahasweta to try and commit suicide in front of a tram; it’s not going to kill anybody. I know from the film how forlorn she had been when her first marriage broke up and she had been forced to abandon her little son—but this remark provokes a droll picture of a failed attempt in front of a slowly chugging vehicle, one passengers would routinely climb on to even when it was in motion.

The first concert that Naveen Kishore organized was in March 1972 in Kolkata. It was of a local rock band named Great Bear, unique at the time since the musicians would do original music, not just covers. ‘Seagull Empire’ was the first song they sang at the well-received concert. And that was the name Kishore chose to print on the letterhead of the company he formed thereafter to organize cultural events. Seagull, incidentally, is American slang for cocaine.

Death has been Kishore’s companion this past year. He lost many friends, all of whom he had close working relationships with: Mahasweta, artist K.G. Subramanyan, the French poet Yves Bonnefoy. Kishore’s personal and professional lives have never been discrete. With those like Mahasweta, who was in the fog of dementia for some time before their death, “we lost them well before we lost them physically", says Kishore. In contrast, he found that when the time came for someone who was as physically and mentally alive as Subramanyan, it felt sudden even though he was 92.

He himself is just 64, but Kishore says that for a couple of years now, he has had a sense of awareness of the time; and a growing insecurity related to the desire to realize all his ideas. “I’ve been at it since 1972. I hope that as long as the mind is functioning and the body doesn’t let me down, I will die on the job, so to speak," he tells me. A greater privilege would be what was given Bonnefoy: death foretold.

Six weeks before he died last year, Kishore got a letter from 93-year-old Bonnefoy, who had just completed a book, saying that he was stepping into hospital; he had been given four days. “Then, nothing happened. Apparently, after six weeks, he spoke to his doctor: ‘What happened to my death?’" Kishore laughs.

Kishore has always engaged actively with the writers and artists he works with. This doesn’t end with either publishing their books, or with their deaths. Take Mahasweta Devi, “a lifelong project" for Seagull, which has published 28 of her books. Incidentally, it also publishes the works of her son Nabarun Bhattacharya, himself a Sahitya Akademi award winner.

Then, there’s Subramanyan. Kishore, who collaborates with the artist’s daughter, the trustee of his estate, has been travelling across the country exhibiting his works. “I discovered accidentally, when I read Pankaj Mishra’s Butter Chicken In Ludhiana: Travels In Small Town India, that there are Lalit Kalas everywhere," he says. From Chandigarh, Patna and Guwahati to Bhubaneswar, Lucknow and Bhopal, it turned out that the institutions were thrilled when Kishore offered to host a show of Subramanyan’s works there. “The footfalls were amazing. Here (in the big cities), we have to promote events. There they just come because there is so little. That’s interesting in the long run. Whether these artists will stand the test of time will be known in about 50 years’ time," says Kishore. And the interest being built up through this alternative circuit, he believes, will play a role in this.

Does it seem that Kishore is involved in a bit of this, a bit of that, and a bit of everything? As he tells his Seagull colleagues, “Your after-5 becomes a project for us; it’s seamless." It’s always been like that, ever since, at the age of 16, he realized that he had to step in and earn a living since his ailing father was constantly in and out of jobs. He started with theatre, which he was involved in already at St Xavier’s College in Kolkata. Since that didn’t pay well, he funded it with freelance advertising assignments. From 1972 onwards, he organized concerts of, among others, the local rock band Great Bear, as well as classical dance performances by artists such as Pandit Birju Maharaj and Yamini Krishnamurthy in Kolkata, through Seagull Empire, an entity he set up in the 1970s. He showed art. And he eventually started publishing books on theatre and film when he founded Seagull Books in Kolkata in 1982, expanding the list to include classics and translations of world and Indian literature.

“One thing funded another before you discovered what sponsorship meant. It was driven by survival, not strategy. Strategy unfolds retrospectively. When you look back, it seems like there was method there. But that method in that moment of execution was just instinctive, intuitive, open to absolute failure and success," says Kishore.

But before he did all this, Kishore worked part-time at a motor parts company owned by his sister’s friend, writing letters and reports. After five weeks, he was given Rs65 for his efforts. Out of this meagre amount, Rs19 went towards Kishore’s college fees. The rest, he used for gambling. “There was a 13-month spell when I used to average about Rs600-800 for my mother playing flush…. Some people think that the risk-taking, gambling started then," he says. He doesn’t see his work as a gamble though.

Publishing, Kishore says, is an act of resistance. “What we’ve done by setting up Seagull is a huge political act. We’ve questioned the status quo of relationships of publishing between India and the traditional English-speaking world." Unlike other publishing houses in India, even those which are subsidiaries of international publishers, Seagull doesn’t just invest in the Indian rights for a book it is interested in; it buys the world rights. “We don’t do territories. When we talk of borderless publishing, we’ve done it." The list of Indian authors, curated by translator Arunava Sinha, that it has revived recently also includes buying the international rights for translated works done by “MNC publishers" here.

Though it took Seagull 17 years to build a strong backlist and “get out of the red", Kishore reveals that it’s only over the past couple of years that the company has been debt-free. “I grew up comfortable with a certain debt economy because I was growing up surviving." Kishore was already working with theatre, art and music when he started Seagull Books with seed capital of Rs5 lakh from ITC, leading up to a total of Rs13 lakh over the next three-four years. A “Made For Each Other" competition for couples that he organized for ITC led him to approach the company with the idea for the publishing venture. The person he met there “saw the romance of something there and tried to help".

“That way, one has always believed in the nature of circumstances. You don’t always know what your five years will be," he says. In 2005, the company took another plunge, setting up Seagull Books London Ltd, “where the only brief we set ourselves was that there would be no architectural reality; the money saved goes into relationship-building". Seagull books are distributed in the US as well by The University of Chicago Press. Then, there is a non-profit cultural wing, the Seagull Foundation for the Arts; The Seagull School of Publishing, funded by the Royal Norwegian Embassy, which is in its sixth year; and PeaceWorks, founded in 2002 as a direct response to the Gujarat riots, which collaborates with schools across the subcontinent to talk about living with difference.

“It’s a certain kind of flow of money. It’s not about seeking profits. It’s a thin margin. Some books make profits, which is plunged into others that don’t." Seagull Books had a turnover of Rs3.2 crore last year. “But we’re constantly on the lookout for that extra to add to the pot." They get support, for instance, from French, German, Norwegian, Swiss and Italian cultural institutions for translation projects.

There’s romance in what he does, Kishore agrees. He’ll rip a painting off a wall and sell it to subsidize his next book, if that’s what it takes. “If your dailyness is a book, then treat it like an everyday necessity. My everyday necessity is that damn book," he states.

What he does may not be self-sufficient, but it certainly is sustainable. “If you have survived 45 years, you are doing something right," he says.

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