Little Magazines from Bombay and Transnational Reading Networks (1960-1980)

An Exploration

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     In their literary-critical and journalistic works, Indian late modernist poets—such as Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Adil Jussawalla—have expressed their despondence over the apathy of English language publishers and readers in India. In his 1981 essay ‘Six Authors in Search of a Reader’, while reflecting on his correspondences with Indian writers initiated since the mid 1960s, Jussawalla states that the writers ‘have to depend on themselves or on one another to get their work published’ (3). He identifies a common search for an audience in ‘hostile, anti-literary, anti-intellectual surroundings’ where ‘a writer may succumb to despair or exaggerate the futility of his best efforts, if only to force himself to continue, to try harder’ (8). In another essay, ‘Kill That Nonsense Term’, Jussawalla expresses his dissatisfaction with the term Indo-Anglian that attaches colonial legacy to individuals writing in English; he states, ‘the English language press in India is deeply philistine and for more than a century has snorted like a bull at the thought of English being used as anything ‘artistic’ (229). Despite his sarcasm, Jussawalla captures the hostility towards English language writers in India in the second half of the twentieth century. In ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes’ (1980), Mehrotra identifies the lack of existence of an actual literary tradition and states: ‘We are not large or small, tough or brittle parts of a single, and what might have been unique literature; just a handful of writers with little except a peninsular location in common’ (150). As the writers indicate, there is a constant submission to amnesia that mars Indian literature in English, and the onus of archiving memory and publishing literary texts has often fallen to the writers themselves.


Image: The cover of Illustrated Weekly of India

     When Mehrotra and his contemporaries, Dilip Chitre, Adil Jussawalla, Arun Kolatkar, and Gieve Patel arrived in the literary scene in India in the 1960s, there were very few platforms available for literary dissemination. The Illustrated Weekly of India, the Times of India supplement began publishing poetry in English in 1950 with C.R. Mandy, an Irishman, as its editor. As Bruce King writes, Mandy transformed the Illustrated from a ‘typical colonial family production to one more appropriate to the newly independent India’ (12). Indian PEN (Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, Novelists), which was established in 1934 by Sophia Wadia, specialised in providing a newsletter on the developments in the literary field and began publishing more poetry after coming into contact with the little magazine movement in the late 1960s and 70s.[1] From 1955 to 1977, Nissim Ezekiel edited Quest, which was modelled on Encounter, published in London. Beginning from the mid-1950s to the 1980s, the Bombay poets and their allies established several little magazines, which were relatively short-lived but literarily robust—ezra, damn you, Blunt, Bombay Duck, Vrishchik, Dionysius, Opinion Literary Quarterly, Poetry India, Fulcrum, Keynote, Kavi and The Bombay Literary Review—in the city of Bombay and elsewhere. Bombay poets placed their works in the magazines and, through their curation and book architectural designing, attempted to explore the position of poetry in the political realm, as something capable of driving social change. In this essay, I assess Bombay poets’ impetus to create platforms of dissemination that encourage critical rather than apathetic reception among readers. I study verbal and architectural aspects of little magazines that opposed regressive ideologies, like linguistic nationalism and intellectual listlessness, in the post-independence era.

     As mentioned earlier, late modernist English language poets responded to the lack of interest that greeted their dissident works by forming new networks of literary dissemination; they had to evade the censorship and orthodoxies of mainstream publishing in India. Anjum Hasan, a literary editor, in an interview states:

[...] the first edition, in 1957, of the Sahitya Akademi’s journal Indian Literature, which featured, along with the Indian stuff, articles on Yugoslavian, American, Japanese literature, an interestingly wild mix. This was a Nehruvian idea of the Indian—informed by a patrician cosmopolitanism.

Then there were magazines such as Nissim Ezekiel’s Quest until the mid-1970s, which came out of the political imperative to cultivate free thought, and which therefore made space for individual voices, for personality, even idiosyncrasy. (n.pag.)

     Hasan’s practitioner’s perspective aptly captures the currents and counter-currents in the Indian literary productions. As opposed to the tokenistic involvement of several cultures in state-supported publishing, Indian modernist poets, like Nissim Ezekiel, conceived literary magazines with intentions to cultivate free thought. The conventions under which these magazines operated, such as minimum editorial intervention, ensured that the memory of personal and public events was not substantially distorted or rebuilt in the processes of literary production. The connotations of free thought attached to literary magazines gave a political fervour to the content.


Image: The Cover of Quest Magazine

     Ezekiel in his edited works often juxtaposed literary and journalistic content. He joined the Indian PEN in 1955 and was also responsible for editing the journal, Quest (1955-76), from its establishment in 1955 until mid-1957. He remained the literary advisor for the magazine until it ceased publication during the Emergency in June 1976. Quest was not a literary magazine but ‘a general intellectual review, associated with liberal democratic politics’ and was sponsored by the Congress for Cultural Freedom (King 15). Emma Bird has shown that, in comparison with Sophia Wadia, Ezekiel was concerned with ‘creating more immediate forums of cultural and critical exchange’ (‘The PEN All India Centre’ 214) in Quest and in the Indian PEN. Quest’s subtitle, ‘A Quarterly of Inquiry, Criticism and Ideas’, denoted its commitment to the general advancement of intellectual rigour in the Indian society and its first subsection, ‘Articles’, contained literary-critical, political theoretical, anthropological, and theological pieces. Along with articles and poetry, it contained sections on ‘Current Affairs’, ‘Short Stories’, ‘Discussions’ of issues pertaining to socio-political and cultural issues, ‘Book Reviews’ and ‘Correspondences’. The coexistence of literary and socio-political content in the magazine allowed the cultural field to come into proximity with Indian society. The poems in the magazines often contained political underpinnings and were generally opposed to social injustices.

     Mehrotra’s early poem, ‘Bharatmata’, first published in damn you, reappeared in Ezekiel’s edited Poetry India. The poet calls India ‘in the world’s slum/ the lavatory’. The poem, composed in 1966, written in confessional mode and modelled on Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’, satirises various aspects of post-colonial life in India, including urbanisation, malnutrition among people, state corruption, large investments in hydroelectric projects and institutionalised support for certain canonical pieces of art. The poem ends with a caricatured reverence to the nation:


Image: An Extract from Mehrotra’s Bharatmata

     Through this juxtaposition of the venerational and the profane, Mehrotra intends to undermine the separation between the two and create a sense of unease among his audience. While the critique of the ritualistic performance of nationalist reverence is provided by exaggerated cataloguing of Hindu nationalist activities—rolling in cow dung and bathing in a waterfall—the poet’s own engagement with the Indian man is bodily and sexual. The paratextual features of the poem—its typewritten font, absence of capitalisation, its lineation, the depletion and slow disappearance of words in the end—accentuate his defiance expressed in the words of the poem. In the search for forms to address the post-independence ethos, Mehrotra draws attention to sensory discomfort and alienation that grand historical moments events inflict in him. The corporeal and sensory imagery helps shock the readers into recognition of the disturbing nature of historic phenomena, such as perpetuation of economic inequalities.

     The aim of the littles was to draw critical responses from the readers and defy censorship; this is reflected in author’s correspondence with other makers of little magazines. In 1967, inviting contributions from Mehrotra, Doug Blazek, owner of Open Skull Press, wrote: 

     We are the outsiders, the unacceptable ones, the outcasts, the lone wolfs, we are of the underground who are trying to sabotage blank, sterile, worthless, brainwashed minds into thinking more profoundly, more fecundly, more intelligently, more wildly, more gently, more creatively’ (sic) (Blazek Box 2, Folder 4).


Image: Cover of Mimeographed damn you

     Indian English poets, like Blazek and other American counterparts, intended to challenge aesthetic conventions and, more importantly, challenge readers’ comfortable ways of reception of literature. Mehrotra modelled damn you on Ed Sanders’s fuck you; he aimed to find an alternative to British English and to look for transgressive poetic forms; this took him to the American Beats and Black African American diction.[2] 

     Mehrotra’s little magazines—damn you and ezra— drew in the readers and aimed to make literature accessible. The inexpensive nature of the material and the magazines complimented their themes of accessibility.  damn you’s first preface or ‘statement’, as the author called it, read:

          what about? long term policy? gene-

          ral objectives? That’s not even fun-

          ny. besides, we wouldn’t know.

          the basic point is that all of us

          write- more or less- and would li-

          ke being read. (damn you no. 1 1)

He was aware of the ephemeral quality of his productions—he made 25 to 150 copies on Air Mail paper which was extremely fragile—but nevertheless persisted in creating texts that did not aim for posterity but to compulsively and aesthetically render the immediate surroundings. Recently, when I asked Mehrotra about the intent behind creating the magazines, he said, ‘What do you do when you are young and write poetry? These days people share their work on Facebook... ’ (17 Dec. 2020). This implies that, in the pre-internet era, Mehrotra’s creative impulse identified these magazines to be the most apt avenue for expression. The experimentalism that the works fashioned required a platform that was easily accessible (like social media now) and could initiate dialogue with the audience. ezra began its journey with a subtitle, ‘an imagiste magazine’; then became ‘neo-imagiste’ and ended up without any descriptive title. The magazine underwent the change after Eric Oatman, editor of another little magazine, Manhattan Review, criticised the use of the word ‘imagiste’ as ‘outmoded’ and the intent behind its usage ‘to 'bring back' the glorious days of the early 20th Cent. poetry—a rather reactionary move’. Mehrotra compiled this with other readers’ reviews and expressed his agreement with Oatman’s statement and, in the same issue, changed the name of the magazine (ezra No. 3 n.d. n.pag). It becomes evident that readers’ reviews and maker’s reflections on them led to the evolution of the magazine. The reproductions of readers’ reviews, comments and artistic contributions composed a significant section of these magazines; one notices the intent to democratise literature where the reader could participate in literary productions.


The cover of Vrishchik

     Unlike the established presses, most small presses and poet’s small publishing ventures intervened in the socio-political sphere by opposing language chauvinism and the unilingualism associated with it. Vrishchik published translations from Gujarati into English and Gujarati texts along with English poems and translations from other languages into English. The magazine’s special issue dedicated to Mehrotra’s poems addressed the Anglicist and nativist claims that English is not an Indian language and that Indian English writers are inauthentic for writing in English. While the magazine contained Mehrotra’s eloquent and experimental verse which used the English language to address the Indian landscape, the ‘Epilogues’ contained Yeats’ quote, along with the quotes from writers who seemed to have inspired Mehrotra:

Damn Tagore. We got out three good books, Sturge Moore and I, and then because he thought it more important to see and know English than to be a great poet, he brought out sentimental rubbish and wrecked his reputation. Tagore does not know English, no Indian knows English. Nobody can write with music and style in a language not learned in childhood and ever since the language of this thought. (Vrishchik April/ May 1970 n.pag.)

The edition of the magazine juxtaposes Yeats’ quote with the English language poems. Instead of theorising on the English language aptitude of Indians, with this juxtaposition, Mehrotra more vehemently challenges the colonialist claims over language.

     In addition to language chauvinism, the late modernist poets also addressed the audience’s expectations from Indian writers to adhere to exclusively local Indian cultural legacies. While writers like Kolatkar embraced local influences, they expressed them in transnational forms: for instance, Kolatkar rendered his translations of bhakti poets (Muktabai, Janabai and Namdeo) in an American idiom (Vrishchik September/ October 1970 n.pag.). By opposing local and more internationalist influences, he blurred the binary distinctions between them. Many other English language magazines presented translated works. Ezekiel’s short-lived but versatile Poetry India’s first edition, apart from Kolatkar’s translations of Tukaram, included translations of vedic hymns, Tamil Classic love lyrics and other language works translated into English. Instead of aspiring for an ‘authentic’ portrayal of Indian culture, the magazines allowed the ancient and folk literary models to be adapted to address contemporary concerns. Kolatkar’s reworkings of the religious models from bhakti poets allowed their radical elements to emerge. For instance, in translations of Tukaram, he portrayed the persona of the saint often as a heretic who questions mainstream Hindu religious practices and struggles to deal with metaphysical issues related to existence.

     The little magazines in Bombay and other cities in India in the 60s and 70s not only provided platforms for amateur literary expressions but also harboured transgressive literary productions that predisposed readers to discomfort. The struggle undertaken by now canonised poets like Mehrotra and Arun Kolatkar to provide a political impetuous to the poetry is evident in the infrastructure of small press productions. Not only the formal and stylistic elements borrowed from British and Indian lyric poetry but the materiality of production and distribution also needed to be refurbished. Therefore, the poets found their platform in unsteady yet robust modes of dissemination, which complemented their intent to experiment with the conventional modes of addressing reality. The struggle that they underwent in forging the appropriate modes to address modernity is evident in the bibliographic and contextual code of their small publications which provided a larger scope for un-censored expressions. These publications, in the words of a contributor, were themselves extensions of literary creation and ‘intended to harmonise conflicting elements [...] not by prosaic compulsion as by poetic fusion’. 

Works Cited

Bird, Emma. ‘A Platform for Poetry: The PEN All-India Centre and a Bombay Poetry Scene.’ Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 53, no. 1-2, 2017, pp. 207-220.

Blazek, Douglas. Letter to Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. 20 August 1967. Box 2, Folder 4. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra Papers. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library. New York. 10 Aug. 2018.

Hasan, Anjum. “We have an assembly line approach to writing about books’ Anjum Hasan on Literary Criticism.’ Interview by Arunava Sinha, Scroll, 16 March 2019, Accessed 2 Jan. 2020.

Jussawalla, Adil. ‘Kill That Nonsense Term.’ I Dreamt A Horse Fell from the Sky: Poems, Fiction and Non-fiction (1962-2015), Hachette India, 2015, pp. 227-230.

---. ‘Six Authors in Search of a Reader.’ Maps for a Mortal Moon: Essays and Entertainments, edited by Jerry Pinto, Aleph Book Company, 2014, pp.3-10.

King, Bruce. Modern Indian Poetry in English. Revised ed. Oxford Indian Paperbacks, 2005.

Kolatkar, Arun. ‘Janabai’ Vrishchik, no. 11-12, Sept.- Oct. 1970, n.pag.

---. ‘Muktabai’ Vrishchik, no. 11-12, Sept.- Oct. 1970, n.pag.

---. ‘Namdeo’ Vrishchik, no. 11-12, Sept.- Oct. 1970, n.pag.

Mehrotra, Arvind Krishna.‘Bharatmata.’ Poetry India, vol. 2, no. 2, April- June 1967, pp. 16-22.

---​​. editor. Damn You. Ezra- fakir Press, 1965.

---. ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes.’ Partial Recall: Essays on Literature and Literary History. Permanent Black, 2012, pp. 147-95.

---. Personal Interview. 17 Dec. 2018.

---. ‘Partial Recall.’ Partial Recall: Essays on Literature and Literary History. Permanent Black, 2014, pp. 48-73.

Oatman, Eric. Letter. ezra. no. 3, n.d. n. pag.

[1] The idea has been presented by Emma Bird in her essay, ‘A Platform for Poetry: The PEN All India Centre and a Bombay Poetry Scene’.

[2] Another magazine that influenced Mehrotra was the Village Voice (‘Partial Recall’ 68).

Dr Tapasya Narang is an Irish Research Council and National Library of Ireland funded postdoctoral researcher at School of English Drama and Film, UCD. Previously, she worked as Lecturer at National University of Ireland, Maynooth, Dublin City University and Ashoka University. Her research focuses on lesser known literary histories from Ireland and India. She is also an arts administrator and literary editor. Her work can be found in Irish University Review, Poetry Ireland Review, The Poetry Review, Books Ireland and RTE Brainstorm.

This essay is supported by The Foyle Foundation.