Ideas Journal

Acts of Viewing and Performativity in (Un)Periodicals

Noopur Desai examines the ephemerality and performativity of the little magazine movement across India, and how it forged new directions for the wider literary and visual fields.

 

We will publish this whenever we damn well please...
—Advertisement for the little magazine Atta, published in Aso, issue 3, 1964

 

You see, you don’t have to wait for the big magazines and publishers to publish your poems, you can publish them yourself!
—Gulammohammed Sheikh interview with Laetitia Zecchini

 

In an issue of Yeru, a little magazine printed in 1969 in Bombay, an invitation was printed on the back cover inviting readers to attend “an auspicious event,” which turned out to be the burning of Satyakatha, one of the leading magazines in the Marathi language. This act was a protest against the established norms of publishing and writing prevalent in the Marathi literary world at the time. The public announcement, written in a satirical tone, invoked a ceremonial performance of a bonfire set to destroy the evil. It also invoked an earlier moment from 1927: the burning of Manusmriti, a Hindu scripture, symbolising a rejection of the caste system. Though the burning organised by B. R. Ambedkar set the stage for the Dalit movement, it was at a later juncture when Dalit poets and activists such Namdeo Dhasal, J. V. Pawar, and Raja Dhale helped shape a strand of the little magazine movement in Maharashtra, and formed a radical political group called the Dalit Panthers in 1972.

The movement organisers set out to demolish the hegemony of dominant caste and class voices in the Marathi literary field. With a strong anti-institutional bent, Yeru and other such little magazines were published independently, in varied formats, and were forerunners of various disruption strategies, as well as innovative print technologies and aesthetic formations.

 

Image: <i>Yeru</i>, 1969 (Eds. Raja Dhale, Tulsi Parab, Vasant Gurjar). Courtesy of Satish Kalsekar's Collection and Lokvangmay Griha, Mumbai.
Image: Yeru, 1969 (Eds. Raja Dhale, Tulsi Parab, Vasant Gurjar). Courtesy of Satish Kalsekar's Collection and Lokvangmay Griha, Mumbai.

 

This process of challenging the establishment had already begun in the mid-1950s, with the shift in writing and designing practices from periodicals towards (un)periodicals1—non-commercial, irregular small press journals, popularly known as “little magazines,” published across various cities in Maharashtra, India. This short-lived little magazine movement began dissipating by the 1980s with the decline of literary as well as political movements. While the little magazines often discontinued after a handful of issues, their visual idioms continued to impact the next generation of artists, as well as the aesthetics of publications. Two aspects are very crucial here: visuality and materiality. In this essay, I interrogate how these materials are brought into contemporary discursive narratives on alternative modes of publication, while complicating the formation of visual modernity in art history and visual culture.

Marathi little magazines become a site to think through this question. Other moments that produced little magazine movements across India provide the context within which I situate broader questions and interconnections of language, translation, and design.

 

Shifting Modalities

The 1960s witnessed a shift in the political and cultural landscape of Maharashtra. The strong presence of the working-class movement since the 1940s, the mass conversion of the Dalits to Buddhism to reject the oppressive structures of Hindu religion in 1956, and the linguistic formation of the state in 1960 presented a backdrop for the articulation of the avant-garde in the literary sphere.

The performative act at the beginning of this essay meant to disrupt the stringent editorial policy and authoritarian structure of monthly periodicals like Satyakatha, which had become a space for the circulation of established voices—specifically upper-caste and upper-class writers—from the cultural field. This event also had connotations for language, calling for a symbolic shift away from conformist sensibilities and ornamental linguistic idioms towards a distinct vocabulary rooted in and reflecting the experience of discrimination as well as a new consciousness. The little magazine movement was driven by a contemporary impulse, and was consolidated by a variety of voices and positions, with their shared vision revolving around the informality of meetings, the unstructuredness of the formats, and the spontaneity of actions. For us, these magazines represent the permeable and unstable nature of that particular moment in history.

This instance was not an isolated one. In India, several collective voices across different linguistic milieus exhibited the same unrest and fervour towards the established literary voices in their respective regions, while connecting themselves with the diverse global movement. These include Hungryalist Generation writing in Bengali, and adhunik kavita (modern poetry) in Marathi, which claimed direct connections with the Beat poets—Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg had visited Bombay and Calcutta2 in 1964, and the Beat generation and Hungryalist generation in Bengal not only influenced each other but shared and collected publications, sometimes also appropriating techniques and attitudes. Ginsberg’s iconic poem “September on Jessore Road,” cataloguing the suffering of Bangladeshi refugees who fled to India, was published as a poster by the publication Pras Prakashan in Bombay.

Influenced by the Fluxus manifesto and surrealist imagery, little magazines in the Malayalam language (samanthara masika, or alternative magazines) played a crucial role in legitimising the new forms of poetry and fiction by decolonising the language from the Sanskritised versions. Cover pages of little magazines in Bengali drew on constructivist ideas from Soviet Russia that culminated in bold, straight lines, and letters with angular and geometric forms. The little magazines published by activists and poets in the Dalit Panther movement identified themselves with the radicality of the Black Panther movement.

Other region-specific experiments challenged dominant caste and language positions, including Digambar Kavulu (naked poets) in Telugu, samayik (periodic/timely) in Gujarati, A-Kavita (non-poetry) in Hindi laghu patrika. The scholar Eric Bulson refers to it as a “world form,” a form that emerged through a complex system of cultural exchanges worldwide. He also emphasises that little magazines are not simply “a technology that made modernism in the West,” but rather, it is the “worldliness” of little magazines that produced points of transmission, and hence, our imagination of modernisms.

These were the points of departure for little magazines in Marathi as well. Even with this larger connection with the global, the magazines were embedded firmly within the regional and the local, and the local was entrenched in the complex political and cultural realities of the 1950s and 1960s. The Samyukta Maharashtra movement, a united front for the formation of the separate state of Maharashtra, protested for the working classes in the region, but was largely consolidated through linguistic identity—predominantly Marathi—and the multilingual reality of the region was conflated into a monolingual state. This period also saw the formation of a modern vernacular through various initiatives such as a bibliographical project by S. G. Date,3 anthologies of Marathi poetry by D. P. Chitre, folk plays, ballads, short stories, the launch of the encyclopedia project Marathi Vishwakosh,4 and the establishment of Sahitya Mahamandal, a central literary body.5 With these, the presence of multiple languages like Gujarati, Hindi, Urdu, and English among others, was suddenly reconfigured and eventually erased from the public sphere.

Intriguingly, the little magazines in Maharashtra hinted at two significant elements: firstly, the magazines connected with other linguistic regions in and outside of India through translation, reproduction, and image-making; secondly, it negotiated the standardised forms of Marathi language, indicating the multiplicity that exists within one language. In a way, the movement disaffiliated itself from the narrowly constructed idea of the monolingual state. The reference to this multiplicity is also reflected in the nomenclatures employed by little magazines: identified as Laghu-niyatkalik (little periodical), A-niyatkalik (un-periodical), or Laghu-a-niyatkalik (little un-periodical), they not only signalled defiance of the periodical form but also functioned as manifestos. As the movement combined multiple voices from anti-caste writers to modernist poets, it entered newer circuits of dissemination—beyond the metropolitan context—inspiring innovative ways of publication in smaller cities and towns. With a niche readership and non-conformist nature, these magazines questioned the urban elite sensibilities and conventions of representation.

 

Acts of Viewing/Reading

Practices of viewing and reading in these decades were shaped by breaking away from established linguistic spheres and print cultures. Recent scholarship on print cultures in the Marathi public sphere, especially on the little magazine movement, have included long critical commentaries, conversations, and bibliographical exercises (see References section). The question, however, is how these inquiries lead to a meaningful investigation of its intersections with the visual modern—how they overlap with the art world through design strategies and new aesthetics introduced within the literary idiom.

In the realm of poetry, several poets straddled the worlds between painting, design, and creative writing, extending their experimentation to the visual form and design strategies. If we swap the idea of “visuality” with “iconicity,”6 it would allow us to “see” the poetic form as signs representing the abstract relations between visual occurrences. Here, the symbolic sign of the text is conceived as an iconic sign. To take an example, a little magazine called Rawa, in its 1972 issue, printed words formed by separate alphabets arranged in geometrical forms. The placement of three letters Ti – Ko – Na resembles a triangle and carried the same meaning. On the adjacent page, the letters Vartul are girdled by a series of La and form a circle (Vartula stands for circle). The formation of the letters plays a dual role—meaning-making, and a shape that reiterates that meaning. The visual features of these symbolic signs or icons merge with the audible and spatial elements in this instance, while producing the shapes of the actual objects. Akaar Kavita (Shape Poetry) continues on consecutive pages in the form of the numbers seven-to-one, printed vertically in a reverse order connoting saptapadi—the seven steps as part of the wedding ritual, or a tribute to James Joyce for his erratic punctuation choices and use of em dash, identifying the space as “cursed by James Joyce.” These formations by artist and designer Ra Kru Joshi compel us to see past the visual characteristics of these words encoded by verbal signs, sometimes representing its meaning, and sometimes completely doing away with it.

 

Image: <i>Rawa</i> (Parrot), 1972. Courtesy of Satish Kalsekar's Collection and Lokvangmay Griha, Mumbai.
Image: Rawa (Parrot), 1972. Courtesy of Satish Kalsekar's Collection and Lokvangmay Griha, Mumbai.
Image: <i>Rawa</i> (Parrot), 1972. Courtesy of Satish Kalsekar's Collection and Lokvangmay Griha, Mumbai.
Image: Rawa (Parrot), 1972. Courtesy of Satish Kalsekar's Collection and Lokvangmay Griha, Mumbai.

 

The discussion on the complex relationship between the textual and the visual is not limited to linguistic coding and its visual structuring; it spills over into the domain of the figurative. I would like to draw an interesting parallel here: the shift from an idealised, academic, and realistic imagery towards abstraction and absurdity in visual imagery can be located alongside a similar shift from artificial, ornamental linguistic forms towards more heterogenous, hybrid forms. The little magazine Jatak (1977) published Marathi translations of Black poetry and Dalit poets such as Namdeo Dhasal, who wrote in a vocabulary thus far unknown in the literary world. Free verse and prosaic language entered the realm of poetry and fiction, interspersed with the experiences of the writers and poets of despair and angst that arise from either caste and class.

This, too, is strongly reflected in the visual imagery. For instance, artist Arun Kalwankar’s portrayal of Today’s Mona Lisa, the image on the cover page of the Marathi little magazine Udgar (Utterance) published in the late 1970s, turns the “smiling Mona Lisa” into a decaying body held together by four angels. In the picture, the figure of an aging lady with a wrinkled face is stepping on a musical instrument while jutting out of a picture frame that hangs from the clock on the wall. In a way, little magazines conjured a palpable space for this new visual vocabulary, which evinced the experiences of social and cultural realities through provocative imagery of distortions and deformed human bodies.

 

Image: <i>El Corno Emplumado</i> in the Bharud poetic form, 1967. Courtesy of Satish Kalsekar's Collection and Lokvangmay Griha, Mumbai.
Image: El Corno Emplumado in the Bharud poetic form, 1967. Courtesy of Satish Kalsekar's Collection and Lokvangmay Griha, Mumbai.

 

Moreover, the interflow of languages, as well as regional/vernacular and global contexts, brought together diverse pictorial elements in typography, abstract forms engraved with thick meandering lines, warped human figures, and surrealist images.

 

On Ephemerality

The magazines disappeared as fast as they emerged due to the ephemeral nature of the materials they used, lack of funding, and their experimental nature. But perhaps they consciously aimed at ephemerality, and were insolent with regards to their own position in the cultural field. The movement itself possessed a non-established, unstable, and changeable nature. In her seminal work Bombay Modern, scholar Anjali Nerlekar points out,

Little magazines of Bombay could be seen as tactics of the marginal writers who undermined the cartographic reach of the institutionalized gaze and created underground or guerilla tactics to be heard. They stayed at the center and burrowed from within to reformulate that institutional center.

These tactics included boldly announcing that their prints would be available at nearby scrap dealers, and not accepting subscriptions from readers. I would rather like to foreground these tactics as performative gestures deployed to speak for a cultural marginality through defying normative modes of writing and publishing, perhaps signalling a close connection with the ephemeral aspect of these magazines.

 

 

The ephemerality came in many forms. Innovative formats like inland letters, postcards, pamphlets, wedding cards, or airmail became the surfaces to print the matter, and the print technique varied from woodcut prints to handwritten documents, from cyclostyled editions to small press printing on newspaper print obtained from local wholesale markets. So did the printing frequency. Tapasi (The Enraged) printed in bold letters that it was the first and the last issue, whereas Chakravarti, a four-page leaflet, published daily for twelve consecutive days. Whether it was a square-page format started with Aso (Anyway, 1963), or the palm-size issues of Rawa, the format kept shifting. As a result of which, the form was unknowable in advance.

We can see this in an advertisement for the little magazine Atta (Now, 1964) that we find in another magazine Aso: “We will publish this whenever we damn well please...you will receive it with the next copy of Aso.” These interjections brought in an element of shock, a set of provocations for the readers. Another magazine Timb (Dot, 1968) proclaims: “We’ll not follow the rules of grammar,” a protest against the use of standardised Marathi language in literature. Thoka (Beat, 1987), published from the city of Aurangabad, carried page numbers based on a deck of cards: ekka (ace), durri (two of spades or hearts), tirri (three of club or diamonds), gullya (jack), randi (queen), bhasya (king). These examples show us a simultaneous process of rejection where the status quo is attacked or engaged by the little magazine movement from a space of “artistic alterity,” where cultural difference is encouraged over mimicking the established norms of homogeneity.

With these proclamations, the magazine makers engaged with a dialogic form of performativity. The back cover of the same issue of Timb continues with this gesturing by stating,

The first issues was [sic] circulated without charging any fees. Few people paid, others did not. No one gave any feedback except Keshav Meshram. We are ready to accept condemnation, if not praise. But, alas. Still, we are here with Timb

Here, a statement—a signifier of expression and meaning-making—printed on a surface of the paper embodies a linguistic performativity that challenges the set hierarchies. It was also overtly expressed in how Sampadak, the editor, was described with terms such as Sankalak (collector/editor), Sutradhar (narrator or coordinator), Karbhari (manager or secretary), Patharvat (stone-cutter), and Ayojana (design or organisation). The editor itself became an unstable category.

This shift occurred in tandem with the formation of new circuits and communities of artists, designers, writers, and poets with diverse ideologies, full of fierceness and radicality, which were formed across metropolitan cities and smaller towns of Maharashtra, and elsewhere by the 1970s and 1980s. Through their responses to the urgencies of their times, the little magazines were able to reimagine the public sphere by organising exhibitions, seminars, and symposia elsewhere that produced new discursive spaces—but their actions were not limited to these conventional forms in discourse. Nerlekar discusses the history of material practices that came into being in the 1960s as “a spontaneous exchange of ideas premised on a suddenness of emergence and disappearance,” where the katta/adda, or informal meetings of poets, artists, editors, took place at various spaces such as cafés and restaurants or other public spaces. Through these newer circuits, the makers of little magazines formed their own counter-public sphere.

I propose here that the informal, spontaneous acts taking place within a material space could be viewed as performative gestures that reconfigured the cultural sphere, capturing the ephemerality and spontaneity of the moment. According to Satish Kalsekar, one of the prominent figures of the movement, their engagement with larger social and political movements made some of them move away from indoor meeting spaces and into the public domain. The incident described at the beginning of this essay was one of them. The angst expressed through this performance was consciously preserved and sustained in the coming years. 

We see such examples of performative actions by the makers of the magazines through reading sessions and temporary exhibitions of their works in crematorium sites. They went into the red-light districts of the city to perform their poems, and gathered at railway stations or on public transport like buses and local trains to loudly recite their writing. Though they occupied the public space momentarily, these insertions left imprints on these public spaces and altered them drastically. It brought together the scattered efforts of little magazines, revealing a more iconoclastic approach evident through the textuality and materiality of the publications.

Of course, the intention here is not to conflate the various visual and artistic strands of little magazines with their positionalities—which primarily arose out of Dalit caste, working-class, or urban middle-class experiences. The movement also marked shifting ideological positions, from socialist and communist to Ambedkarite thought—though this essay has focused on attempting to understand the discursive potential these interpolations carried within themselves. Little magazines reveal the overlaps and interwoven structures that defined the literary and visual vocabularies. The circulation of visual elements into the then-reading publics constructed a public imagination around ideas of art and design, and a broader visual culture emerged as a result of the significant impact of these avant-garde practices. The essay is an attempt to bring forth these elements, which had been located within a constricted historical time due to their transient nature, into the larger discursive space of art and visual culture. Today, as we look back at this moment, there is a need to acknowledge that these fleeting acts were pivotal in forging new directions for the literary and visual fields.

 

 

Noopur Desai is a Researcher at Asia Art Archive in India.

I wish to express my deepest gratitude to late Satish Kalsekar (1943-2021) for preserving the little magazines in his personal collection and making it available generously for scholars and researchers. Special thanks to Lokvangmay Griha, Mumbai for digitising Kalsekar’s collection.

 

References

Bulson, Eric. Little Magazine, World Form. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

Elleström, Lars. “Replacing the Notion of “Visual Poetry." Visual Iconicity in Poetry. Orbis Litterarum 71, no. 6 (2016): 437–472.

Nerlekar, Anjali. Bombay Modern: Arun Kolatkar and Bilingual Literary Culture. New Delhi: Speaking Tiger, 2017.

Satish Kalsekar ani Laghuniyatkalik Chalval (Satish Kalsekar and Little Magazine Movement), August 3, 2021, panel discussion organised by Lokvangmay Griha, Mumbai. https://www.facebook.com/lokvangmaygriha/videos/356433172652697

Suraj, Rafiq. Laghuniyatkalikanchi Soochi. Mumbai: Lokvangmay Griha, 2011.

Zecchini, Laetitia, eds. Anjali Nerlekar and Laetitia Zecchini. More than one world: An Interview with Gulammohammed Sheikh, Journal of Postcolonial Writing 53, Special Issue, The Worlds of Bombay Poetry (2017): 1-2.

 

Notes

1. The first Marathi little magazine is considered to be Shabd (1954), and was edited by Dilip Chitre with Ramesh Samarth, and Arun Kolatkar, well-known poets, artists, and writers in the Marathi public sphere. Alternatively, Atharv (1966) edited by Ashok Shahane has been positioned as the first anti-establishment voice in recent times.

2. Bombay and Calcutta were officially renamed as Mumbai and Kolkata in the years 1995 and 2001 respectively. To keep the historical moment alive, I have used the old names for the purpose of this essay.

3. S. G. Date, ed., Bibliography of Marathi Books, vol. I (1818–1938), vol. II (1938–50).

4. Marathi Vishwakosh or Encyclopedia Project was launched in 1960 by the government of Maharashtra and the first President was Tarkteertha Laxman Shastri Joshi, a well-known Sanskrit scholar, Marathi literary critic, and social reformer. The first set of volumes were published in 1976, and eighteen volumes were published by 2010.

5. In 1961, four literary bodies were merged into a federating central body called Marathi Sahitya Mahamandal.

6. Lars Elleström argues that visual poetry is characterised by certain level of iconicity. Iconicity is considered to be a reference point where resemblance produced by specific arrangements of words and letters signify meaning through auditory, visual, movement, and abstract connections.

 

Imprint

Author

Noopur DESAI

Topic
Essays
Date
Thu, 24 Feb 2022

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