Founder Naveen Kishore through the eyes of colleagues and collaborators

My first meeting with Naveen Kishore was marked by an absence. By the time I met him he was the Enigma from Calcutta as the city was then known, the man behind Seagull Books which had brought us our first film scripts, our first play scripts and some heavy hitting non-fiction books and important translations. I expected him to take all the oxygen in the room, to fill up space in the way some publishing legends were wont to do. Instead what I discovered was a watchful withdrawal, more in keeping with a writer or a poet.

Over the years however, I have also discovered a warmth offered in homoeopathic and healing doses; and a friend who can get things done. To wit: I arrive in Kolkata as it was then renamed, with an odd shopping list, dictated to me by a cousin. I would like to buy barley sugar sweets and Chinese sausages. Naveen Kishore listens to these with as much attention as to the proposal of a new book. He then turns to his diary and calls an Anglo-Indian friend. It takes him ten minutes of bonhomie to get to the question. I am directed to New Market to a Jewish shop for the barley sugar.

The sausages will take some doing because I am only in Calcutta for a couple of days, enough time to deliver a lecture at the Seagull School of Publishing and to visit the Bharhut Gallery at the Indian Museum again. They are only sold in the early morning on market day in Tangra and I will be back in Bombay.

“They will be delivered,” says Naveen Kishore.

“They are pork sausages,” I point out delicately.

“Yes,” says Naveen as if he has spent all his life dealing with deliveries of animal products across the length and breadth of a country where the main role of god seems to be that of a dietician. “They will be delivered.”

And so they were.


This is the first of a two-part portrait of Naveen Kishore and Seagull. Read the second part here.


The many Naveen Kishores

Later, I began to attend the History for Peace conferences, enjoying interacting with teachers from across the country, all of whom were looking for ways to reimagine history and there was Naveen too, sitting in the back when Romila Thapar or Ganesh Devy or Apoorvanand was speaking to teachers from all over the country. And there were also times he would attend a Jerry Pinto talk, which pleased me.

Then there was the Naveen Kishore who turned up on Instagram, sharing photographs and odd plangent videos, short ones, suggestive of an eye for the extraordinary in the ordinary, for the possibility of intersection and allusion.

And of course, Naveen Kishore has now published his first book of poems, Knotted Grief, designed elegantly by Sunandini Banerjee who has had the good sense to stay out of the way of the words, adding only to the book a series of tildes and an enviable amount of empty space. The poems are a political act, not just in the sense that all speech is a political act, and even choosing to write about Kishore, here, now, is a political act. These are poems of grief and outrage. They have been, I suspect, closely and savagely edited so that there is are gaps, spaces into which the reader must come and live and suffer.

There seem to be two kinds of Seagull books in my library. There are the old greats, the ones that represent my education and my training, the history of Marathi theatre as seen through the prisms of the playwrights and Shanta Gokhale; the film scripts of Mrinal Sen, the earlier Mahasweta Devi books; and then there are the v2.0 books, the glossy beauties of Yves Bonnefoy’s Ursa Major and the set of twelve books of Jean-Paul Sartre essays; the poetry list that makes me feel the burden of my illiteracy: Georg Trakl and Abdourahman Waberi, for instance; the novels and the essays on The Art of Diremption
These are truly beautiful and distinctive, all having been designed by Sunandini Banerjee, so much so now that when some Mumbai bookstores have begun stocking Seagull (Kitabkhana, Title Waves, The White Crow), I can actually spot them at a distance.

And so it was no surprise when Naveen Kishore was awarded the Ottaway Prize. The internet says that it was “named in honour of James H Ottaway, Jr, the first board chair of Words Without Borders” and “recognises individuals who have taken extraordinary steps to advance international literature in English translation.”

Looking at the biodata, at the list of interests and the kind and spread of involvements, it seems difficult to believe that the quiet man of the absent presence was so important in the lives of people as different as the legendary singer Pam Crain and the painter K G Subramanyan. When we lost Pam Crain, Naveen wrote about her:

“Pam.

Her singing was effortless. Free. At ease with the music. Rehearsed. Not in the manner of the hours of practice one associates with concert preparation. I mean rehearsed as in living every moment of one’s life as a singer-performer so that the transition from ‘rehearsing’ to performance is seamless. Her life was a rehearsal. There were no price tags to Pam’s songs. By which I mean that she was far too courteous to let you know what it cost her to become the singer. It wasn’t important. It was no business of ours to know what it cost the singer to make her art reach the threshold of perfection she had not only crossed but made redundant. Erased it completely. No divisions. The boundary kicked aside. She would step on to that stage. Taking all fifty-three shades of light that the lighting guy had placed in a grid above and around her head. Intuitively. To her advantage. Or run on to the stage from the wings. Propelled like the poem that you cant hold back. She never danced on to the stage. The untrained eye may have thought she did! Her body moving to the groove. But no. It was something else. Her heels and toes performed a haiku. She simply walked the rhythm that the band had broken into and without so much as a by your leave belt out, whisper, cajole, yell, vomit that song. ‘Full throated ease’ indeed! What mattered was the song. She became the words that she sang. And yes we danced. She made us dance. In our heads. On the floor. In the aisles. With her. She had that special something which artists have. Not all artists. Some. The kind whose mould goes AWOL after they are born. The ability to connect. Her way of performing would make the audience explode into individual particles. Each feeling a unique affinity just with her. You may call it bond. An umbilical cord that the audience couldn’t possibly tie off. Cut. Tear loose. Not even after she had stopped and decided to give the guys in the band a break with her ‘rest a while’.

¬ What do you do when you are stuck in a song? When you are well into singing it. A long way from home. And know what the next words are. And the ones after that. And suddenly you can’t go on. Words that were sharply in focus. Clear. Tangible. With weight and volume. Suddenly losing their shape. Beginning to appear faint. And hazy. Outlines blurred. The once heard music faint. Fading. Like someone had begun to erase things. And was doing a bad job.

You leave behind your present.
And you walk swiftly but calmly into the fog.
Yes.
Only this time it’s the boys in the band who say ‘rest a while dear Pam’.
You earned it.

‘Supportive and approachable’

I reached out to many of those who have known the Enigma in different ways and capacities, starting with Anjum Katyal whose association is decades old, the two having met when Anjum had finished with school and had several months before she would join Presidency College. Like so many others of her demographic in the city, she headed to Red Curtain to wet her theatrical feet.

“Naveen was four years older than me which was a huge gap at the time. But he was supportive and friendly and approachable,” she said over the phone.

Katyal went to the US for “further studies” and there her interest in protest folk music grew stronger and the blues began to speak to her. “Up to then, I would rope in some hapless male friend with me to accompany me on the guitar because I had never bothered to learn how to play. Now I wanted something more full-bodied so there was a bunch of musician friends, Nandan Bagchi, Subir Chatterjee and they had a group called High, a rock group. Dilip Balakrishnan and Lew Hilt were the singers and song writers. That was the line-up. We decided to do a full-on rock show. We did a small one, no money, bare bones as the Calcutta School of Music which was a success. When we wanted to do a bigger show, and book a proper hall, we came up against a wall. The people who did the bookings would say, ‘Rock? Na na, hobe na, hobe na. The audience is too wild. They smoke, they drink, they are out of control’; the only way we could get anyone to agree was if a proper established production company was willing to book it in their name. Now Seagull Empire was the leading, high-quality producer of shows and Naveen was very much part of it; Nandan said, ‘Let’s go talk to Naveen. He’s an old pal.’ I didn’t think this would work out because they were really big, the Quincy Jones of Calcutta, but we went to see him and Nandan explained the situation, we’d done a show, we wanted to do another, we wanted them to book for us, and Naveen heard him out and said, ‘Fine, we’ll do it.’ I didn’t believe it had happened so smoothly for us, so recklessly for them. I said, ‘You haven’t even heard us sing,’ and he said, ‘You’re singing, and there’s Nandan and Subir and Dilip, right? That’s good enough.’ And with that one of faith, I got drawn into Seagull and the Seagull ethos.”

Seagull did shows with her, one or two a year until 1986 when Anjum had a baby, rehearsal stopped, people moved out of the city one of the musicians fell ill and died, in other words life happened.
It was in 1982 that Seagull Books happened and all seemed to be going well until Samik Banerjee moved out suddenly. He had been editing the books and Katyal remembers that there was a frantic search for a new editor. “Only most of the people we were considering had about the same qualifications as I did and as much experience which was nil. So one day, Naveen said to me, ‘Why don’t you edit?’ And I, with the hubris of youth, said, ‘Why not?’”

‘Intrigued by Seagull’

A wing and a prayer? Seems like it but when Romila Thapar is willing to write a comment over email about her association with Seagull, you know that something is being done right. Over email, the redoubtable historian write about her association with Seagull Books:

“I met Naveen Kishore about a decade ago over a slight conversation about a publication that never came off. I got to know him better about seven years ago. Another friend of mine gave me a couple of Seagull Books catalogues, saying that they should not be read as catalogues but that each was a book in itself covering diverse interests. That is in fact what they are. I found the catalogues particularly attractive as there were brief essays by some superb modern authors, conversations between Naveen and people such as Yves Bonnefois, Reinhard Jirgl, Ben Anderson and a few others that revealed something of both them and him ; and an array of shorter pieces by poets and prose writers from anywhere and everywhere across the world, but those whose writing was thoughtful and composed with an impressive use of language and imagination. Reading one of these catalogues was such a pleasurable education.

I was intrigued by Seagull – an independent publishing house in India whose lists had only quality books in literature, philosophy and thought of various kinds, and authors that were among the best across many boundaries. There is no shortage of other kinds of publishers, some that publish mainly academic books, and are backed by an institution ; and some who have the backing of a commercially successful publisher, punctuating best-selling fiction with a few thought-provoking books. There are only a few independent publishers, as is Seagull, who have to find their own funding and are determined not to treat any book they publish as a commodity. I wondered about the question that is seldom discussed, namely, to what extent do publishers in supporting particular kinds of writing and subjects, give a direction to the thinking of a society.

What helped me find out more about Seagull and to get to know Naveen were the invitations from the Seagull Foundation of the Arts, especially the History for Peace programmes. Conferences were held largely for school teachers in order to acquaint them with the context of some of the more pertinent issues of the day. I would be invited to speak on aspects of interpreting history. I greatly enjoyed these conferences as they always collected a bright group of teachers who asked searching questions and never let you off the hook. The speakers were also of a level where I looked forward to each of the many sessions and listened with interest to the presentations and the discussions that followed. That this was done in Calcutta also meant getting to know a city that I did not know very well. The attractions were sari-hunting in Byloom and special shops that had a range of handloom products and returning to Delhi with these, as well as Nahoum’s rich fruit cake from New Market.

Naveen’s own contributions in some of the conversations in the catalogue, as the one with Reinhard Jirgl were rather mind-blowing in their intensity. Reading these, and in pursuing the forthcoming lists of publications, raised my curiosity about his own literary articulation. I then discovered that he wrote poetry. When I finally got to read some of his poems I was taken aback by the imagery and the idioms that transformed the world that he was speaking of, and with such inherent sensitivity. Yet he never made a serious attempt to publish them and they just circulated among friends. It was only very recently that he allowed himself to be ‘discovered’ and published, both in India and internationally.

My discovery of Naveen was through the Seagull Space. He had the brilliant idea of setting up a space in the spare room at the back of my house to host fortnightly meetings. An evening every fortnight would see a writer, historian, poet, musician, film-maker, photographer, or any other creative person present his or her work and talk about it. He too was involved in a couple of films that were shown. The room accommodated about forty people. Sometimes there were far fewer and sometimes so many that the bay windows had to be opened and people sat in the courtyard outside. The discussions went on for anywhere between one to two hours and occasionally longer. Carlo Ginsberg talking about micro-history collected an enthusiastic huge audience, as also did Ravish Kumar speaking on contemporary events, and many spoke, so we looked forward to lively evenings.

After the talk or the performance or the presentation, a few of us would gather for dinner in my home. The evening would begin with one of Naveen’s favourite pre-dinner drinks – Manhattans that I had learnt to make many years ago when in Washington – and sometimes dinner would conclude with again one his most relished sweets, a baked jalebi pudding.

Around this time Seagull had picked up a few of my books published in India with a distribution confined to South Asia. These were reprinted by Seagull for international distribution. It was in the course of conversations on these that I mentioned that I was working on a small book on the existence of dissent in Indian history. Naveen was most excited and asked for more information on the proposed book. Finally, he insisted that Seagull would publish it.

I was hesitant at first. I thought that Indian history may not be a prime subject for Seagull, given all the other books that they publish, but I was talked out of this. I am now delighted that I published it with Seagull as it has been a different kind of experience. It was thrilling to be in a list substantially of leading writers from across cultures whom they publish. The publicity for this book was another kind of experience. There was an interesting cross-section of questions and reactions that kept me wondering what the next question would be. And Sunandini’s covers have been stunning.”

‘…that catalogue’

I would like here to tell of the first time I saw Ms Banerjee at the top of a staircase, the spiral that leads you from the ground floor of Seagull Books to the upper floor which is as eclectic and brilliant as its list, but it might get a little embarrassing and she is not the subject of this profile. She wrote about her association with Seagull Books and Naveen Kishore over email:

“I first met Naveen at a publishing workshop organised over a series of weekends by Thema, an independent publishing house here in Calcutta, located fairly close to where I live. Thema is run by Samik Bandyopadhyay and Kalyani Ghose. They had organised a four or five-module workshop covering the basics of publishing. Two weekends on editing, one on production, one on design and one on sales and marketing. I was studying for my Master’s in English Literature then, at Jadavpur University, and was very keen to finish my studies and try to see if I could get a job in an advertising agency.

I was already very interested in spaces where text and image worked together, and at that time, advertising seemed to be the only place where that was being explored enough, and where a young woman, armed with not much besides fluency in English, could possibly make a start. Naveen came to that workshop and spoke about design. And gave to each of us a copy of the magnificent Seagull Books catalogue he had just designed and produced [the one with the lightbulb on the cover]. I remember how absolutely moved I was by that catalogue, that contained not just information on the books but also letters and notes and poems and fragments, all together yet all unique, and the design that was like nothing I had seen before – a design where the askew and the askance had as much room to breathe in as the posed and the deliberate.

That was when I first met Naveen. More than what he spoke of in class, I think I first met him through that catalogue.”

‘Move away gently from mediocrity’

Megha Malhotra, the force behind PeaceWorks and History for Peace was also forthcoming.

“So. 1982 I came back home from college and was in the middle of a war with my father. He wanted me to join the family business and I wanted to do my own thing. So after a few conversations with friends I was told a) there is somebody called Naveen Kishore, they are doing some very interesting work b) Rashmi Goenka is looking for an assistant interior designer for the Grand Hotel and c) try Clarion Advertising – they have a very large studio.

So, the first stop was Naveen Kishore. He was very polite, patiently looked at my portfolio and said, ‘We have somebody in house who does the design work, but please stay in touch, in case something comes up.’ I ended up at Clarion for two years, then another year in a small agency in Bombay , got married, started my own design studio. Didn’t stay in touch. Years later my two boys and his son, who were going to the same school, and are one year apart from each other became friends, the birthday parties and dropping and picking up of the kids reconnected us.

At the time I had started designing websites and Seagull was looking for someone to design their websites. This was 2000/2001. That’s the story. Nothing in particular about the ‘first meeting’ that I can think of. The website led to the bookstore which then led to the foundation and to PeaceWorks. And the total freedom that I got here led to History for Peace.”

I asked Banerjee and Malhotra what they had learned from Naveen. Malhotra first: “It’s been a process of growth – tremendous growth, as a result of working closely with him, a result of the friendship and most of all being in this environment that he has created at Seagull – all the literature, the art, the poetry, the people you meet – it’s all so explosive, you can’t not get shaped by it. He has a very natural unique ability to guide and nurture humans. I hadn’t thought about this earlier, but now in trying to answer the question I realise perhaps I learned to learn about myself. To recognise mediocrity and gently move away from it. All of us here I think have also learned the value of aesthetics and how to make it a dailyness in our lives, at home, at work, in every aspect of life. Not in a superfluous way but in a way that actually makes you believe that if you are surrounded by beauty it will translate into who you are, what you do and how you interact with the world around you, in times of struggles too.”

Banerjee next: “What have I learnt from Naveen? To not give up. To be kind because it’s so much harder than being cruel. That every problem has a solution. That the world is an oyster for the brave and the curious. That instead of asking why, we should more often be asking why not? That many leaders lead, but very few leaders enable and even fewer ask you to lead instead. That one can take risks and be as reckless as one wants to as long as one is willing to pay the price. That nothing is easy just because one makes it look so. That publishing is a way of life.”

‘Capacity to charm’

Time to ask another publisher about Naveen Kishore. The legendary feminist publisher of Zubaan Urvashi Butalia offers notes on a long association:

“I’ve known Naveen a long time and am often deeply envious of him, but in a positive, admiring way – what I call a ‘positive envy’, I admire what he is doing, wish I could do it, but know I can’t, and am therefore glad – but also envious – he and his team are. In the early days of our acquaintance, we had some not very easy business dealings, so friendship was a far cry. But then, when Kali split, he reached out to me and it was great to have someone within the profession to speak to, and that’s when our friendship cemented. I think Seagull is an amazing publishing house, its choice of locating itself in Kolkata and proudly and assertively being an international publisher is unique. And over the years, Naveen has built up a great team, all of whom cement Seagull’s work. 

Naveen likes to think of himself as a shy and retiring guy but nothing could be further from the truth, he’s an ace networker, the kind who networks effortlessly and with elegance and elan – he’ll carry his own coffee machine to international book fairs and people walking by will catch the aroma and drop in, and conversations will ensue. He has the capacity to charm old women and old men with equal ease and others of different ages too, and he’ll set his sights on something that seems impossible and go after it and do it. Over the years he has been a friend to Zubaan, supporting us in various ways, and he’s creative too – loves art and photography and poetry – but also hidden behind that literary and seemingly laid back exterior is a sharp business mind and I sometimes wish I had one such too!”

‘My world blew open’

This is the offering of Naveen Kishore, the mind of a businessman, the heart of a poet, the risk-taking of an artist and the jigyaasaa of a child. Everyone, it seemed, had a Naveen Kishore story. But I will end here with Sameera Iyengar, the dramaturge and theatre maniac, who worked with him on the Seagull Theatre Quarterly. This is because she represents the next generation and in her recounting of this time, you see how Kishore inflects the narrative of this nation in so many different ways:

“I joined Seagull Theatre Quarterly when just embarking on figuring out the topic for my PhD thesis. Anjum Katyal, then editor of STQ, simply said to me, ‘Work here while you’re doing your research and contribute from what you find. Working at STQ, in the environment of Seagull Books, was like stepping through a portal into a magical world. The experience opened up the world of theatre and performance across India for me; it definitely defined what eventually became my PhD thesis, but more importantly, I believe it set the foundations for what would become my attitude to working with performance and with artists in India.

STQ had its finger on the pulse of what was happening in performance across India – and my sense is that it had a lot to do with the way Naveen was. He has always had a nose for this – continues to do so with his current Seagull Books work which is phenomenal. And they were curious about absolutely everything. The Quarterly went with equal ease, respect and interest from ruminations on the aesthetics of street theatre to mobile theatre travelling through Assam, to exploring theatre and performance in the context of embattled Manipur to thought pieces on performance to covering festivals to the work of Habib Tanvir and so on. It was alive to the diversity of performance endeavours across the country, and to the contexts in which things were happening. So when the Gujarat pogrom happened, STQ responded with a double issue, “A Cannibal Time”, handing over the editing of this issue to Sudhanva Deshpande of Jana Natya Manch.

In the two or three part-time years I spent at Seagull, my world blew open. Not only was STQ opening my eyes to the range of and reasons for practice across the country, I too was being sent to cover and participate in diverse environments. I was sent to cover the 1997 Theatre of India Prithvi Theatre Festival – there I got introduced to the glorious work of Teejan Bai, Ratan Thiyam, Kanhailal and others. I was sent to cover the Kulavai conference-festival on theatre for women organised by Voicing Silence – which brought together women in theatre from across professional theatre practice, urban practice, NGO practice and rural practice, a rare, unusual and powerful gathering. While there in Chennai, I ended up covering Magic Lantern’s performance rendition of Kalki’s serialised literary work Ponnyin Selvan in the breath-taking outdoor environs of the YMCA. I participated in a Seagull hosted workshop by Kanhailal and Sabitri Heisnam, and was the on-ground coordinator for a workshop by Jana Sanskriti for women survivors of domestic violence. In the short time I was there, I was getting access and exposure first-hand to the amazing work being done in performance in India. My three case studies for my thesis emerged from explorations begun with STQ.

Walking into Seagull was like walking into a magical world. STQ and Seagull Books were on the same office premises, at Circus Avenue at that time. It was thrilling to see shelves lined with the English translations of Mahasweta Devi’s writing, and Anuradha Kapur’s book on the Ramleela and Sergei Eisenstein’s writings and Mahesh Elkunchwar’s scripts. It was fascinating to be around listening to the developing of Shanta Gokhale’s Playwright at the Centre. English access to Indian work was coming through Seagull in translations and other writing, and it was within arms’ reach every time I walked through those doors. Many years later, while working with Prithvi, we collaborated with Seagull to host Seagull events at Prithvi – and I had the honour and privilege of escorting Mahasweta Devi by air from Kolkata to Mumbai, and hosting her here.

Walking into Seagull was also sharing space with Samik Bandopadhyay as he carefully worked on some book for Seagull, and being mesmerised by actress Ketaki Datta reliving her glory days with story after story, keeping us away from work and laughing delightedly at the end that she could still hold an audience. It was walking in to see Gayatri Chakarvorty Spivak, famed and feared academic in the US, sprawled on the floor, working on something, at her genial best. It was meeting the fabulous female impersonator Chapal Bhaduri and traipsing across to North Calcutta to see his performance in a small bylane – Naveen’s photographs of the same are now touring as an exhibition. It was having Chittrovanu Mazumdar drop in, and at some point walking through an installation of his light by Naveen in a found space on Loudon Street (if I remember correctly).

It was experience after new experience, each embraced with equal joy and love and respect. The foundation of the work Naveen has been able to do, I believe, lies in the relationships he builds with artists – his deep love and respect of their work, and the trust they place in him to take care of them and their work. Which I believe he takes utterly seriously.

What I also loved about Seagull was the utter dedication to quality, and the refusal to cut corners or be ‘poor’ in any way. A quality publication required quality computers on which quality design could be done – so Naveen was going to have Macs in the office. He had the colourful bulbous iMacs when they first came out – and this was way before Macs were the ubiquitous computers they are today. But they were the best computers for the work he was doing – so Seagull was going to get them. I learned the love of paper and layout and design and good quality images while working at Seagull – it was in the air, it was there in the otherwise quiet Naveen’s excited exclamation of a layout he had arrived at – we would all gather round to enjoy it with him.

Naveen didn’t explain what he did that much. And when he did, I didn’t always understand his words. It was Anjum, the editor of STQ who explained and introduced a lot more. But with Naveen, you watched what he did, how he did. You journeyed into all the various avenues he ventured through, not necessarily understanding what Chittravanu’s colourful caterpillar-like installation had to do with Chapal Bhaduri’s performance of Sitala Devi or with Jana Sanskriti’s forum theatre.

But slowly and surely you began seeing this as part of the same universe – diverse but equal players, each giving the gift of the arts to the larger world. And Naveen, in partnership with Anjum for STQ, was this conduit, giving to the arts and the artists the love, respect and space they deserved. Not playing by any pre-existing rules, but driven with the spirit of a theatreperson – which is how he began – to say, if this needs to be done, let’s find a way to do it. I watch his amazing work with Seagull Books today, and I see that same spirit – and it is remarkable what it achieves.

This is the first of a two-part portrait of Naveen Kishore and Seagull. Read the second part here.

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