In 2014, Kalachuvadu published the first volume of my book in Tamil on western paintings. It was an opulent four-colour book, expensively priced. Kannan Sundaram, the publisher, was taking a big risk because this was perhaps the first time in Bhasha publishing that such a book was being printed and there was no way to gauge how the response of the readers would be.
I half expected the book to languish in warehouses and bookshops. Fortunately, it did very well. The second volume of the book – equally expensive - was published early this year and the sales have been brisk. My case is not unique. The authors of other bestselling books from Kalachuvadu are much more illustrious and of enduring fame.
A Few Decades ago
Things were quite different a few decades ago.
Sometime after the Independence, a famous Tamil writer and a critic, KN Subrahmaniam, wrote a novel in Tamil which is considered a classic today. Even when it came out it was received well and cited as one of the defining novels of Tamil. Five hundred copies were printed. Most of them must have remained unsold. Twenty- five years afterwards, I saw the first edition still being sold, with a marginal increase in the price! The Tamils then, no doubt, loved their books, but when it came to purchasing them, they were reluctant to part with their money in a hurry. Yes, pulp fiction, books on sex and astrology and religious and self-help books did sell well, but serious books had few takers.
The ones that came out were written about rather than read, so much so that a very senior writer once told me that he used to know the name of every reader of his book and his critic was either a close friend or a known enemy. I also remember reading Sundara Ramaswamy’s Oru Puliamarathin Kathai in the late sixties of the last century and telling one of my friends that I would very much like to meet the author. His response was all I had to do was write a postcard, the author might himself come down to meet me! I was living in a town close to his home. The literary scene of Tamil was that intimate.
The change that has taken place in the intervening years is nothing short of miraculous.
What changed in between?
Many colleges were opened in the seventies of the last century and the number of youngsters seeking quality books in Tamil not only in literature but on a variety of subjects kept galloping. Initially, they flocked to the libraries. Later, when the IT boom happened, they had money to spend and several of them chose to spend it on books. The publishing scene also changed dramatically. Advance in technology meant that it was possible to print quality books at a reasonable cost. A few publishers took advantage of this transformation and Kalachuvadu is the foremost of them.
The path it had travelled, since its birth in 1995, had been rough but exhilarating, nevertheless. Today, almost all famous authors of Tamil have a book or two under the Kalachuvadu imprint. Its ‘Classics’ series, a roaring success, bring out vintage authors whose books are famous but out of print. The series include, among other genres, novels, short fiction, short stories, essays, biography/autobiography, memoirs and poetry. Every book is carefully curated and value is added by a new foreword, pictures and line drawing, wherever necessary. As a reader, it is almost a religious experience for me to hold in my hand such beautifully produced books. I have seen the originals of them – almost all of them were shoddily printed, smudgy affairs.
Out of the ordinary
It is not that Kalachuvadu seeks out only famous authors. Many young and relatively unknown writers have had their books published by it. Some of them have become quite famous. A case in point is Tamil Prabha. Two years ago, he approached the publisher with his manuscript. He is a young man from North Chennai, an area more known for rough characters than authors. After reading the manuscript, the consulting editors felt that he had a very powerful story to narrate but it required very careful editing. It took many days of patient writing and rewriting before the novel took its final form. When it was published in December 2018 under the title Pettai, nobody expected it to do as well as it eventually did. It sold 600 copies in the Chennai Book fair. No debut novel of any writer in Tamil has ever sold so well. It is now into its third reprint. It is also the first work of fiction that so poignantly depicts the lives of subalterns of North Chennai.
Another jaw-dropping work published by Kalachuvadu is Saminatham. UV Swaminatha Iyer, was a great scholar, who unearthed long forgotten works of classical Tamil literature and published them in editions that were epitomes of perfection. His forewords to them were classics themselves, but they remained hidden in various books gathering dust in libraries. Dr P Saravanan, a very earnest young person, took upon himself to gather all those forewords and bring them into one critical edition with his comments. If there ever was a labour of love, this book was the one. But no publisher would ever make money out of it. Kalachuvadu knew it wouldn’t. Still it went ahead with printing the book and the result is an absolute marvel, rarely seen in the publishing history of Tamil Nadu.
Kalachuvadu is perhaps the first among the Tamil publishers to take translations seriously and make them commercially viable. It has published translations not only of Nobel prize winning authors but also from such languages as Icelandic, Finnish and Hebrew and from countries as far away as Paraguay.
Explosion of Talent
From the day it was born, Kalachuvadu knew that its commitment towards serious literature would not be fulfilled if it did not consider the creative explosion that was taking place among the diaspora, the Dalits and the Muslims. Anar, Sharmilla Sayyed and Fahima Jahan, the bold and uncompromisingly political writers from Sri Lanka, would not have come to the fore but for Kalachuvadu. Among its Dalit writers, JP Sanakya and Siva Sankar, who explore experiences beyond the framework of Dalit fiction, stand out. Sukirtharani and Uma Devi became the first feminist Dalit voices in Tamil. Another remarkable find of Kalachuvadu is the feisty Salma. Her book, Irandam Jamankalin Kathai, which narrates the story of a Muslim woman chained to her surroundings but desperately struggling to break free, shook the Tamil literary world to its foundations. It was translated into English and became instantly famous. Salma’s life was the subject of a Channel 4 documentary which was screened in several festivals all over the world. But the mascot of the publisher is undoubtedly Perumal Murugan, an amazingly talented writer, who never sought fame, who is still unassuming and down-to-earth. He became an international celebrity, primarily because Kalachuvadu stood by him, when he was being hounded by religious fanatics. The translations of his books are now sold all over the world and so are those of Ambai, Salma and Sundra Ramaswamy, thanks to the excellent marketing of the publisher.
From the scholarly AR Venkatachalapathy to the debutant Balakumar Vijayaraghavan, from Theodore Baskaran to Ba Venkatesan, and from Yuvan Chandrasekhar to Pathinathan, Kalachuvadu has them all. They love the publishing house because they know it will work with utmost integrity to bring to the Tamil world what they seek to convey.
(The writer is a well-known author in Tamil and English.)
(Kalachuvadu in Tamil means footprints of time)